by Dean Whittaker

Why should we care about design? An awareness of design is a right-brain-directed function that lets us conceptualize and innovate new products and experiences. We experience design every day, not only in the products we use, but also in the process and procedures we share. Design differentiates in a world of abundance. It separates the boring and humdrum from the exceptional. In a world that overflows with so many choices that we have a $17 billion storage locker industry to hold our “extra” stuff, how can products stand out and be heard, seen or felt?

To remain relevant in a world of abundance, one must continually innovate and create the new. This can be an innovation in the banking industry such as on-line banking or product changes in the latest pocket digital camera. But innovate we must, or we run the risk of our product becoming another commodity in the world economy as we compete with China and India to be the low-cost provider.

In A Whole New Mind , Daniel Pink describes six right-brain competencies that we need to add to our portfolio, including left-brain analytical, sequential, textual skills. One of these is design. Design is described as consisting of function and significance . Function means the process, experience or product needs to perform its intended purpose; significance means it must have value to the person experiencing the design.

Recently I purchased a roller-ball pen. I paid $64 for it. Now, why would I pay $64 dollars for a pen when a $1.39 pen would perform the same function? No, it is not because I’m trying to support the local economy (although that is partially the case). It is because this pen has significance to me. It is a Frank Lloyd Wright design pen. Clearly, I value the significance of the pen in addition to its functionality. The profit margin on this pen is not in its function, but rather in its significance, which came about through design.

Design helps us differentiate our organizations, products, services and ourselves in a world that tends to turn everything into a commodity. We design our lives by the choices we make, the things we buy and create. We strive for meaning and significance in a world of overwhelming abundance.

One local economic development organization is initiating “high-design” awareness in local businesses through the creation of a Design Council. The Council helps major design schools from around the country collaborate with local firms through an internship program. In addition, the Council has hosted local firms to demonstrate the use of design in their products.

On a more personal level, how do we re-awaken the sense of design lurking in the right sides of our brains? Daniel Pink suggests keeping a design journal in which we note the designs that attract our attention in our daily lives. He recommends several other ways to increase our design awareness, such as choosing an annoying product and offering the producer ideas for improvement; reading design magazines such as Dwell, How, iD, Metropolis, O Magazine, Print and Real Simple, and visiting design museums such as the Eames House in Los Angeles. By being more observant of the role that design plays in our everyday lives, we begin to develop a sense of design and how it impacts all of us.

From an economic development point of view, the following quote from Pink summarizes why design matters: “Design is a high-concept aptitude that is difficult to outsource or automate – and that increasingly confers a competitive advantage in business”