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If it’s not already, design will soon be as important to successful companies as marketing and research. Unlike just a few years ago, it is difficult to find a product on the shelf that hasn’t been painstakingly considered by a designer. A quick trip to the kitchenware department at Target will solidify this idea for just about anyone.

This is the moment for applause and a milestone for our industry, but it is not an end. In fact, for the first time, our industry is having a hard time seeing the future. The basic process of design (define, design and deliver) works well when we explore new products and new categories that are ripe for innovation. However, when the product cycle continues at its relentless pace, we are often left to design something new without actually having much old to study and improve.

It is during these times that we seem to get stuck on an industry style. Whether it’s streamlining or more recent variations on the black and silver waterfall, these blanket styles can have a positive effect (consumer acceptance), but can also be very risky. If we’re all pursuing the same thing, and often relying on the same tools and trends, what value are we adding to the product?

The point is this: by relinquishing a design to the same vernacular that currently exists in the market, we are negating the positive effects that design can create by building an emotional connection with the consumer. We are, in essence, eliminating much of the risk a product faces (by bringing it up to par), but we’re also leaving the success of the product up to all of the things we don’t control such as manufacturing, pricing, marketing and the retail environment itself.

In a sea of sameness, even well executed products can be ignored because the differentiation of the details is challenging for consumers. So why not stand out? Why not depart from what’s expected in the market place? Why not fill the shelves with variety (if we must fill them at all)?

What do I want to do?

Saturate the Niches

Let’s recognize the power of smaller markets. We all want a single solution that is guaranteed to work, but this rarely inspires consumers to emotionally connect with products, and ignores the atomization that has vastly changed the consumer population. The mass market is hemorrhaging, and the many niche markets in its wake add up to a lot of customers when their populations are combined. Furthermore, these markets have something even better – passionate consumers. If you can only build it once, make a framework not a product, and leave hooks for people to add and adapt the product to suit them. Let’s create separate products for the young and old, energetic and conservative, allowing each of them to have what it is they most desire. Let’s prevent one group’s limitations or bias from affecting another’s.

Venture capitalists know this already. They invest modestly in a variety of companies and industries, then let the return from the successful ones make up for small losses due to the failures. By opening up their focus to variety instead of a single approach, they have a much safer investment, but they also get to learn a great deal and cross pollinate their other endeavors (which may be even more valuable than the initial return). This is the basic seed that helps consultancies stay fresh and agile, and we should apply it to how we develop products and ideas as well.

The story of Carpe Diem is a great example of this process at work. When Dietrich Mateschitz started Red Bull, he foresaw the workaholic culture of the 1980’s and thought about how it would mutate into the extreme culture of the 1990’s. He found a drink while traveling that was a perfect compliment to this lifestyle and set up Red Bull in 1984. The exceptional part of this story is that he didn’t become obsessed with creating Red Bull 2.0, but instead looked past the success, and theorized the eventual backlash to the extreme (ie, slow food, organics, etc.). So while Red Bull was reaching its strongest sales, he was pushing out into new ventures with an herbal drink steeped with ancient ingredients. The man that was first sponsoring bungee jumping and the Flugtag, now finds his new brand hosting rooftop evening yoga sessions and low key art events in small European towns.

Have Fun with Style

As designers, we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize that some projects will use styling to connect emotionally with consumers. If we are forced to update products based on cycles and shopping seasons, then let’s have some fun and really push for new styles instead of relying on the tried and true of the moment (think black, silver, and material thickness, waterfalls, etc). Let’s bring some differentiation and adventure back into products. Let’s make five colors instead of one. Let’s try three form factors instead of one or two, and let the market weigh in on our best guesses.

Be Green(er)

Let’s try to find greener ways to allow for variety and adaptability without increasing waste and creating landfill. Consumers will form deeper connections with products that appeal to their value systems. Let’s allow products to age and grow, learn and adapt. Could we update products less frequently and augment them with a variety of services instead?

We are living in a world saturated by ‘design’, and we need to make sure we’re being effective champions for consumers, their desires, and that we’re connecting them emotionally to the products they use. If we simply apply the style of the day to each and every product, we are eliminating any emotional connection that people might create with a product. By taking advantage of niche markets, narrowly targeted products, fun and interesting styles and materials, and always pursuing greener answers to problems, we are driving toward a new and exciting direction in design; a direction full of variety.

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