Better Than New

The Downside of Prototypes by morepete
June 19, 2007, 2:03 pm
Filed under: Context for Innovation

By Pete Mortensen

Jess McMullin of bplusd dropped a couple of bombs this morning in a post that searches for reasons why the word design means styling to such a large percentage of the population. For anyone in this business who wants to see design mean a lot more to people, this post is essential reading.

Core to the argument Jess puts out is the notion of Prototype theory, which states that each word has a representation that is most often conjured when someone hears the term:

Prototype theory suggests that some members of a category are more representative of the category than others – when you think of a bird, you’re far more likely to conjure an image of a robin or a seagull than a cassowary. When people think of design, they are far more likely to think of surface elements like color and styling rather than deeper characteristics like function, problem solving, or problem definition. We literally judge books by their covers, at least at first. The same holds true for cell phones, toys, cars, websites, and other designed objects.

This is an interesting notion. Jess adds on to say that it could be about market forces, and that the more strategic a particular kind of design work, the less common it is. Which is largely true. There really aren’t that many people who provide the same services that Jump does, to be quite honest, while tons and tons of very good firms do industrial design.

On the other hand, I think this is also very much about confidentiality. The color or finish of a product is always front and center. People understand that it has been designed, and that process is typically fairly public — car companies love to show the pictures of the animal or other metaphor that inspired a design, for example. But the more strategic a design workstream is, the more likely that it is rich with proprietary intellectual capital, and that’s stuff almost no one feels comfortable sharing. Consequently, design strategy work, which already sounds too abstract for words, is not as able to back up its vision of the world with lots and lots of concrete case studies, which are necessary to share something so different from the mental prototype of design.

Very compelling stuff all around, Jess. We’ve missed your voice.


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