The Value of Design

Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World, a new book from MIT Press, is one of those rare business books that belong on the coffee table. This homage to the countryís leading industrial designer features more than 250 illustrations of gleaming passenger trains, sleek Evinrude motors and boats, squat yet spunky radios, and much more. The exuberance of these and other products remind us that companies could distinguish themselves through cutting edge design long before iPods and Air Jordans.

Stevens launched his design shop in Milwaukee in 1933, at a time when mass markets and marketing were giving way to more sophisticated approaches to customers. Alfred Sloanís creation of separate cars for separate customer segments showed emerging big businesses that they could differentiate products by design. Stevens took this insight and ran with it. Yet while others sought differentiation through cosmetic iterations, Stevens focused on design choices that fundamentally added value to consumers and producers. As the book notes, he considered an industrial designer to be "a businessman, an engineer, and a stylist, in that order."

By melding form and function, Stevens sparked surprising and pleasing product innovations. He introduced the wide-mouth peanut butter jar, and was the first to place a clear window in the door of a Hamilton clothes dryer. He crafted beautiful art deco cooling fins along the side of a clothes iron that improved its performance while making it look, to use a technical term, cool.

In the Post WWII age of American spirit and bravado, he created bold, distinctive products that included the Jeep station wagon, the 1950 Harley-Davidson motorcyle, and the corporate logo for the Miller Brewing Company. Thereís a proud, graceful, delight in Stevenís work that thrills anyone who really cares about building a better toaster. This book, coupled with an exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, reflects his work beautifully.

Today his legacy can be seen in any company seeking an edge through smart industrial design. IDEO, the industrial design firm which is about the closest thing to a rock star that our New Economy has, has spawned a cult following. Thereís a nice (albeit registration required) interview with CEO Tim Brown in the June issue of Technology Review. Design junkies read I.D., which does a great job of showcasing great design in context. And such organizations as the Industrial Designers Society of America push design forward. Finally, Iíd recommend the work of design pundit Don Norman, whose The Invisible Computer does a great job of showing how the contemporary design process for high-tech products must always operate within the context of the way that individual businesses operate, not to mention the odd logic of markets.

A final thought on Stevensí legacy: today he is best known (though not very well) for coining the phrase "planned obsolescence." Critics such as Vance Packard attacked this idea as cynical commercialism by merchants who made cheap products for quick bucks. Not so. Stevens meant to say that all good, organic products respond to specific times and customers, and that if done properly, they become naturally extinct. He says the phrase meant, "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary."

I prefer to think of his greatest legacy to be the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Stevens didnít invent this great American icon. But in 1958 he changed our nationís notion of a wienermobile with a simple innovation: he "put the wiener in the bun," as he puts it. The rest is history.


Posted by tom at July 23, 2003 10:32 PM

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