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.

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

[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]

About the author

Robert Fabricant is a leader of frog’s health-care expert group, a cross-disciplinary global team that works collectively to share best practices and build frog’s health-care capabilities. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert recently led Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat the world’s worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.