By Fraser Scott (for designindustry Limited)

Published in the Christchurch Press, 30 November 2005.


Einstein proved it was theoretically possible. Filmmakers lavishly cater to our fascination with it. Charlatans regularly peddle it to the gullible.

It is the future, and oh how we lust after a glimpse of it.

Whole industries claiming to see the future have appeared in subtle guises. Economic forecasters, trend analysts and meteorologists all promise temporal insight, with varying degrees of delivery, knowing that true power lays in the hands of those that can reliably predict what has yet to be.

Just imagine if you could peer into the world of 2010 and see what people were buying. How great would it be if you could see what the next big thing is going to be and then be there waiting with your own version of it when the world is ready. You could look at the social changes and developments in society and discern the products and services that will best meet the needs of the market.

Or perhaps you could just quickly jot down the Lotto numbers.

There can be no doubt that second-guessing where the world is going is the bane of many a businessperson's life.

What will people buy if we head into a recession? Is the market looking to products that hark back to our idealised, nostalgic past, or do people crave sleek and minimalist objects of the future? Are people going to spend more time at home over the next few years, or will people become more mobile and social?

We read books, scan the newspapers, talk to our customers and listen to the televised talking heads, all in the hope that someone, somewhere has got the first clue what tomorrow holds. Sometimes it feels like reading tea leaves and chicken entrails might not be too bad an idea.

Such is the illusiveness of accurate future prediction, offering yet another explanation as to why successful design can be so difficult.

The sixth and final designindustry design quality principle is prescience, which states that design must predict and deliver on what will be demanded tomorrow, not just today.

In the Stephen King novel the Langoliers a number of people on a flight across the USA pass through a time warp and get stuck in the past, a few minutes back in time. The remainder of humanity has moved on to the present and what is left is a dying, crumbling world that is about to be eaten up by times janitorial staff: the Langoliers.

This, unfortunately, is a scenario not uncommon in New Zealand businesses. Sticking relentlessly with outdated products and services, failing to innovate and accurately read the evolution of their customers needs, they are stuck in a doomed corner, waiting until time catches up with them and eats them alive.

A little melodramatic it may be, but a company that fails to effect prescience in its product and service design is at best forever playing catch-up, and at worst signalling its imminent demise.

Back with the Langoliers, the climax of the story has the passengers through the magic of far-fetched writing leap a few minutes into the future. There they patiently wait for the now to arrive like a brilliant sunrise.

This is the domain of the prescient; the companies that read where society is going, know their markets well and design their products and services with the future in mind. Like the heroes of King's book, they seem to leap into the future and are waiting with killer products when the sun rises and the rest of us arrive.

The most obvious example of prescient design is the iPod. Ahead of its time and ahead of the market, the iPod was being developed when arguably no demand existed, but when it was launched it captured the imagination of a market with dollars to spend.

The same could be said of Bill Gates and the Windows operating system, Sam Morgan and TradeMe, or the guy who famously suggested to Coca Cola that it might do better with its product if it bottled it.

Or consider the number of companies around today such as Hire-a-Hubby and Green Acres that realised that time-starved New Zealanders might be letting the weeds dominate the backyard and ignoring the pronounced lean the deck has developed.

Prescience is about getting into the minds of your customers existing and potential and ensuring their future needs and being prepared for. The question is: how do you avoid this descending into pure speculation; dice-rolling and high-risk gambling?

Technologist Alan Kay suggests the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Great design doesn't so much give the customer what they are asking for as rigorously understand the customers developing needs and attract them with a solution so compelling they can't help themselves but give in to its allure.

This is an act of leadership. It is about guiding and directing the customer, rather than scurrying around behind them hoping for recognition. It is about knowing the customer and their needs before and better than they know them themselves.

Successfully achieving prescience is an art akin to the sport of American football.

In this most colourful but convoluted of sports the quarterback must throw the ball to a receiver who endeavours to run across the goal-line and score a touchdown. Breakdancing and childish antics then ensue.

When the quarterback pulls his arm back to throw the ball he can see where the receiver is, but if he throws the ball to this location, by the time it gets there the player will be long gone. Instead he must throw the ball to where the receiver will be when the ball gets there.

That is the product and service development challenge for businesses: forget where your customers are now; where are they going to be when you go to market?

And, to labour the football analogy, how can you throw the ball in such a way that the receiver will see where it is going and catch it?

As an old Native American proverb goes, seek wisdom, not knowledge. Knowledge is of the past, Wisdom is of the future.

For good design to be created the designers must immerse themselves in the wisdom of sociology, psychology, politics, economics and marketing. They must know how the world is changing, how people are evolving and how their lifestyles are shifting.

What are the fears and insecurities that are shaping our decision-making? What are our hopes and aspirations? How are we spending our days and nights and weekends?

The winning designs of the future focus first on knowing the answers to these questions. These answers then shape the design to ensure that the needs and desires of tomorrow are perfectly realised in a product or service, all ready for us when we get there.

This complexity begs the question of who will be actually be doing this designing?

If the main thrusts of design, as we have suggested in this article series over the past few months, are more on issues such as prescience, sustainability and user-focus, then where does the traditional designer fit? Where is the place for the flair and panache of the big name and big ego design personalities?

As an in-depth understanding of design becomes a business pre-requisite, and design becomes standard business fare at the level of, say, strategic planning, the role of the designer may actually diminish.

Instead of the lone superstar on whom the success of the product depends, they become simply a member of a team with an important, but not all-encompassing, job to be done.

As the collective strengths and wisdom of the team is brought to bear on a design problem or opportunity for the future, the design that results, based on solid and objective principles, is all the better for it.

If design really is a function of the principles we have highlighted in this series and we strongly suggest it is and if the future of successful business lies in well-designed products and services then the company or the designer that relies on sharp looks and eye-catching styling alone, or even primarily, is going to quickly become history.