Design, made by designers, is communicated to design recipients, the public, the users, to markets. In order to get there, design has to be communicated to deciders, managers and organisations using and producing design. How the communication between designers and managers takes place will determine the manager´s faith in a particular design and the subsequent fate of the design itself, as it is usually business managers who finally decide which design is to be produced. Thus business managers are inevitably the agents through which design becomes reality for the greater public.

Designers shape the culture of consumption and most of the artificial world which surrounds us. While business managers are the agents for making design a reality for the production/consumption cycle, designers shape the culture of consumption, the tangible (as in products) as well as the intangible (as in brands) appearance of organisations. Design influences the public which has a choice of either accepting or rejecting a design. This reaction again influences managers and designers when a new design is planned.
Bruce and Cooper describe that “regular communication (of management) with design” is one of the key factors of project success, besides clear project objectives, comprehensive design briefs, top-level commitment, sourcing of appropriate design skills and integration of design with other corporate activities. Jevnaeker states that communicating design repeatedly contributes to the design learning capability in organisations. Peter Bilak points out that “design does not exist in a vacuum. Its position depends on the system of relationships between commissioner, public and designer.”

While the design or design proposal is itself a communicating medium, the interpersonal communication between designers and managers must get the idea across, must make the design understandable and complement the message of the design. The loss of information and knowledge which occurs through poor communication skills and a lack of organisational support is a loss in potential market value. Design success depends on several settings within the organisation, such as the knowledge of the designer about the organisation and vice versa, the knowledge of external factors (markets trends, market knowledge), and the designers competence, talent, intuition, artistry, and imagination. However, the way concepts and solutions are communicated to the deciding managers is of paramount importance for getting a design through in the first place. Communication is the bottleneck through which the designer can make of break his project.

It could be assumed that designers should care for the communication with managers, and that managers have a great deal of interest in the people which shape the visible image of their organisations as it is expressed in products and brands. This is however often not so. Communication is often difficult as there are profound gaps between these two camps. Peter Gorb and Angela Dumas remark that “the design and management relationship appears to be at unease, ambiguous and unclear”. Designers and managers have different worldviews, live in different paradigms, behave and dress differently, work and communicate differently, and have different social abilities.

Workman describes differences between engineering design and marketing, and David Walker describes a range of differences between managers and designers: Different outlooks, different aims, different education and different styles of thought. While there are a lot of differences between designers and managers, they have at least one important aspect in common: They deal with problem-solving. The difference is in the approach, which can be personal, reflected in a personality type, or culturally induced.

The classical divide between analytic and sensual-perceptual skills (visual literacy, object manipulation) and professions is a historical-cultural development rather than a skill divide which is inscribed in our genes: Humans are, by evolution, made to solve fuzzy-perceptual-manipulative tasks and not logical-abstract ones. The cultural division starts with education, where numeracy and literacy are supported as core subjects, while visual literacy and tactile skills are not valued. This gap runs through higher education and right into organisations.
The reason for this preference of abstract-analytical thinking can be found in European history. The Logos, the art of logical reasoning, lies at the heart of Greek philosophy. In the period of European enlightenment, thinkers like Locke, Kant, Voltaire and Montesquieu found the analytical mind to be the very force setting people free from the power of the church. Hans Moravec, chief scientist at the Robotics Laboratory in Carnegie Mellon University and specialist in Artificial Intelligence, explains that this division of analytical and sensual abilities in humans is actually a paradox when the history of human evolution is considered:
”Computers were invented recently to mechanize tedious manual informational procedures. Such procedures were themselves invented only during the last ten millennia, as agricultural civilizations outgrew village-scale social instincts. The instincts arose in our hominid ancestors during several million years of life in the wild, and were themselves built on perceptual and motor mechanisms that had evolved in a vertebrate lineage spanning hundreds of millions of years. Bookkeeping and its elaborations exploit ancestral faculties for manipulating objects and following instructions. We recognize written symbols in the way our ancestors identified berries and mushrooms, operate pencils like they wielded hunting sticks, and learn to multiply and integrate by parts as they acquired village procedures for cooking and tent-making. Paperwork uses evolved skills, but in an unnaturally narrow and unforgiving way. Where our ancestors worked in complex visual, tactile and social settings, alert to subtle opportunities or threats, a clerk manipulates a handful of simple symbols on a featureless field. And while a dropped berry is of little consequence to a gatherer, a missed digit can invalidate a whole calculation. The peripheral alertness by which our ancestors survived is a distraction to a clerk. Attention to the texture of the paper, the smell of the ink, the shape of the symbols, the feel of the chair, the noise down the hall, digestive rumblings, family worries and so on can derail a procedure. Clerking is hard work more because of the preponderance of human mentation it must suppress than the tiny bit it uses effectively.”

