Innovation & Design

Masters of Collaboration


The 21st century design environment trades individual stars for teamwork uniting designers, engineers, anthropologists, and others

"Design by committee" is rarely meant as a compliment. Rather, the term implies a lack of vision, a muddled strategy, and an absence of clear leadership. Yet in stark contrast with the heroic designers of the 20th century, of whom there were only a chosen few (think Charles and Ray Eames, or Richard Sapper (BusinessWeek, 1/10/08), design committees and consultancies are positioning themselves as the stars of the 21st century business environment.

As the potential of design to transform a business and help it grow has been more widely recognized and understood, executives are paying more attention to the department and its employees. Apple (AAPL) may have had more than its fair share of attention in recent weeks, but it's also done more than most to show how successful design can drive a business' bottom-line growth. Overseen by a notoriously detail-driven chief executive officer, the design team is led by Jonathan Ive, who has worked with a tight team of collaborators for many years, (BusinessWeek, 9/25/07). While reluctant to take sole credit for any project, Ive is also widely credited for keeping a firm eye on the design and development of every wiggling iPhone icon. Ive and Steve Jobs lead an army of passionate believers (both within and outside the organization) into battle in the marketplace.

Design Practice Extends Its Reach

Just as forward-thinking engineering firms have worked to team up with design partners to offer a holistic output to clients, many design consultancies have responded to the seismic shifts in technology and culture by adopting a radical, collaborative approach—in stark contrast with the magician/know-it-all designer type of old. And while there may well be outsize personalities within the consultancies' offices, the new philosophy seems to sit comfortably within these open-source, consumer/user-driven times.

Design Continuum, for instance, began in 1983 as a small shop with a simple mission: to design products for businesses. Since then it has grown into an organization with 200 employees worldwide that designs the strategies, brands, and customer experiences (as well as the products) of businesses. It has offices in West Newton, Mass., Milan, and Seoul, and its staff includes MBAs, psychologists, and ethnographers.

In short, the firm's orginal product design focus has enlarged to embrace design strategies applied to a wide range of businesses in a variety of industries. The firm, now known simply as Continuum, is presently working to build a systems-based method of building growth through design. "As design became more widely understood, Continuum has also become ever more involved in uncovering opportunities for fundamental product and service innovation, and even in assisting our clients in developing an innovative business strategy," says company founder Gianfranco Zaccai.

Fine-Tuning for the Consumer

It's a very 21st century approach to creating valuable products and services for global corporations (clients include the likes of Procter & Gamble (PG), for which Continuum helped to develop the billion-dollar Swiffer business), and it's one that is echoed in other increasingly high-profile design consultancies, such as IDEO, Ziba, and Seymourpowell. Rather than depending on the unique vision of a star designer or two, these companies assemble teams of specialists who perform face-to-face studies of consumer behavior and they work closely with their clients throughout the creative process. The aim is to come up with products and experiences that fit clients' customers, rather than express the individual tastes of designers.

For Continuum, the strategy has produced profitable, double-digit revenue growth in each of the past four years.

The process-driven, collaborative approach does have its detractors. "The danger is that it becomes very flat and very unemotional," says Yves Béhar, founder of Fuseproject in San Francisco. "You need personalities and points of view, and points of view come from people, not processes," Sapper adds: "You do not need big teams to create innovation; as a matter of fact, big teams often act as brakes to innovation."

Exploding the Genius Myth

But Continuum flatly rejects the idea that its work lacks impact or is in any way diluted by the collaborative approach. "Our designers do incorporate points of view, but they are points of view we develop from consumer insights that eventually drive the creation of the product or solution," says Dan Buchner, Continuum's vice-president for innovation and design.

"The tastemaker idea is out of date," says Jeremy Myerson, director of Innovation RCA, a new-business incubator within London's Royal College of Art. For Myerson, as technology and culture have evolved, "hero designers" have become somewhat anachronistic. "Perhaps there's a place for taste-making within the consumer market," he says. "But the approach is out of date when it comes to more complex stuff, where it's not just about creating beautiful things…Take sustainability. You can't have an iconic object approach to the problems of sustainability. It's a systematic thing."

In the end, the question of Hero vs. Team Effort might just boil down to a matter of semantics. After all, Béhar has a whole host of collaborators both within and outside of Fuseproject, and even Sapper, who still works as a consultant to IBM (IBM), acknowledges the need for supporting players in design. "You do need big teams to translate innovative ideas and solutions into mass-produced-products," he says, pointing to his first laptop design, the IBM Convertible, which he envisioned but which was realized by a team of hundreds. It's just that in Sapper's narrative, ultimate responsibility for the product's success lay with one person, himself.

There isn't a single person at Design Continuum who would claim personal credit for a Sapper-like classic. Does it matter? In the end, is all this process-oriented work satisfying for its designers? Some of them say yes. "What you lose is overt self expression, but I gain something much richer by doing it this way," says Alexandre Hennen, a senior designer. "I get into somebody else's life and make it better."


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