Design, dynamism and corporations


I think we all remember that guy in high school, the one who never really paid attention because he was busy covering his note book with mythical creatures and fighter planes.  Much to everyone’s surprise, he actually improved his technique a little but his taste in topic never got better.  This guys was about beasts and bombers.   Aesthetics be damned.

We all know what happened to this guy.  He went on to design games for Electronics Arts or someone.  These are the games that do astonishing things technically, but aesthetically (with exception of games like Myst), they all pretty much look like crap.  The characters in Halo are particularly bad.  You can almost see the high school notebook from which they sprang.

There is good news from Fast Company.  Arvind Palep and Serge Patzak run a company called 1st Avenue Machine, and they are now famous for a video called Alias. Alias is an astonishing piece of work.  I mean, really.  Palep and Patzak have what the design world should call, after tennis, touch.  I guess Fast Company asked Palep to explain why 1st Avenue Machine was so good and now so sought after.  He replied:

Before, technology was the barrier.  But it’s faster and cheaper now, and there’s a real shift to people with artistic vision.

This means "bye bye" to the guy drooling over his notebook.  In the early days, we were obliged to hire the guy at Bungie (the authoring house that created Halo).  He might not have an aesthetic bone in his body, but he knew the code and he could make it do remarkable things.  But now the technology has begun to assist in its own invention, many more players can deliver technically superb stuff, and advantage now goes to those with "touch."

In effect, the technology has interceded on its own behalf.  It once imposed an access tax.  If you wanted to use it, you had to forswear some of the ways you would normally deliver value.  (Specifically, you foreswear design intelligence.)  But now the technology has disintermediated the guy who knows code and nothing else.  It has migrated to those players with higher order capabilities.  It has effectively put itself in the hands of those who will make it more interesting, more engaging, more beautiful.  Hmmm.  It’s almost as if the tech is engaged in an evolutionary effort to recruit the humans who can be most useful.  Does anyone else feel a chill?

I wonder if something like this is happening in the corporate world more generally.  While discussing the BMW spot, Tom Guarriello and I were contemplating the state of the corporation and specifically how many people are passionate devotees of innovation, and how many remaining implacably hostile to the idea of new ideas.  I believe the nitwits still flourish, but Tom says, no.  He believes the worst offenders are now out or outmanned. 

It’s almost as if the corporation has found a way to put itself in the hands of better humans, too.  The BMW ads are important because they say, effectively, "it’s all about the ideas and the ideators."  And increasingly, I think we see the truth of this.  Everything else can be left to a system constructed by deep thinker at a b-school, a d-school or an e-school (eingineering).  As corporations draw ever closer to the status of a complex adaptive system, superbly able now to spot opportunity and act on it, they must honor the idea above all else,  and this means, in some cases, there will have to be a change of personnel. 

In a weird way, corporations are struggling toward the light.  They do not always know the path to absolute dynamism, but they have very little difficulty figuring out who can help and who will hurt.  I think we have yet to see what the new dynamism has in store for us as a culture and an economy.  But there is no question that, after extraordinary individuals, the first flower of individualism, corporations will be the first one in.  Tom says that those who harbor anti-dynamic inclinations have been rooted out.  I am not so sure.  I think that many of them now live under deep cover.  But that we will find them out as inevitable.  Just as technology came to its own aid, disintermediating those who could not realize its full potential, the corporation will make itself steadily more dynamic and as it does so the party of resistance will become ever more obvious. 


Anonymous.  2006.  Special Effects.  Fast Company.  March.  p. 87.

For the Alias video from 1st Avenue Machine, go here.  (Click on "projects," choose the last box in the vertical array.)

4 thoughts on “Design, dynamism and corporations

  1. Graham Hill


    I have told you a million times before, don’t exaggerate!

    Corporations are by definition complex adaptive systems, just as the markets in which they exist are, work goups within them are and the individuals within the work groups are (at a biological level anyway). But organisations have a number of factors that make spotting emerging patterns harder, both inside the organisation if you want to nudge it into changing and outside the organisation if you want to nudge markets to change.

    One of the big factors inside the BMW organisation is internal politics and the greasy pole. Internal politics prevents BMW from being all that it can be.

    I recently ran a business seminar at BMW, at their request. The people were all friendly, competent and driven, but internal politics was evident everywhere. Particularly the politics associated with BMW knows best and senior management knows best of all. It prevented direct discussion of the one big problem I was there to help them think about. I decided that I didn’t want to do any more work with BMW at that point.

    The brand may exist as feelings in the mind of the customer (as Tom Asacker points out), but the whole organisation has a role to play in delivering a superior branded experience for the customer which creates those feelings (as John Aaker points out). The real BMW is much more (or much less) than the sum of a few glossy ads. And it could be much more than it is today. If only internal politics didn’t get in the way.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    Well, I thought my point was slightly more nuanced, but I’m often mistaken in thinking so. What I meant was, the worst are either gone, or in hiding. They still show themselves when they sense a new idea’s in trouble, but they are not as reflexively “anti-” as I’ve seen in the past. As Graham ably points out, the complexities of individual organizations (and individual individuals) make generalizations perilous, I see patterns emerging in the companies with which I work. I’d describe it as: the new has won the day. Simplistic, I know, but, in my experience, a shift in mindset.

    Organizational politics will always play a role in how new ideas are embraced (or not) and executed. Watch the winners; they’ll show us something about how it’s done, but never all of how it’s done. It’s like the early days when American car makers wanted to tour Toyota assembly plants. American execs were amazed that Toyota permitted them to do so. When asked why, a Toyota exec was reported to have said something like, “Because you can’t copy the thing that makes our system work, our company’s culture.”

  3. Peter

    One of the interesting consequences of the rise of the video games industry was that it gave gainful employment to guys who could visualize well but not verbalize. Until then, to be a computer programmer, one HAD to be text-oriented (remember FORTRAN and DOS, anyone?). The video games industry has helped reduce the domination of the verbal and textual in our culture, in a million ways, A Good Thing.

  4. steve

    Going into fugue state..cannot resist self-plug…I have a paper on the phenomenon of technical progress and knowledge specialization for which this post is a classic example. See “Islands of Shared Knowledge: Specialization and Mutual Understanding in Problem-Solving Teams,” Organization Science vol. 13, no. 3, pp.303-320.

    The same kind of thing happened in semiconductor design. Once the transistor density got high enough, designers of logic no longer needed to understand the physical intricacies of chip layout. Earlier, it happened with software–when computers got enough speed and memory, programmers didn’t need to know as much about the internal workings of the machine. The process is reversible, though, because new applications may arise where the underlying technology gets pushed so hard that designers have to know how it works in some detail.

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