By Fraser Scott (for designindustry Limited)

Published in the Christchurch Press, 21 September 2005.


Anyone who has studied marketing has probably heard and smugly enjoyed marketing's horror stories collection. These tales tell of dullard multinationals prominently demonstrating woeful inadequacies in their understanding of culture and language. We like them because they make us feel quietly superior: we would never make such appalling blunders!

A personal favourite is the American Coors beer brand, which once used the phrase, "Turn it Loose with Coors" as its marketing tagline. Launching this campaign into Latin America, the phrase was translated as sultalo con Coors. This translation unfortunately mirrored a common slang phrase so that locals understood it as "suffer from diarrhoea with Coors". A very sobering proposition indeed.

Then there was the American furniture company that unsuccessfully launched its dining table range into Japan without undertaking even basic cultural research. The company failed to appreciate that Japanese tables tend to be about eight inches lower than western tables due to the fact that Japanese diners tend to eat while seated on the floor. Perhaps the tables should have been bundled with a complimentary handsaw?

A product, service or process design that ignores or is inadequately conscious of the contexts in which it operates is inherently flawed.

This contextuality is one of the key designindustry quality principles of design. Good design considers internal contexts such as production cost and manufacturability and external contexts such as market environment and culture.

Let's look first at external contextuality.

To demonstrate positive external contextuality a design must be cognisant of the markets and environments it is going to be entering, and must ensure that the needs and idiosyncrasies of these markets and environments are built into the design.

Obviously cultural elements are important here. Before a product or service can be effectively designed it is incumbent on the design team to know as much about the intended users as possible. What forms will appeal? What level of service is expected? What needs exist that the offering will address? What will prompt the intended purchaser to make the purchase decision? What level of explanation will the market require about the offering? What messages will attract them? How do these people live and work and shop??

The problem with most businesses, and we consultants are usually the worst offenders, is the 'one-size-fits-all' approach. Too often new or translocated services and products assume homogeneity, with little consideration given to whether the design in its current form will actually work for the intended market. This mistake is often the jagged rock on which new exporters are shipwrecked.

External contextuality also considers the environments a product or service design is to enter. A well-designed chair is only a well-designed chair if it works in the context in which it is intended to be placed. A hot pink house in the heart of suburbia, a heavily polluting factory near a beach resort, or a new McDonalds in the heart of Baghdad are all examples of inappropriate external contextuality. For a design to be "good" it must not only respect and harmonise with its intended users, but also its intended environments.

The design principles of contextuality has another fact however: internal appropriateness. This demands of design that it fit with the mission, constraints and commitments of the organisation. Thus a Green Party member fashioning a tremendously cost effective system for trialling GE crops is unlikely to be viewed as having created a contextually appropriate design. A good design advances the mission of the organisation that formulates it.

One of the frequent, and frequently justified criticisms of designers is that they fail to understand the organisations they are designing for. Designs are created that are not feasible with current technology, are too expensive to produce or simply do not fit with the flavour of the organisation. While this may reflect an inadequacy in the design brief, it also highlights the supreme importance of a team approach to design.

When engineering, marketing, management and all other key functions of an organisation are involved in the design process, contextual gaffes are minimised, and better designs result.

True internal contextuality results when design becomes an extension of the strategic planning process. A shared and well-expressed vision, clear mission parameters, strongly-held organisational values and well-defined strategies and target markets should collectively form a strong foundation for any product, service or process design.

Deviations most often occur because of bad planning or ignorance of the plan. The world is littered with the corpses of companies that launch into new products or services that are not core business, or that disrespect some element of the organisation's strategic plan. While the products or services themselves may be fine, if they are not contextually appropriate for the producer, then the result may be too hefty a drain on resources, loss of key staff, degradation of brand or, all too often, business failure.

The more closely linked the design is to the strategic direction of the organisation, the more it is likely to be internally appropriate. Likewise the more the target markets and environments are understood and respected, the more externally appropriate a design is likely to be.

When these two aspects of design contextuality successfully fuse, the result is a design that works for the producer and the consumer.