Sunday, January 12, 2014

"Oh an idea? But it is so rare!"

That an idea is rare was Einstein's insightful reply when asked by Paul Valéry how he kept track of his brilliant reflections.

In a world where the noisy stream of 140-character mental spurts makes it sometimes nearly impossible to keep track of our own thoughts, it is humbling to be reminded of the true value of a transformational notion by one of the most prolific thinkers in history. Einstein's capacity to visualize very complex systems was coupled with an equally astounding ability to direct his mind like an arrow to the core of every problem he dealt with. While many of his colleagues spent their time seeking answers in experimental data, he pierced through the knowledge continuum of his own time as his ideas rippled through history.

Reading the news about Angela Ahrendts move from Burberry to Apple, I can't stop thinking about the importance of her own ideas, in particular when confronted with a task as momentous as leading the retail empire of one of the most exciting businesses of our time.

Ms. Ahrendts had a stellar run at the luxury fashion powerhouse. She successfully steered the brand into a realm connecting consumers, markets and society. She warped the digital-physical consumer universe and had an early perception that our time is one where the "experience of shopping" has more strategic significance than any product-store-website system. The true buying decision that matters today is when a consumer decides to spend his money in a product not because he needs it more than something else but because the act of owning that product is more than the sum of buying and using it.

And now Ms. Ahrendts finds herself in the best place to leverage her vision. Apple already offers a very integrated experience: the products are simultaneously tools for work and play, they seamlessly integrate with one another, they transcend generations, they include an independently generated market of content that continuously improves the product. Most interestingly, Apple products break the barrier between being used by their owners and being an extension of their desires, the fundamental motivation for all human action. 

The focus of my work being the physical place, I always look at how the design of a public space impacts what is happening there: retail design must contribute to increase sales, hotel design must contribute to human comfort, restaurant design must generate leisurely enjoyment, a cultural space must trigger curiosity .... Creating the conditions for a successful and perpetuating business is at the heart of design: the investment in creating a space must contribute to higher revenue, it must trigger repeat business and make it desirable and a competitive destination for consumers.

Steve Jobs' vision generated products that compete across all categories. Until the i-devices came along I would reasonably know how much of my budget would be spent on clothes or leisure versus technology - but it is fascinating how the i-products have the ability to displace spending from other categories. They compete with fashion, accessories, travel and leisure. Apple competes with Burberry and with Uniqlo. It competes with Montblanc. It competes with Louis Vuitton. It competes with Bang&Olufsen. It competes with Daniel Boulud. It competes with Starwood. It competes with MoMA.

So for all the skeptics about Ms. Ahrendts appointment and her lack of experience in technology, nothing but a very narrow view of what Apple is can explain their doubts. 

I am looking forward to seeing how the Cook/Ive/Ahrendts triumvirate will refine the Apple experience. I have no doubt the company will go through an exciting time and it's going to be about far more than just changes in retail strategy. Market analysts worried about flattening sales growth across the Apple retail system will be looking for innovative ideas to spur revenue acceleration. My thought however is that initially most of her impact will be subtle and subliminal. She will strengthen the backbone of the customer experience, she will galvanize the staff network and will leverage the connection that already exists between customer and product to stimulate further sales. Customers already know their Apple products. What they now want is for their Apple products to know them better. This will eventually lead to changes in the physical appearance of the stores but those will result from a strategy based on the invigoration of the core bond between customers and products.

If I had to speculate about what we will see?
  • I look forward to a time when Apple geniuses know my purchase history upon entering the store and have the ability to glean my app-buying trends to converge their service toward the kind of customer I am: whether I am a music lover eager to see the newer sound systems, or a graphics specialist interested in higher performance displays - pretty much the same way the waiters at the corner restaurant know my favorite dish. Amazon has a simple on-screen helpdesk - a mere digital iteration of a 1-800 number- but I envision Apple will create instead a tech/lifestyle concierge to help with shopping as well as making the product use as enjoyable as possible.
  • The experience of buying technology is still daunting for many, but if Steve Jobs was able to conceive a phone with only one button, then the convergence of consumer technology to a single device is very likely. There are still risks of disruption from some competitors: Samsung has big screens to get consumers attention, Sony has a large entertainment archive, Microsoft has software that a majority of consumers trusts and knows - and they all want to leverage these strengths in their retail offering. Apple has the unique ability to make tech-retail a leisure destination. The stores need to continue the effort to make customers feel like they are part of a community rather than going to a place that showcases, assists and sells.
  • Culture is also in the process of becoming a digital experience and museums know that to attract a younger generation they need to be connected and interactive. Apple has immense opportunities to explore that connection and create educational and inspirational moments in its stores in a similar way to how Burberry triggered an unexpected whimsical artistic vibe with Acoustic, displacing customer time spent on itunes, youtube and facebook.