Analytical abilities are a fairly recent acquisition of humans, and we are not very good at them. Moravec came to his conclusion by researching that robots and computers are able to analyse massive amounts of data in short time, while it is extremely difficult to make them react to fuzzy tasks and to sense their environment.

The division of fuzzy-sensual and analytical-logic is a cultural construction. While these differences can easily become an overused stereotype, the personal experiences of people who worked with designers often support this statement. Miklós Biró and Tibor Remzsö point out that engineering designers and business managers have basically different motivations. In their opinion, it is of strategic importance to explain the differences in motivations to both sides. Also Abbie Griffin and John Hauser describe that there are significant differences in communication patterns in new-product development teams among marketing, engineering and manufacturing and suggest that firms are distinctively more successful at new-product development if there is more communication between marketing, engineering, and manufacturing. Communication can be difficult even between members of the same professional group. The linkages between task and employee as described in the linkage of product architecture to organizational architecture do often not match. Griffin and Hauser identified differences in the behaviour of engineering teams designing modular components to that of engineering teams designing distributed components and found that development professionals often do not communicate even when their product components interact. On the other hand, teams can interact while their components do not share a direct interface. Similar boundaries are existing for instance in medicine: Medical Doctor Stefan Schreiber explains that medical doctors today still work within boundaries which are 400 years old, from a time when doctors segmented the human body into its organs. Genetics show that there are various connections in diseases which reach across the boundaries of organs. For instance, inflammations in the mouth tend to indicate that there is an inclination to inflammations in the intestinal tract, but the boundaries of medicine make it difficult to effectively help a patient: Inflammations in the mouth are the concern of dentists, while for inflammations in the digestive tract a patient has to go to another specialist. Thus, in a full third of patients these parallel symptoms remain unrecognised. The problem of communication is the problem of crossing boundaries – between and within professions and cultures. Also the designer-manager communication, in order to be beneficial for an organisation, has to cross the boundaries of different worldviews, attitudes and motivations.

The 5 C’s: Design skills for the near future

Since the first introduction of CAD and 3d modeling systems, code is behind most products. With generative design, the code becomes the design itself. Big data about user behaviour in combination with machine learning and adaptive production methods (Industry 4.0) will make highly personalized and adaptive design solutions the new normal. To master code, designers have to be able to write it.

With the Internet of Things, the division between interaction design and industrial design is about to disappear. A designer will have to know how to code, prototype, and build intelligent products with embedded applications. Start with Raspberry Pi, Arduino or Nanode.

Globalisation, the different speeds of civilizations and the increasing complexity of technology create a reality in which technological, social and environmental issues are getting increasingly intertwined. There are no simple solutions to complex problems. The ability to navigate complexity will be a key skill for the designer of the future.

In a globalized world, cultures can adapt, mix, or clash, and differences can be hard to handle. Deep-seated assumptions rooted in a designer’s own culture can lead to products which do not work in other cultures – psychologically or in terms of use. Openness, the ability to emphatize, and an understanding different cultures and users will be as important as understanding a wide range of technologies.

