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Archive for May, 2010

It’s no rocket science

Another way of saying: “The hard stuff is easy. The soft stuff is hard.” Good luck designers!

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The X company

Think Google Labs for products, the kind that breaks when you drop it.

Companies, when they develop into brands, have certain standards they have to keep that customers have come to expect. When you buy from Sony, Apple, or Panasonic, you expect well designed, well thought out, and well built products. At the same time, there is a lot of value in getting products out in the market with real users banging on it. The trade off in releasing products prematurely or failing is hurting your brand image, which large companies are more invested in. When you’re a small company, you don’t care about damaging your corporate image because there really isn’t one. This is one of the many reasons why smaller companies can move faster, release products much quicker, and aren’t afraid of failing in the market place.

So how to bring small company approach to large organizations? Start the X company.

I imagine the X company to be a small off shoot of a major corporation to rapidly ideate, develop, and deploy new products. Marketing the product as a new creation from Company-X like Sony-X, Apple-X, or Pioneer-X would provide the brand identity of the parent organization but generally keep it insulated from failures. No one judges Google for all the services and features on Google Labs. In order to have the same kind of flexibility as small companies, I would operate the X company as an autonomous entity, allowing them to utilize many of the small company tools such as contracting and outsourcing while keeping the bureaucracy to a minimum. Chris Andersen has a great piece on how easy it is to create a new company focusing on atoms in the new economy driven by bits. The goal of this company would not be to create products as cheaply or refined as possible, but to quickly get it out the door into the market. Once the product has gained some traction and been improved through several iterations, it can be folded into the parent company’s portfolio, making it an “official” company product (like how features “graduate” out of Google Labs). Of course, if the product fails, kill it and call it another cheap learning experience.

For the X company, the focus would be on game changing products, not incremental improvements over the last generation. It’s not the next line of laptops or cell phones, but the new mobile computing experience or home media experience. The goal would be to create the next TiVo, Slingbox, or Palm Pilot.

The X company concept would work best for B2C companies operating in low price point high development cost industries such as consumer electronics. I don’t think people would want to invest in seemingly experimental cars from Toyota-X or Ford-X, and businesses would probably stick to tried and true products rather than venturing into unproven territory. Consumer electronics would be perfect for this as early adopters are willing to purchase and experiment with new products, and the complexity of the products often require lots of feedback to “get it right.”

With Apple’s success in new product launches and their strict strategy to only release the best possible, well designed, and thoroughly conceived products, I don’t think they need the X-company or would be very interested in the concept. Instead, I see the concept to be a better fit for companies like Sony, who has become a fast follower over the last decade, HP, whose consumer oriented products are safe and rarely inspiring, or Samsung, whose core competency is underpricing all their competition.

It should be no surprise that I want to work for, or even lead a X company. Too bad they don’t exist yet.

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Career advice from Sushi and hopefully others

As an instructor in design, I’m getting more and more questions about jobs and careers. I’ve always felt that professors are the worst places to go for any career advice beyond becoming a professor (very few of them have industry experiences), but students still come to me for advice. Most recently, I’ve been questioned by a freshman from Rice University (my alma mater) about working in the design field, and instead of keeping the dialogue to just e-mail, I am publishing the questions and my responses below so that others can find it, and others can also comment on her questions as I ultimately represent only one point of view.

Fellow designers, design instructors, and design thinkers, do you agree with me?

1. Since its a little early for internships in design, what are some good start-up jobs that I should look into?

Good question, and I’m going to respond assuming that you mean first jobs when you say “start-up jobs” rather than jobs at a start-up [company].

I’m probably not the best person to be asking this as I’ve had such an eclectic carrier so far, but if you want to design, I would look for jobs that allow you to work on new things, because that is ultimately design, even if it is not “design” by the traditional sense of the word. This could range from your uncle’s souvenir shop that is trying to attract new customers, a restaurant that just opened and trying to understand how to satisfy the local clientele, or the start-up company that doesn’t quite know what it’s doing yet. Look at the job description (if there is one), can you tell exactly what you will be doing? or are there a lot of ambiguities? If you know exactly what you will be doing, it’s probably not that interesting unless that is what you want to be doing.

