American Firms Now Embrace Design, But They're Aging Fast. What's Next?

Frog's Robert Fabricant argues that American companies no longer stand for real innovation in design—and that includes Microsoft (obviously), Google (okay), and Apple (really?!). So the trick is to empower a new generation.

[This is the first in a series of posts drawn from a sprawling survey we conducted about the state of American design.—Ed.]

This question has been troubling me for some time. Have we lost our edge at a particularly dynamic (and economically troubling) moment in our nation’s history? I look around at the aging leadership at the leading American design firms—organizations like frog, IDEO, Continuum and Smart—with some concern. This group has accomplished a huge amount in the last few decades, to be sure, providing design leadership on a global scale. This is particularly significant as one would have expected major firms to emerge out of Asia in this period given their economic influence, and dominance in making stuff. But American firms have led the way, with most of the Asian talent locked up in corporations or designing for markets, like Japan, that are increasingly isolated from the global mainstream or China, which continues to be hobbled by the lack of protection for IP.

If we look back on this remarkable period of growth, I would argue that there have been two major battles fought, and largely won by American designers. The first battle concerned the adoption of user-centered design within the engineering and technology culture of corporate America. I remember my days as a summer intern at Microsoft in 1996 attending a reception at Bill Gates’ house and the confusion on his face when I introduced myself as a designer (not an engineer). He seemed truly perplexed—what was a designer doing at Microsoft? Yet today user-centered design, which emerged largely out of software development in California in the '80s, has been embraced by corporate America. There is no better example than General Electric, the archetypal American company, which has epitomized bottom line efficiency for most of its history, leaving little room for design. Today GE is a leading patron of design. And they have just hired Greg Petroff as their first general manager for user experience for the entire company. User-centered design is officially part of the establishment.
[Microsoft’s Windows 7 mobile OS, which Fabricant likens to "an aging man who starts shopping at boutiques for tight shirts."]

The second battle concerned the "strategic" nature of design. Designers don’t just make things easier and simpler to use, we open up new opportunity spaces through a more creative approach to problem solving. This movement also came out of the American design establishment, with IDEO leading the charge and business schools and magazines supporting it. Much debate remains over whether "Design Thinking" has been or can be fully adopted by large corporations. But that is largely an intramural debate. We can (and probably will) fight among ourselves about this for some time. But the battle is largely over, with corporations recognizing creativity and collaboration as key ingredients for innovation even if they will never fully know how to embrace and nurture these qualities.

But it was the recent redesign of Gmail that truly signaled to me the aging of American Design. Only a few years ago Marissa Mayer was proudly trumpeting the supremacy of data over emotion in design decisions. Reminding designers everywhere that in America, analytics trumps inspiration. And reaffirming that Google, the company that best represents the next generation of American corporate leadership, would be resolute in approaching design on its own terms. Armed with real-time behavioral data from billions of users, Google was issuing a serious challenge to designers to substantiate the value of what we do. But two years later Google has softened its stance considerably. Larry Page referred to "design" several times in their most recent earnings call as a driver for recent success. Is Google’s adoption of a blandly attractive design language really a victory for American Design? I can’t imagine that Marissa tested every pixel of the new Google style before it launched. Would Americans really choose a black navigation bar? While many talented designers, like Khoi Vin, are heralding Google’s change of heart, I think it is cause for concern.

If Google is mellowing with age, Microsoft is having a full-on identity crisis like the aging man who suddenly starts shopping at boutiques for tight shirts, eager to take on any style that will make him seem less fuddy-duddy and old. The first sign was the Zune, with Redmond grasping for Vignelli-like cool. While this was a sideshow, the new look of the Windows Phone (which they are rapidly extending to their core products like Office) is truly eurotrash, aping the flat grids and minimal typography of Swiss design—like something purchased in an airport mall in Zurich. Is this really Microsoft? Is this really American? Gone is the chrome and with it the truly American desire to stuff more and more into the UI like a bloated car dashboard. How can Windows exist without the look of "chrome"? Is this is what happened to American auto design in the '80s? There is something demoralizing about watching ferociously design-adverse Microsoft go "Swiss" at this stage in the game.