Burberry's Acoustic web page featuring a curated selection of musicians

When reminded of Einstein's focus on the importance of a true idea, I see that Apple created a vortex that projects digital interaction into the future and Angela Ahrendts has the opportunity to frame it within a lifestyle ethos. I believe she is the inflection point that will turn Apple's customers into Apple's guests.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

All passions are made from wonder ...

These words written by Rene Descartes over 300 years ago never cease to inspire me and I use them like a mantra to keep me sane when too much reality takes over ... 

Backflip in paradise Cove
Herb Ritts

Out of all the artistic influences that have shaped my life, I've been lucky to have had my mother's creative talent as one of the most important. A designer by passion and by training, she never missed an opportunity to teach her children that beauty and inspiration can be found in almost everything. And having spent the formative years of my professional life learning the trade from her, I observed as close as one can get the true power of original creation when it is focused on the effort of resolving a design problem: it is usually spontaneous, often simple and when successful it is generally ... elegant.

My mother, Graça Viterbo
on a site visit (1999)

These thoughts came to mind when I came across the work of Massimo Vignelli, a multi-disciplinary Italian designer who, amongst an astounding body of work, is most often remembered for his iconic signage of the New York subway. A mentor to a generation of designers through his influential work for large companies like Knoll, IBM, American Airlines, Bloomingdale’s, ... he was a true  believer in intellectual elegance as the quintessential approach to every design problem.

He had the self-confidence of visionaries who disrupt conventional frameworks through innovative thinking. He despised the concept of focus groups and the notion that design can be the outcome of the average response of a representative group.

"Vignelli Forever" series by Anthony Neil Dart

Essentially, he believed that true creators develop the answer before other people even formulate the question. As he said in a seminal conversation with Debbie Millman:
"People do not know what they want. They barely know what they need, but they definitely do not know what they want. They’re conditioned by the limited imagination of what is possible."
Connecting the dots with my own experience, I realize that I grew-up exposed to a similar kind of thinking at home. It was perhaps not crystallized intellectually, but what I always appreciated about my mother's design approach was the innate elegance in her intuitive exploration of what was already there ...

Most of my professional life has been spent interacting with designers and I am truly fascinated by all those who simplify the act of creation and eliminate the redundant layers that can often cloud our perception of beauty. In the words of another elegant thinker, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

In my creative process I always strive to be guided by this principle, and I'll paraphrase Maestro Vignelli to call it "elegant creativity". Whenever the creative process gets muddled by an over-reliance on trends and fashion or even on over-intellectualized concepts, I tell myself not to try so hard. The answer is often in the question and for interior designers and architects, it starts with the basic exploration of the sense of place and then asking what that place wants to be.

But Vignelli was also guided by the notion that practicality is the key to transform ideas into solutions that actually address our clients' needs. It was in its flawless execution that he was able to disseminate so broadly his elegant thinking:
By listening as much as I can. I am convinced the solution is always in the problem. You could do a design that you like, but it doesn't solve the problem. Design must solve a problem. Then, the design is exciting. But I find it extremely difficult. This is why I respect artists. Without a problem, I don’t exist. Artists are lucky; they can work by themselves. They don’t need a problem.
                                   Massimo Vignelli in Design Matters with Debbie Millman
Vignelli was not unique but his work has certainly been an inspiration, and looking around we see these same principles guiding the work of other contemporary designers and artists that are defining their time: Jony Ive, Paul Smith, Norman Foster, Karim Rashid, Patrick Jouin, Andre Fu and others ... These are but some of the creators that constantly remind me that the act of creation is never successful if we hide behind aesthetics. Instead we succeed by celebrating the unique ability that human beings have to re-interpret and re-invent the world around them.