One of my favorite advices for thinking about jobs comes from Seth Godin:

Anyway, they asked for my advice in finding marketing jobs. When I shared my views (go to a small company, work for the CEO, get a job where you actually get to make mistakes and do something) one woman professed to agree with me, but then explained, “But those companies don’t interview on campus.”

2. What was your first job?

Skipping the remedial errand-like jobs I had as a kid, my first real job would be working as a web-developer at a Japanese start-up company in Kyoto called i-kimono.com that sells antique kimono online. It was really a summer job after I graduated from high school, but I got to design the entire website from scratch (back when websites were much simpler than they are today) and even help out with the work flow of the company, which included the CEO, me, and couple “advisers.” Of course working for a start-up company, you end up dealing with everything from setting up the LAN in the office to replying to customer e-mails (I was the customer service for English speaking customers). It was a really fun summer and I got to see how a company operates and experience how it’s really not that complicated.

Actually, now that I think about it, my first job was teaching publications and computers at a summer camp, but the above is much more interesting.

3. Did you work at any other design firms?

I’ve actually never worked at any design firms in the traditional sense of the word. I have worked for design teams in companies or schools.

4. What kind of work should I put into a portfolio?

Put anything you are proud of creating (or having helped create), and then show it to many different kinds of people (professors, friends, family, professionals) to see what they understand and resonate with. It’s likely that you included too much material and detail, and it didn’t communicate in the way you wanted. Find and go through portfolios that you like and try to find out why you like them. Be mindful of communication; often, they are more important than content.

5. What software should I be familiar with, and how do I learn how to use them?

E-mail and Power Point (and maybe in extension Photoshop or Illustrator).

The issue with learning software is that as soon as you become good at it, you are stuck with it. That’s not bad if you want to go into a specific field of design like interaction design (Adobe Flash), industrial design (Solidworks or other CAD software), engineering design (whole slew of CAD software), but the process of innovation does not require any specific software.

The reason I say e-mail and power point is that the two of the most important skills for designers are communication and presentation, and those are currently the primary tools for each.

Please don’t take this as an advice to be a generalist. Everyone should have at least one thing they are good at, and my sense was that yours will be the cognitive sciences. It also won’t hurt to be familiar with each of the software I mentioned above (and many more) and the best way to do that would be to work on projects, some for classes and some arbitrarily defined by yourself. Make yourself a website, design your next accessory, etc.

Also, hardware is just as important as software; at least be familiar with basic power tools.

6. What do design firms look for in a good resume?

Good question. It is my sense that almost every company hires people to fill certain positions, especially if HR is involved. If you were running a company, how would you hire people? My advice would be to structure your resume in a way that highlights one strength that the company may be looking for, and then a broad set of experiences that show that you are capable of working on a variety of projects.

7. If I am more interested in the human factors side of design, what types of subjects should I be studying? Is just my psychology major sufficient?

I think psychology is one way of seeing and understanding people or humans, and there are other fields who study the same subject from entirely different perspectives such as ethnography or human computer interaction in the computer sciences. I think getting a primer to those fields would be more valuable than taking just psychology classes.

8.  What would be the best subject of study to go into after undergraduate? Would design firms like to see a more developed knowledge of psychology, or should I study design, art, architecture, etc?

I think the best subject of study would be what interests you. If psychology is really what you want to study, continue with it. If design is what interests you, there are plenty of graduate level design programs around the world that is not just art or engineering. Nurture your passion, not what you think will get you jobs.

9. Is it detrimental to my chances of working at a design firm that I am not an engineering major?

Not at all. Design firms these days are hiring people from many different fields. The variety of perspectives added from having a diverse team is very important in coming up with new ideas, products, services, etc.

10. How high in demand are psychologists/human factor specialists to design firms?

Good question. As someone who has not worked for a design firm or know the current situation, it’s hard to say. One good measure might be seeing who around you are interested in working for design firms. Are any of your other psychology friends’ interested in going into the field of design? A lot of engineers around me are, so I can see how the competition could be tough for them.

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