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Mix & Stir
Clement, you’ve been at the forefront of design innovation in Silicon Valley and the greater Bay Area since the early 80′s. Given your perspective, what changes or developments do you think are most significant now?
Every aspect of how we learn, play and communicate has been reinvented during the 30 years of my Silicon Valley career. The transformation of each of these domains started in small personal ways, with tools and devices that empowered individuals. Initially – in the ‘80s - digital design was D.I.Y. Anyone who was ready and willing could use the new technologies to put words, pictures, sound and moving images together. I’m not so sure the result was really design. The emphasis was on the new tools and practitioners used them to get cheaper and faster.
Next came the Internet and it created and enabled individuals, communities and businesses to connect to markets and conduct commerce. During this period – the mid 90’s – there was a distinct shift in Silicon Valley and an understanding that design was not simply about how something looked but also how it worked. Design made digital storefronts or websites more “brand” relevant and differentiated. Design helped to engage and retain visitors. In short, digital design became the means of crafting an experience and as such, design became a more integrated partner of technology.
The changes now are grounded in social and cultural values or bias. Social and cultural issues are mashing with technology not only to create new experiences, products and services but also to spead viewpoints and calls to action at lightning speed, effecting change on a major level. Digital media is entering its maturing stage… or adulthood if we want to stretch the analogy. We have a generation of people raised in a digital world. We have the Infrastructure and most importantly we have a market that can support and sustain growth and build an economy. At this point, design truly has a seat at the table. There are no technical constraints. Constraints are only the imaginary kind and human capital.
If you were a 20-something designer/entrepreneur looking to make a name for yourself over the next 5 years or so, what market needs or concepts would you be exploring?
I would definitely explore publishing. The economic model for publishing is collapsing. Media ownership and consumption patterns, as well as readership and subscription models are turned upside down with the advent of the Kindle and the iPad. The publishing houses are scrambling to reinvent their business models by reworking their assets on these new platforms when they should be reinventing the experience. What should the experience be when someone wants to study the works of Charles Dickens or understand how Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species came into being. How does social fit into this? How do you share that experience? What is being shared? Should it be a game? Or why shouldn’t it be a game?
I would also explore data-mining services. Say what? I know, odd coming from a designer, but in a world where terabytes of information are created every second, sense-making of data is a multi-billion dollar business — currently controlled and visualized primarily by data jocks. Data visualization for the rest of us can be an interesting area to play. Repackaging data and applying it to industries or issues could present interesting possibilities: food source mapping, bio-metrics, nutrition monitoring…the list is endless.
Distance learning is another area I would explore. Technology is now making it possible to access information any place and any time. Look at the success, the Kahn academy is having and rise of crowd-sourced material. Can you build platforms for different niches beyond what YouTube provides?
Startups throughout Silicon Valley and SF are hiring designers to be co-founders – not simply to create the interface but to help direct the strategy. Why do you think designers have become the new “hot” hire?
Designers by training are taught to see things that are not there – the space between things. Social and cultural change requires social science not rocket science. So why not bring on sociologist instead of designers to be co-founders? They are and they have. But it requires a designer to translate and give form to the insight provided by the sociologist.
As we’ve moved into the socially and culturally driven phase of technology development, it’s now difficult for an engineer to write code without the soft-science of design and branding. It’s no longer exclusively about clever algorithms or new technical capabilities: It’s about expressing behavioral and psychological insights and designers are typically the most equipped to do this.
You have many designer/entrepreneurs seeking your advice on their startups. What do you find is the most common mistake they make in the early stages of development?
It’s their analysis of the market and window of opportunity. Sure the product is designed or engineered better, but they fail to see how difficult it will be to market the product and services. Market conditions change in 30-day cycles. It’s critical to move fast, smart and flexibly. It’s easier to give this advice and see this issue when you are an observer. It’s harder when you are knee deep in it. I am not immune to this blind spot myself when I’m a founder.
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