In a world of limited resources and climate change, in-depth knowledge of recycling technologies, biodegradable materials, and the ability to design for a circular economy – by considering disassembly and recycling already during the design process – will become a needed precondition. Designers will need to be able not only to conceive new products, but to plan the way these products are made, unmade, and recycled. What comes around goes around.

Super. Sneakers.

Original published on May 5, 2006.

The super-heroes in X-men are mutants, humans whose genetic codes have been altered by unknown means to add capabilities of warfare. One can produce lightning, another one kills people with a laser gaze, one can read thoughts, and one has retractable metal blades inserted in his hands. All of them, just as the super-hero iconography demands, have tight body-suits showing their athletic, or, if they are women, Playboy-mag standard bodies.

The super-human is the iconic ideal for ourselves, an image always near enough to create a subconscious striving and always far enough to render that striving vain. The super-human is living in constant warfare, there must always be an evil opponent, there is always the world to be saved.

The whole narrative, retold in millions of variations, depends on an evil opponent. Without opponent, there is no narrative, and the whole reason for a super-human existence would cease to exist. It is thus in the vital interest of super-humans to have evil opponents at their disposal – if there are none, new ones have to be created.

Super-humans need super-“gear”. There are super-bikes, super-cars, super-planes and super-suits; The super-man Superman wears his own “S” brand printed on his suit, Batman’s logo is projected onto the clouds of the nightly sky. The super-human is branded and depending on his tools and outfit – Superman, in “real” life a mediocre middle-class guy, becomes super only with his suit on and his glasses off.


And surely enough there is super-gear available to bring every mediocre middle-class person a bit closer to super-human status. It doesn´t quite make you fly like Superman, but it makes you nearly fly like Superman; it doesn’t quite make you jump and swing like Spiderman, but it makes you nearly jump and swing like Spiderman. And you don´t even have to know the secret headquarters of the various super-hero organisations. You can obtain this super-gear easily from the shopping center nearby, just go to the sneaker store.

Sneakers are named and designed to eliminate the last particle of the idea that they would in fact be shoes. Sneakers are not shoes. They are bikes (Hi Tec Enduro), airplanes (Nike Air Streak Spectrum Plus), drugs (Brooks Adrenaline GTS, Brooks Trance NXG), web browsers (Saucony Grid Web), space ships and outer space weapons (Mizuna Wave Spacer, Merrell Exotech, Adidas Supernova Control).

Sneakers are not shoes and they are not for walking. They are filled with gels, hexa-something structures, springs, artificial bones and acupuncture devices. They are super-gear for warfare in any terrain – in fact warfare with any terrain. If it is the rap warfare in the South Bronx, the fashion warfare in Manhattan, the warfare with suburban asphalt or the countryside terrain, the sneaker is designed to make you victorious.

In this narrative, the sneaker is the super-gear, the terrain is the evil opponent, and you are (nearly) the super-hero. As you are just nearly there, you don’t get your own super-hero brand, but at least you can obtain the magical might of the branded super-gear – now for only 299,90.

An object called “Supernova” cannot possibly look like a shoe. The plain surface of leather is historically loaded with the idea of a shoe. Thus the surface consists of fragmented patchworks of differently colored and structured derivates of the oil industry such as Nylon and PVC. Iconography has completely taken over the product: The sole is designed as if there are springs attached at the bottom of the shoe, creating the impression that you could move by jumping, the sneaker being a comic-strip version of an iconic symbol: Hermes’ winged shoe.

Sneaker designs, with their abundance of symbolic decoration pretending to have a technical reason, are the mannerisms of the post-industrial society. Super-gear production must be a mystery, an alchemistic-technological process supervised by shrewd designers and scientists in futuristic headquarters. Sneakers are supposed to be bionic extensions, genetically engineered for the constant super-human warfare of the 21st century.

