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Much to GAIN, Part 1

AIGA GAIN 2006, New York City

I just spent three days in New York City at the AIGA’s GAIN conference. The slogan “Design means business” was in full effect. A killer roster of presenters was headed up by Tom Kelley of IDEO. Tom exuded enthusiasm and fairly channelled the mood of the room. Though we all know that most of what goes on under the heading of design still has about as much to do with business as Hostess Twinkies do, those represented told compelling stories about what design can do for business.

The big story in design these days is the emergence of design thinking (See Stanford’s d. School, Bruce Nussbaum…) and business design (Roger Martin). For some time these things have been run together, but I think there is evidence that they are related though distinguishable phenomena. Other than the slogan, Design Means Business, there was no big meta advocated by AIGA. There are some emergent metas, however. I think the biggest one is that, taken as a whole, the stories of the conference constitute a kind of report on the state of the relationship between design and business. While there is much promise in this relationship, the majority of business continues to remain immune to the mounting evidence that not only can design improve business at both the top line and the bottom, but that it may be the only thing that can do so sustainably.

A couple of people made the point that one of the leading indicators of this is the fact that design is increasingly a topic in the business press. Whereas 10 years ago discussions of nearly any aspect of design where limited to design and other creative industry publications. The fact that Marty Neumeier’s bold and elegant Critique magazine proved unsustainable, shows not that he was wrong about what was coming, just that he was too far ahead of the curve.

Moira Cullen, Design Director at Coca Cola North America, had titled her talk “Breaking Down the Silos”, but eventually she ended up suggesting that silos are part of a functional hierarchy that still creates value and that they need to be flattened rather than broken down. She said many interesting things, and had several compelling diagrams and charts that whipped by too fast for other than ephemeral benefit. Perhaps most interesting was the way she graphically made her ultimate point which was to create a shift in point of view. By moving from a landscape view of organizational silo to an aerial view, she suggested that silos are nodes in a network and that the dynamics of exchange between the nodes is every bit as important as the structure the silos represent. What was interesting was how she used graphics to make a theoretical point through a visual language. It was quite effective.

Next up were Michael Hendrix of Tricycle and Bo Barber of Nood. These guys told an incredibly powerful story of how design is creating magnificent change in the carpet business, which (this was astounding) creates the second greatest volume of landfill waste globally, second only to newspapers (which seem ripe for Tricycle thinking).

Tricycle is a small design firm in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which has the unlikely business focus of working almost exclusively in the carpet industry. Upping the unlikeliness ante, Michael Hendrix (Tricycle principal) looked so much like he was an escapee from the MTV Awards that is was difficult to imagine such a “cool kid” deciding all he wanted to do was carpet. His story, however, was absolutely amazing.

For openers, Tricycle created a technology for replacing conventional carpet samples. Their SIM product creates highly realistic representations of carpet to replace actual carpet samples sent to interior designers and others who spec carpet. The significance of this starts to set in when we were told that a single sample can cost from $200. for a stock item to over $1000. for a single square foot of a custom sample. Meanwhile, each of these sample requires a quart of petroleum to produce.

The SIM product has created tens of million of dollars in savings and delivered a much less environmentally harmful business solution to the selling of floor covering, a multi-billion dollar global industry. This presentation was the most compelling business case I have seen for sustainable design and business practices and a knock-down argument for the powerful combination of design and business and the ability of their integration to deliver results on the top and bottom lines. Because the story wasn’t over with the SIM product. Halfway through, Michael introduced Bo Barber who is the businessman behind Nood, a new kind of carpet company based on many of Tricycle’s design & business innovations.

Nood provides a base carpet product that is tufted white and ready for custom dying. The product is, therefore, an open palette to designers and allows the freedom of precise color matching to the designer-design of custom manufactured carpet. Cool! This concept is firing on so many cylinders it oughta be at NASCAR. People looking for a case study of what Roger Martin means by designing business should look no further than the Tricycle/SIM/Nood story.

We were then blasted off by one of several 5 minute “short stories”, this first one delivered by the irrepressible Bobby C. Martin, Jr. who is Design Director at Jazz at Lincoln Center. By listening to the language of jazz players, Martin tapped the theme “Jazz is killin’” and managed to get right both the resonance with the traditions of jazz and the need to tap into something urgent and new. The new season is sold out, musicians are stealing the posters Martin designed and artistic director Wynton Marsalis is toe-tappin’ the beat of design.

