I spent yesterday morning working with a designer on the cover of my new book. I used to let the publisher handle this but the results were often….well, I don’t want to get all Simon Cowell here, but the results were sometimes disappointing. No, that’s too Paula Abdul. Let’s just say some of these covers were bad enough to make an author wake up screaming in the middle of the night. Sometimes. Not always.
This designer, Perry Seelert, of United*, is great. I liked the company name immediately, the design reminds me of the days when air travel was glamorous and destinations were still exotic. It’s a pretty good metaphor for a design firm. And the asterisk is perfect, it says, "there’s more," a little like the "Plus Ultra" motto of the early modern Spanish court. Perry himself is charming, and looks at you with the most alarming sincerity. (Canadians believe in sincerity as a moral good and a national resource, and this makes us perhaps a little sincerity-sensitive.)
But still client and designer approached one another with caution. You could see the thought bubbles. The one over Perry read:
Does this guy really get design?
The one over me read:
Does this guy really get the concept of this book?
These are ancient, tribal suspicions. They will never go away. Designers will always hope for great clients and suspect the worst. Clients will always hope for brilliant design even as they nurture the suspicion that they are about funding work that celebrates the designer more than the brand.
As Virginia Postrel makes clear in The Substance of Style, this skepticism is in remission. Everyone, even the most unsophisticated client, gets design, if only because this client is now almost always surrounded by it. All boats rose with that tide. For their part, designers came to know more about business and at some point, they stopped thinking of business as something morally dubious and aesthetic bankrupt.
Indeed, designers have done so well mastering business that they now supply idea generation, innovation, and cultural knowledge as well. In the process, they compete well against the agency world, the research supplier, and the consulting world. They "got with the program" mpressively.
The corporate world stopped seeing design as a cost center, a necessary evil, a place to make economies, and started to see it as something that could add value, draw media attention, manufacture meaning, win share, and garner profit. Now, that’s a sea change. There was something organic about this movement, but there were tipping points, including the rise of Target and the revolution created by A.G. Lafley at P&G. (The b-schools haven’t quite signed on but there is evidence, especially from Stanford, that even this might change.)
Bully. So design has a place at the table. My question, when does this happen for culture? This remains a factor that must be reckoned with when keeping track of consumer taste and preference, it remains a source of innovation and creativity, it remains the source of blind side hits that can tilt the corporation to the very water line, it remains the sea in which the corporation must swim if it is to flourish. But there is no systematic survey of what it is, where it stands, where’s it going and how it might be managed.
This used to fall to agencies. And this was fine when trends moved through the market place like big, fat breakers at Wikiki. You didn’t need early notice. You didn’t need fine linkage. You didn’t a comprehensive view. You just needed not to be not aggregiously off trend and out of step. This meant the agency would occasionally put the corporation on notice that the world had changed, and adjustments were, reluctantly, forthcoming.
I talked recently to a CMO type guy who told me that the agency are just as frustrating as they ever were to work with. Yes, they have hovered up the little firms that give them a hand in the new media, innovation, buzz marketing and so, but this had actually made it more difficult for the agency to coordinate its efforts and for the corporation to make contact. This guy was speaking admiringly of the new relationship that AT&T was demanding of its agency: a small group of people, hand picked from the empire, with the larger organization and effort concealed from view.
If the agency was bad at serving the corporation as a conduit on culture, recent changes may have made things vastly worse.
Yes, the design firms have stepped up here, and I have seen them do great work. But I don’t believe any of the d-schools teach a deep knowledge of culture anymore that b-schools do. They could but they don’t. Well, you might say, design has embraced ethnography, and this is a method that allows them to say that what they don’t know, they can find out. Right again, but some of the worst methodological pretenders are working in the design field, and industry standards are, by this measure, not high.
Again, the d-school at Stanford is most promising and I am looking forward someday to getting the 411 from Bob Sutton or someone.
B-schools are certifiably hopeless on this issue, and continue to operate the instruction and the problem solving as if economics assumptions will do. (There are some exceptions here and the Schulich b-school at York would seem to be one of these.) If ever there were a place in the theoretical world were an urgent, air lift, emergency relief effort were called for, it is here. In a more perfect world, they would put a bunch of us in the dessert with the stern warning that "no one leaves till you solve this problem." The problem is this: can we save the economics paradigm from itself? Can we make it capable of capturing and comprehending the cultural factor? Or are substantial renovations/revolutions called for?
Anthropology departments on campus might have made themselves useful, but the field now cultivates a morality, a politics and an epistemology that makes this impossible. Sociology not so much and not so bad. Still, with a very few exceptions, it is difficult to identify departments of any social science that are fountains of cultural knowledge. (Sociology at Princeton looks like a spectacular exception.)
So the question is when does the corporation make good on this issue? When does it build culture in? The existing suppliers are not good enough. And this means we will likely have to start from the beginning. What about a "culture school," a c-school to put beside the d-school and the b-school? Russell Davies has created an Account Planning School of the Web. This is promising. There are schools that promise to train "future watchers." Without a deep knowledge of contemporary culture, this is ludicrous and a little like asking pet owners to be lion tamers.
Do I really think anyone will create a c-school. Of course not. The corporation will have to solve this problem on its own. Maybe its time for us to create culture camps. Today I am adding a new piece to my consulting business, a "culture coach" kind of thing. I will sit down with senior executives and CMOs and take them through where things stand and why, what we see on the horizons, what we can expect. I mean, otherwise, the world becomes increasingly astonishing. The corporation finds itself assaulted by the blind side hit. Levi-Strauss misses hip hop. The furniture discovers women redesigning the family through the great room. The artisanal trend overwhelms Kraft. A new notion of pets surprises Purina. Without a c-school or a c-camp, or a c-coach, the world is just one damn surprise after another.
Postrel, Virginia. 2004. The Substance of Style. New York: Harper. here.