We buy SUVs pretending to master every terrain, but we drive them on perfectly paved higways to our gated community. We wear sneakers which look like the outfit of super-heroes and super-athletes, but what we actually do in them is to walk around in air-conditioned shopping centers.

Mozart, globalized

moziThe “Mozartkugel”, a prototypical Austrian confectionery, is known for most as a souvenir after a vacation in Austria. The winning combination of an innovative, delicious product with a sticky name was not the work of a multinational branding firm, but of an ambitious confisier in the Habsburg empire. The product most people get in airport duty free shops these days is however neither original nor handmade, but an exemplar of mergers and acquisitions.

The “Real Mozartkugel” by “Mirabell” is a product in a portfolio including “Miracle Whip” and “Macaroni & Cheese”, owned by Kraft foods – previously owned by Philip Morris, the cigarette company which changed its name to “Altria” and spun out Kraft to its own (Philip Morris a.k.a. Altria) shareholders after having merged it with Nabisco (makers of Oreo and Ritz cookies) and General Foods (of Jell-O fame, a company they acquired in 1926 when still operating as “Postum Cereal” before acquiring General Foods and its name in 1929). In 1993, Kraft-General Foods acquired Jacobs Suchard, itself a merger of German coffee company Jacobs with Interfood, which itself was a merger of Swiss chocolate manufactureres Tobler and Suchard.



But fortunately, and amazingly, there is still the original Mozartkugel, made just as it was made back then in 1890. The original has survived both the industrialization of sweets and the vicious acquisitions of the 20th century out of a simple reason – the creator, Paul Fuerst, cared more for making delicious sweets than for securing the names for his creations. Therefore there have been no mergers and acquisitions of this familiy-run Cafe-Konditorei, and the original Mozartkugel is still produced according to the original recipe. It is handmade from fresh ingredients, delicious, and perishable. It is a bit hard to get, unless you pass by in one of the 4 outlets of Confectionery Fuerst in the city of Salzburg, where it was originally invented in 1890 by Paul Fuerst, an accomplished confectioner in the Habsburg empire who learned his trade in Budapest, Paris and Nice.


(Not original, but very good and handmade Mozartkugeln are available from three other confectioners in the area – Petrik and Engljaehringer in Salzburg and Dallmann in St. Gilgen.)


Innovation, anyone?

This post was originally published on December 27, 2009. Since then quite a bit happened; Nokia’s phones, for instance, disappeared.

The buzzword of the decade: Innovation.

It seems that the more the average corporate manager found how easy it is to brush up any uninspired Powerpoint presentation with the fancy word “innovation”, the less innovation actually happened.

In the absence of ideas, the motto of the decade was: Make it big, and make it again. In the media industry, the motto was reruns, sequels, and sequels of sequels. In the automotive industry, the size of the average American car increased proportionally with the average debt of households.

The beginning 21st century was also the time of relative standstill in the electronics sector. The mobile phone boom, the growth engine for electronics companies in the early 2000s, is over, and electronics companies are struggling to find out what to do next.

The “Supersize Me” tactic was also the only idea for television sets. Of course, the tactic to offer ever-larger TV screens is naturally coming to an end as TVs are approaching sizes larger than the average apartment.


The innovator in the mobile phone market was not a mobile phone company, but a computer company. The simple idea of the overall market leader, Nokia, is to make a lot of different models. While Nokia presumably does this in an attempt to fine-slice a saturated market, the iPhone comes as one model. (For more about the perils of thin-spreading see my 2007 article in Danish Designers; For more about Apple strategies, see my post “From Walkman to Ipod”). In the third quarter of 2009, Apple made significantly more profit from its single phone model (1,6 billion US) than Nokia from its entire range of 20+ models (1,1 billion US). Nokia’s large market share in developing economies seems in the meanwhile to be more of an inertia effect. The mass tactic fails in advanced markets: Nokia’s market share in the North American smart phone market is a negligible 3,9%. Apple’s has 29,5%, and Research in Motion, the maker of BlackBerry, has 51%.