Desk designed by Jonathan Ive and Marc Newson
for the (RED) charity auction

Public restroom at The Upper House
by Andre Fu (AFSO)

The elegance of Paul Smith's stripes 

Van Cleef & Arpels (Paris) by Patrick Jouin 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pierre Frey: a Parisian escapade

This week I felt compelled to write about a home furnishings brand whose products I have a soft spot for. For two generations now, my family has had a relationship with the creative and refined Paris-based textile editor La Maison Pierre Frey. A commercial relationship that began 30 years ago and that evolved over time into a valued friendship.

A selection of Pierre Frey fabrics

Pierre Frey tapped the pulse of the design world long ago and through the years have sustained the creative production of original fabrics that never cease to fascinate. The collections range from archive-inspired patterns to artist-driven designs. With a unique consistency in the stories told by each collection, all their fabrics are bound by tenets of quality, elegance and always an element of "surprise" (to be read as a french word!).

And now they have added another layer, or rather another "surprise". On the occasion of the renovation of the famous Hotel Costes, now fully upholstered with fabrics by Pierre Frey, La Maison released "Escapade: A Parisian Love Affair". Under the direction of Martial Schmeltz, this is a short movie where the oscar goes to ...the fabrics in the decor! With very subtle but powerful performances and providing the perfect backdrop to a quintessentially french postcard, the fabric patterns subliminally populate the dream-like imagery that envelops the story.

It is no more than a fleeting moment in the transient lives of a Parisian couple, but behind every moment in the movie we feel the passion and the legacy of a brand that has been built around sophisticated living.

It's wonderful to see a brand firmly grounded in its philosophy looking for ways to disrupt a market that has for too long been too tied-up to the old ways of doing business. There are opportunities to connect with customers in a world where brands built on legacy often struggle to be a part of the zeitgeist, and finding the right channel is not always easy This initiative gets it right.

Bravo Pierre Frey! I enjoyed the movie and look forward to the sequel(s).

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Meeting people where they are ... The simple vision of creative leaders.

Zapping through the airplane media system on my last trip back from Asia, I stumbled across an episode of "Iconoclasts", an inspiring Sundance Channel/Grey Goose Entertainment production that filled in heart and mind the last few hours of my flight.

The show pairs people of different creative realms sharing a day in each other's lives, with minimal production in an intimate setting. The episode I watched featured Christy Turlington Burns and Tory Burch as the face-to-face "iconoclasts". In a straightforward conversation between two articulate, intelligent and beautiful women discussing the ideals that have driven their successful careers it became apparent to me that the simplest measure of a creative leader is the fact that they live extraordinary lives by instinct.

The title of this post paraphrases Christy Turlintgton (she says that Tory Burch's success derives from "meeting women where they are"). I found these words to define the essence of a true philosophy for life and work - I paused the video and listened again and again …

There are so many zingers thrown around these days to explain what companies need to do to attract clients and gain market share. From re-naming consumers "product guests" to the ubiquitous labeling of every product as an  "experience", consumer driven companies seem to be all too often more focused in achieving an intellectual differentiation from their competitors than in just addressing their market with the honesty that most people want.

My daily exposure to the hospitality & leisure world provides me with plenty of examples of brand gimmickry. It can be the over-use of adjectives like ultra-luxurious (FYI to all hoteliers: just plain, simple and real luxury is fine when delivered genuinely!), or brands so scientifically tailored to a particular sub-demographic that by the time they come to market that niche has morphed into another and the brand runs on empty, or even tag lines that can be exceptionally good examples of language flexing but fall short of expanding the expectations of those for whom they are suited - a particular favorite of mine is Las Vegas Cosmopolitan's great tag line "just the right amount of wrong".

A poster advertising the Las Vegas Cosmopolitan Hotel

And that is why the simplicity of "meeting people where they are" resonated so much with me. It is a worthy motto, and a philosophy of living that I feel inspired to pursue.