When Scott Williams, Chief Creative Officer of Starwood Hotels took the podium, I became certain that this was going to be a spin session. He looked too slick and his corporate pedigree suggested to my cynical self that he was going to be an apologist for a big multi-brand hotelier. Nice surprise. Scott was smart, articulate, insightful and candid. Note to self, check my attitude and biases more frequently (it seems one can never learn this lesson enough).

Scott’s theme was to innovate on the obvious and his story was about Starwood’s incredible success with the design and launch of the Heavenly Bed. On the obvious part, Scott shared his incredulity that no one had really ever paid much attention to innovating that thing where most hotel guests spend 80% of their hotel time” it’s the BED stupid!

The Heavenly Bed challenges several of the orthodoxies of hotel management, but demonstrated how a piece of furniture can drive business success in a service business. This story and that of the innovation that followed, the Heavenly Bath, which delivers both the increased shower pressure and water savings along with what is easily the most radical and pleasant innovation in bathing, the curved shower rod. This little design beauty creates 8″ of increased elbow room in the shower. I fell for this one so hard that I installed one at home that I found at Home Depot. We had a horrible tiny shower. This one $30. purchase has transformed a daily experience from a daily reminder of our fight against the many bad things about our house to the creation of a daily experience of luxury. It’s like waking up in a five star hotel every morning. And while I’m being confessional, we also bought a SpringAir bed, a Canadian manufacturer who, so I’ve been told, supplies Starwood in Canada with Heavenly Beds.

Scott’s core message was that he is in a business whose growth is driven by satisfaction and referral. If my post is evidence of nothing else, it is evidence for the success of Starwood’s design-driven strategy.

Kevin Farnham of Method co-presented with Shane Brentham and told the story of the 8 year relationship between Met
hod and Autodesk. Though it was clear that the relationship between these two men has brought design up to the level of strategy at Autodesk, the presentation itself was uninspired and didn’t give me much to take away or share.

The two remaining presentations of the day were equally lackluster. The presentation of the architecture project for the new IAC InterActive Corp headquarters in New York really didn’t teach much more than that cool buildings (this one the first office building designed by Gehry Partners) can help companies both communicate and live the brand. There were several interesting observations about the complexities of the project and the coolness of some of the custom fabrication and technological solution, but on the whole it was kind of ho-hum.

The final presentation I attended that day was about audio branding. It started with Noel Franus from Sun, playing a horrible cover version of Heuy Lewis & the News, The Power of Love, re-witten as THE POWER OF SUN. Franus shared this as an example of audio branding gone bad. The story from there was about how Sun has worked with Fritz Doddy and the gang at Elias Arts on developing a Sun sound and an audio identity system, including audio logos. With a few exceptions, I found all this pretty boring and overwrought and of the day’s program it was the most weakly connected with the idea of the business value of design.


  1. Hi Michael. One of the challenges of a 20-minute presentation when you’re introducing a new idea is the concept itself; then its application; and finally its impact. It’s hard to dig deep, given the timing of the day.

    Nonetheless, with respect to the connection between business and design, I thought I’d shed some light on the impact of this design — the creation of our audio identity — on our business.

    1. Most Fortune 500 companies spend well over $1 million US each year on auditory communications. We do, too. And yet very little of that is influenced by strategy. The result? Countless off-brand communications. (And if you include the sometimes furious customers at the other end of a phone line, that’s a lot of revenue lost). We now have guidance for ensuring that all sonically affected touchpoints serve our larger brand strategy. It’s not a smart design strategy, it’s a smart investment strategy.

    2. Aside from savings, our audio brand actually generates revenue for us. You see, when software and mobile operators license our software, they pay us to do so. And when they choose to conditionally alter the licensing agreement — such as “no visual or audio logo, etc.” — there’s usually a significant fee associated with that. (Many zeros.) So it’s a win-win from a business perspective; we either increase our presence in billions of networked devices, or we collect on the licensing agreement.

    The impact of this design on the bottom line? I’d estimate that’s at least $1 million to $5 million per year. Over the course of five or more years, that’s a minimum of $5 million to $20 million. And that’s not bad for a project that cost us a fraction of that.

    Wednesday, November 15, 2006 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  2. Juliet Byrnes wrote:

    I was recently presented with samples of a very attractive timber composite product being proposed by our architects for cladding. After extensive enquiries on my part, it ensued that the timber component probably came from quite sensitive rainforest regions in Gabor where the government is struggling to contain illegal logging and it forms habitat of the endangered ape species. We decided not to use the product but of course the distributor continues to supply samples which I have seen on sitting on the shelves of various design offices that I have visited. At the time it made me think about the impact that samples could have. Everyone says, oh it’s just a sample but in the end the quantity adds up. So I found your report on the carpet samples interesting.

    Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

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