Yet, actual innovation happened. Instead of big and a lot, it was rather smart and light, brought about by outsiders and unlikely candidates. The movie industry, trying to reduce risk by investing primarily in reruns and sequels, opened a horizon for a handful of independent filmmakers with actual ideas.

The only car in the North American market where demand outstripped supply was the exact opposite of chunky and gas-guzzling: The Honda Prius.

In the computer market, the innovator was the lesser known Taiwanese manufacturer Asus, who stood out with its introduction of the ieee, turning upside down the idea that small and light must be more expensive than big and heavy. Since then, nearly all manufacturers rushed to catch up with similar models based on Intel’s Atom processor. The moral of the story: The future won’t be about big, a lot, and the same all over again.

Designer Jargon

The main communication tools for designers are drawings, sketches and models. The style of designer drawings and prototypes can be described as the “jargon” of designers – the drawing style can reflect the assumptions and desires of designers.

The use of jargon is significant for the degree of adaptation of people into an organisational culture; It binds specific groups together and creates a boundary of language to other groups. The style of designer drawings can be soft or aggressive, light or dark, reduced or full of patterns, geometric or dominated by artistic strokes; Different design departments and design consultancies mostly have their own style which contributes to their shared assumptions.

The essence of design drawings are – to an extent – understood across national cultures. However, the interpretation of their value and meaning is culture-specific and depending on individual designer’s knowledge, beliefs and paradigms.

A designer will see the concept or interesting features behind a the sketch of another designer, while a non-designer might have troubles deciphering the message in a design sketch.

Nigel Cross states that the use of sketches, drawings and other models constitutes a coherent and symbolic media system for thinking and communicating in design. Designers see the features and problems in a design and improve it in hermeneutic and dialectic “sketch discussions”, where one sketch is complementing another.

The result of this constant refining and reconsidering is finally presented to management in a “polished” form, a drawing or model which defines every detail of the design drawing. Designers with experience develop a “design eye” and see features of a design a non-designer would not see.

This is perhaps similar to scientists or other specialists who develop a common understanding of their field; They might not share worldviews and opinions, but they share a particular knowledge, which enables them to collaborate on a project despite being different personalities from different cultures and backgrounds.

Krippendorff describes that vocabulary creates “structure within textual matter that is based on selectively (re)cognizing similarities in the compositions or usages of artifacts: (re)combinable and (de)composable forms, components or assemblages, much like words, and syntactic structures”.

The understanding between designers is indeed relatively homogenous across firms and cultures. The change of a design can be discussed in a similar way with designers from Latvia, Germany, the United States or South Korea – the nessecary fore-understanding was established by education and experience.

The drawing or mock-up as the main communication tool is complemented by a visually orientated, spoken language which is used during the design process. The spoken language used between designers is mostly a result of other forms of visual representation. Depending on the discipline, it will involve colours (“this colour creates too much contrast, tone it down”), shapes (“the curve here should be smoother, this would also make it easier for tooling”), composition (“the detail here is too dominant, it would distract the attention of the user from the main button”) or, in media design, the choreography of actions (the movement here in front should be shorter and smoother to reduce loading time on the internet, while the element in the background should slowly disappear by reducing the hue”).

This language is predominantly visual, aesthetic, and often also simultaneously focused on the user (ergonomics, usability) or technical solutions. This “language of design” used in the design process is relatively universal. However, this does not apply to the assumptions behind the concept of a design object, which are depending on world-views and cultures.

The aesthetic value of colours, shapes and compositions are perceived differently in different cultures, a colour or shape one designer finds aesthetically pleasing will be perceived as uninteresting by another. This disparity is, on the one hand, enhanced between different regional cultures with different aesthetic preferences, and on the other hand equalized by “dominating designs”, i.e. designs which are supposed to be right, are conceived by role-models (famous designers) or are dispersed by a dominating culture.