And what about Apple, unassailably cool and inarguably the global tastemaker of our time? Apple defines American design more than any other company. But I would argue that design at Apple has also hit middle age. Apple products are starting to have a distinctly Disney-esque, almost kitschy quality. The iBookstore with its burled wood panels looks straight out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Nostalgia is everywhere, as cutting edge technology, once radical and transformative, is now "magical" and comforting. Under Apple’s influence we are watching an entire generation of aging geeks recycle their early experiences with technology as iPhone apps with the look of Pong or Blade Runner. It feels like Back to the Future. Is this the future of American Design?

[Apple, Fabricant argues, is in danger of becoming a parody of itself]

I believe that the best American design comes out of ambivalence and tension. The strong desire to conceive of, and design, a better future combined with the healthy dose of skepticism and self-determinism that resists uniformity. It is this self-determinism, in particular, that is at the core of what is "American" about design today. America continues to be the model of entrepreneurship around the world as new markets have opened up through the proliferation of social media and mobile platforms. Startups are embracing a lean, agile model not just in Silicon Valley, but in Nairobi, Cairo, and Cambodia with small teams working through the design and development of new products and services in real time. Even companies like SAP are adopting agile models that allow them to launch new products in less than 90 days. This is a very exciting period in which product ideas can be developed and launched at warp speed. Small teams are able to engage end users in unprecedented ways as they launch and adapt new services with their user communities in real time.

This wave of "agile innovation" poses a new set of challenges for designers, as many of the tools of design are already in the hands of entrepreneurs and engineers. Designers can’t wait to be "hired" to enhance or improve these offerings. We must be active participants at their inception. If designers are truly skilled at identifying unmet human needs and creating the breakthrough products to address those needs, then, increasingly we will need to prove our value as entrepreneurs. American designers can and should lead the way in showing how you adapt the design process to rapid, real-time product development. And lead the way in demonstrating what can be achieved by designers as entrepreneurs in our own right. Ten years from now I hope to see designers able to attract VC capital at the same rate as MBAs and software engineers. That is the next big mission for American Design.

Click here for more thoughts on the state of American design.

[Top image by Thomas Leuthard]

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  • Camilsjunk

    Help - I have found Design later in my career and am enamored with it. Can you define what is meant by the term in our modern day economy and workplace?

  • Michael Dennis Moore

    A thought-provoking article but I think it missing an important distinction between companies who merely “embrace design”, like Microsoft, and companies that use a design process as their core strategic competency, like Apple. Although Microsoft has some world-class designers and many people who believe in the design process, it seems to still be trying, like many companies today, to include design as an ingredient along with other product ingredients. In contrast, Apple practices design as a holistic cross-functional process to make great products that delight their target customers. One approach uses design to add some particular style to a product while the other uses it as a fundamental way that products are conceived and developed.

    So the question isn't whether a particular styling is "ageless". Any specific style may seem disney-esque or nostaligic or whatever. The question is whether the design outcome meets the success criteria (emotional as well as functional) established during the design process. 

    The design process itself can never "age" because it is, at its core, essentially a process of questioning and reframing old realities into fresh perspectives and innovative design concepts. With that in mind, I believe design as a strategic process is still in its infancy in American businesses.

  • Alexander Wastney

    Thanks for the article Robert, you have started some interesting discussions!

    Who was the start-up company in Cambodia using a lean, mobile design process? Thanks

  • GK VanPatter / Humantific

    Yet another baffling and out of touch Fast Company article on the
    subject of design. The rather obvious fatal flaw in the ointment being
    generated here by Frog is that the picture of design as product and experience
    creation has been old news for at least ten years. This is certainly not where
    the leading firms are operating today are have been operating for years. For
    the most part the firms listed here are busy playing catch up working hard to
    move into that strategic space. Come on Fast Company you are positioned as a
    leader in innovation journalism. You want some straight talk on design: Wake

  • Anononandon

    Design has nothing at all to do with Computers or Corporations or Apple or America! This article is pure smarm!

  • Anononandon

    Adobe and AI own design in the USA and in the World. If you do not PAY , you cannot be a slave! You can design your way into a cardboard box on a street corner if you want to work at a VC start up as an Art Slave!

