We’re five years into the new millennium, and the gurus of modern business have at long last decided to agree with IBM’s Thomas Watson Jr., who said that good design is good business. The celebrity CEOs of Apple, Target and Procter & Gamble have carried that torch into the 21st century, leveraging design as a safeguard against the commoditizing forces of the global marketplace. Their stories have been featured in the most authoritative business publications on the newsstands, from Fast Company to BusinessWeek, not to mention in the design trades.
So everyone seems to agree: Good design equals good business. But there’s something about that word seems; it introduces a ghost of doubt. Because while CEOs Steve Jobs, Robert Ulrich and A.G. Lafley provide examples of corporate design ambassadorship, one could argue that they have pockets deep enough, and reputations solid enough, to afford taking risks on design.
Still, there are small, quietly successful companies out there that are also staking their business models on design. Business writers haven’t yet spilled much ink on the design philosophies of these companies, including Definitions Gym, Burton Snowboards and Flight 001. But the people driving these enterprises have incorporated a passion for design into their strategic blueprints with as much conviction as the big guys, taking potentially costlier risks, in relative terms, in order to do so.
These aren’t the standard examples of business embracing design. Although Burton Snowboards is known for breaking boundaries, product manager Todd King expresses an atypical statement when he says, “Everything we do is centered on design.”
King captures the common thread among all of these small, design-savvy companies: “You either innovate or you die,” he says. “Companies don’t want to fall or falter and let the competition overcome them. But if you don’t take risks, where you could potentially falter, you’re never going to have the opportunity to distance yourself from the competition.”
Burton Snowboards: Design as Dialogue
In the late 1970s, an aesthetically precocious kid named Scott Schwebel was coming of age in Wisconsin, just as a brand of waffle-soled sneakers called Vans was spreading like wildfire from West Coast skate culture to the heartland. Through the grapevine, Schwebel learned that at the hip BMX bike shops in town, he could design his own kicks, mixing and matching several graphic themes—a checkerboard pattern, maybe, with a Hawaiian look—on a pair of Vans Slip-Ons. “It was this amazing moment,” Schwebel says. “It was like, ?You can do what? You can design your own shoe?'”
Now swoop down and across the Midwest to North Carolina, 1976. There you’ll find 5-year-old Todd King sitting with his parents in a car dealership. Taking very seriously the opportunity to help his parents customize their family Oldsmobile, he informed both dealer and progenitor that no father of his would drive a silver car with a tan interior, as was his parents’ stated preference. No, not on his watch. “It just had this effect on me,” King recalls. “My parents let me have input, and I was like, ? This is so cool.'”
Today, the two are still geeked about customized design. Schwebel, vice president of creative development at the Milwaukee design firm Hanson Dodge, and King, product manager at Burton Snowboards in Burlington, VT, teamed up with Bryan Rasch, Hanson Dodge vice president of technology, to create Burton Snowboards’ Series 13 for the 2005 season. Using an online tool, snow shredders with enough cash to cover the program’s premium price can personalize every aspect of four high-end, precision-engineered board models, selecting graphics, finishes, sidewall colors and base designs in a virtually infinite number of combinations.
For Schwebel, customized design is the logical next step in what Virginia Postrel, in “The Substance of Style,” christened the “age of aesthetics,” an era in which virtually no product—not even the toilet bowl brush—escapes the market demand for design. “When every product is well-designed,” Schwebel says, “what will make your product more desirable than the other well-designed products? It’s the ability to personalize a product to reflect your values. As a consumable society, that’s what we’re going to demand next. It’s the last frontier of selling mass product.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a culture better suited to custom design than snowboarding or a company better equipped to facilitate the process than Burton. In snowboarding, the equipment itself becomes a sticker-plastered platform on which riders broadcast their attitudes about life, music, fashion and politics. Series 13 is more than a cutting-edge option for a culture that cuts edges as a matter of course. It represents a dramatically different way for the company to communicate with its consumers. As Schwebel explains, customized design programs like it are poised to upend the traditional business-to-consumer paradigm, turning a previously one-way monologue—where companies “push out”—into a dynamic conversation. And as more companies dip their toes in the water, perfecting the delivery system along the way, the trend, as Schwebel says, “is going to blow up.”
How did Burton develop its risk-taking culture?
Todd King: The one thing I can point to—and we always talk about this—is that if you have a question about the decision you’re making, you can just step back and say, “What would Jake [Burton, company founder] do?” It’s a perfect litmus test. He wants the company to go full-speed ahead and embrace change. There’s a general philosophy here to hire creative people, because everything we do is based on design. It’s always been about making things that work, as well as making them look good. If you can do both successfully, then you’ve got it.
Tell us about your work with Hanson Dodge.
They were the quickest learners I’ve worked with. There are very few firms that get the term “standing sideways.” If you have to ask the question, “What’s standing sideways?” then you’ll probably never get it.
OK, so we gotta ask …
[He laughs.] Standing sideways is the way you ride the board, but it’s also the mentality of the youth culture. Independent. Renegade. We think and do things in ways that aren’t conventional. Hanson Dodge had never worked with a client that was as creative as Burton. When you work with a client that’s as creative as we are, it can be crazy. They’d come to our offices and be like, “Why do you have that stuffed, flying pig over your desk?” It’s just the way we do things.