Opposite Ms. Turlington Burns’s more reflective view was Tory Burch's pragmatic but sensitive approach. I have always liked the style she has fashioned - it is elegant, it is current and it is genuine. I think she has harnessed the best qualities of creative fashion with the reality of modern women's lives. And I also like the design of her shops - they always seem to stand out in a row of storefronts. There is the lacquered orange for which I also share a passion and the tasteful mixture of furnishings that make them so inviting. So it didn't surprise me when she said that the design was based on the idea of creating "a shop where people would want to come to and spend time in". What better way to sell products than to make your clients feel like welcome guests and let them naturally belong in the place where they are shopping! However conscious, this effort is coherent with the brand and clearly a determining element of her success.

So: "meeting people where they are" and "making people feel like they want to spend time where your products are". Two pretenseless, powerful and appealing ideas that can definitely improve our life and our businesses.
They also prove that more than relying on ad campaigns, if you know what you are doing success will eventually follow.

(The "Iconoclasts" series is available on - you can find it on My Recommended Amazon products on the side banner of this blog).

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Unlocking the hidden value of design services - Part 1

This might be shocking to hear but I believe the recession has been good to the design industry.

Don't take me wrong, I know from the inside how much design firms have suffered during the last few years. Many businesses have folded under the weight of overhead costs they could not eliminate or the debt they could not repay. For others, the lack of profitability seems to have permanently discouraged partners from investing in their firms and it has led many practicing designers to lose faith in the profession they have worked so hard to belong to.

When I started this blog over a year ago, I set out to explore how sanity in the design profession required such a fine balance between leveraging the magical experience of creating something new while remembering that what we create must have value to others. Understanding the post-recession re-tooling of creative professions was my goal and it all started with my first post “What’s in the toolbox?

So why do I say that the recession has been good to design businesses?

Because now that designers are finally seeing an increasing number of interesting RFPs flowing-in as well as a steady rise in billings, the holders of equity in firms are realizing the full potential of their newly-acquired “recession-survival” skills: they have learned to appreciate the value of the information contained in financial statements, they have developed selling skills they never thought they had, and they are reaping the benefits of a focused strategic thinking.

The professional landscape has changed and designers are now guided by a new map.

I am surprised by how frequently these days designers mention their attendance to real estate and investment conferences, their active presence in social media platforms, their new-found curiosity for Gen Y'ers and Millennials, their interest in deploying financial resources in technology and their deeper understanding of metrics that help them run better performing businesses.

All these interests bring improvements to the economics of the design services industry, but I have also noticed that what I consider to be the best measure of success is often absent from the conversation, crowded out by all these new and exciting activities. I am talking about that one element that has been the foundation of so many designers’ careers: a satisfied client.

I think there is a real risk that the search for operational efficiency might become the Holy Grail of designers focused on surviving the next economic dip. If firms make the keystone of their mission to become well-oiled and lean machines, they might just crowd-out the Client. While I insist that the recession has made many design practices better managed businesses, designers should not forget that the success of their services results from contributing positively to the goals of their clients.

So what do we get from satisfied clients that return with more work?

  • They increase the profitability of the business by reducing the cost of sales
  • They become an active part of the firm's marketing strategy – providing referrals and tilting the needle of trust in the right direction for other potential clients
  • They increase the intrinsic value of the business by solidifying the client portfolio and helping raise the backlog baseline
  • And last but not least – they provide the most significant and elusive reward a designer can get: a compliment for a project well delivered.

Here's the challenge: design firms need to be professionally managed to succeed but if they seek efficiency solely by approaching design as a goal in itself, they will only survive until the paradigm is disrupted again. But the firms that approach design services as a dynamic and evolving process by which they leverage their client’s ability to succeed, those are the ones that will perpetuate the business.

As designers seek to define their value proposition in the current economic environment, they must strike the right balance between the cost of the resources they apply to each endeavor and the opportunity cost of those resources. It is only by striking the right balance that we can maximize the productivity of each creative professional in the organization and unlock the hidden value of our services.

Design professionals are particularly vulnerable to over-servicing and under-valuing their involvement in projects, and that risk increases exponentially when clients do not provide the adequate level of project management. By delivering effectively on the services that clients have bought we can achieve a baseline profitability, but by actively expanding the scope of work and up-selling services that are perceived as adding value to the project, then firms can truly leverage their resources to maximize the performance.

In my next post, I will explore examples of actions that leverage this new management approach and unlock the value of design services.