  • Tara Lane

    Design is process.  The more you work with the process the better the design gets, and that takes time.  It does not always come out with the first or second printing.  It is why the iPhone 4 is so much sleeker and more interesting than the original iPhone.  

    Bill Gaytten, fashion designer for the Christian Dior Line and John Galliano line after his fall from grace last year, said in WWD 9/29/2011 issue, "I like the process.  I like working with teams.  It is always very varied.  My work has always been very varied.  My work has always place during fittings. It's when it's on the body.  Fitting is very creative.  It's not just adjusting things here and there.  It's where creative ideas come from.  It can start as one thing and end up being something very different.Mr Gaytten is a trained architect from the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College in London.  He worked for Mr. Galliano for 23 years, never as a designer, until now.  But he does understand process, as all good designers do."God is in the Details" -  Le Corbusier.  Another well known designer.   

    Time will tell.  I think Apple has everyone beat, because their product designs are time-less, and will stand up to that measure.  They keep changing and evolving, and working in process until they get it right, and moving forward to find the next product in the line.  They are in another category from Microsoft and Google.

    Time will tell.

  • Khairul Nizam Lamin

    Apple iBook's design is coming the opposite side from where Microsoft's Metro UI is, yet you're not happy with either. Just ranting and whining isn't going to help anyone, or America.

    I just have one question for you, WHAT IS AMERICAN DESIGN?

  • Bex

    American design? Swiss design? Rather broad brush strokes, don't you think? Might be better off sticking to what a specific corporate culture delivers. Microsoft's flat-is-good style was seen is 2004 on KDDI cellphones, then in 2007 on the Prada (LG) -- what's new about this beyond wide adoption? I'm as tired as anyone of deep burbling gradients and and hyperkinetic effects and transitions so it's nice to see 'clean' adopted as a design goal. Your paragraph on Google is just silly; in a company of science projects that doesn't connect the most obvious of user experiences, Marissa has had little to no chance of unifying anything much less setting a style trend - and in an engineering-focused company with little more than lip service to design - er, Design. And look at Nokia. Copying Voda's 5 year old style and Android's behaviors. Where is 'nationality' in play here?

  • steve clayton

    I don't get the Microsoft (obviously) in light of the number of IDEA Awards that Microsoft picked up this year, as highighted several times by errr, Fast Company.

    Apple, Google and Microsoft all have fine design chops and the Metro UI was very definitely designed in America. Influenced by Swiss for sure, but isn't all design influenced by something else or somewhere else?

    I had high hopes for this post based on the title but it disappointed in so many ways....and yes, i work for Microsoft but a lot has changed since 1996.

  • Guest

    Real innovation in design doesn't exist. Real innovations in products exist with design and design thinking being a critical component of it. Quotes by Rand and Rams come to mind..'Good design is good business' and 'Good design is as little design as possible'.

    You say the ipad bookshelf is cheesy. So what. It provides good business right by having consumers like it more. You say the windows phone UI is eurotrash and unfitting for Microsoft. It's as little design as possible to show off the content right?

    You know this. There is no such thing as American design because America doesn't have a singularly deep culture like Japan, Switzerland or any other country with a great reputation in Design.

    And what's with the GE client butt kissing next to bashing Apple and Google? Come on.

  • karl

    For the cheesy Apple products, I have the feeling the reason is that Apple is not anymore a designer only product (leaving the nice) for mass consumers market. And this market has indeed cheesy disneyesque taste. :/

  • Scott Helmes

    Untill the economic value of design can be well proven, America will lag behind. Truly inspired design involves a type of thinking that is contrary to economic sense, rarely results in immediate acceptance and appears very odd. The root cause is not design, but  American culture. When our culture begins to value the different, the odd and the unusal economically, design will become ingrained in our being. Wordially, Scott Helmes

  • HShamir

    I would like to do more than comment.  I'd like to submit to Powers That Be a real, thought thru, program for the Economic Recovery of the US.  BTW it also tackles the question raised by this article.
    If  anyone out there is such a VIP or has connections, pls request it from  .  It will be attached to the reply e-mail.

    H Shamir

  • Jon King

    Design and it's ability has been proposed as a major contributor in so many ways by some many different people that I wonder if we are back to being confused about what we really do and/or can do.