How design came to drive business: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk about the evolution of the role of design in the tech industry, from Microsoft’s early dominance — privileging function over form — to Apple’s ascendency in the past decade, where user-centered design, particularly on mobile, has led to their success. Topics discussed include the McKinsey consultants, the early history of Apple, the jumble of titles and roles in the digital design world, and Rich’s perpetual hatred of Apple’s chief design officer, Jony Ive.
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Paul Ford Hi, you’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. I’m Paul Ford [music fades out], your co-host and your co-founder. The co-founder of Postlight.
Rich Ziade And I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder of Postlight.
PF Rich, you have a subject you wanna talk about today.
RZ You know, you always lay it on me. I don’t know why; we both wanna talk about it, Paul. It’s our show. Right?
PF That’s right.
RZ I don’t mind that my name sits under yours.
PF Let’s talk about—
RZ Let’s talk about the fact that we get emails that say, “Paul, I really enjoy your show.” And that’s it.
PF I know. Look—
RZ Whatever, dude.
PF Here’s the thing—
RZ Yeah. Let me ask you something: did you ever write an issue of Business Week, Paul? Just curious [Paul sighing slowly]. Alright, let’s go.
RZ We’re gonna talk about design.
PF Yeah, anyway.
RZ We’re not gonna talk about my issues, we’re gonna talk about design.
PF There was a funny thing when we started the company and you would be like, “You know I have a lot of experience running agencies and old Paul here’s good for marketing.” And then [chuckles] it actually turned out I was ok at the job but the—
RZ Oh you keep telling yourself that, Paul.
PF Yeah, I know, I know, anyway. All of that aside, I try whenever I can to step out of the limelight and let other people struggle.
RZ Alright we’re gonna talk about design.
PF Ugh! Ok, design. First of all, can you—Let’s talk about what the hell design is.
RZ [Clicks tongue] Design is an incredibly broad term. By the way, we should spend about three minutes talking about how many . . . titles and roles have found their way into the realm of design. It’s—it is—
PF Well, there’s—
RZ It’s almost comical.
PF We mostly hire product . . . designers. That’s one thing.
RZ Yeah. Which is bullshit. Whatever.
PF I know, then there are—
PF—graphic designers; there are user experience designers—
RZ There are interaction designers.
PF Yes, that’s right.
RZ There are—
PF I teach in a program, The School of Visual Arts Master’s MFA program in interaction design.
RZ Interaction design. Another humble brag but whatever. Keep goin’.
RZ So we’ve got interaction design; we’ve got information architecture; we’ve got—
PF But that was always like you couldn’t really program; you couldn’t really design—
RZ But you’re kinda designing.
PF You like to graphal. There was a tool called Omnigraphal which was sort of the Mac version of Visio.
RZ Right. So here’s the thing: the world of IT, like classic IT—
PF Information Technology.
RZ Yeah, like literally setting up networks; setting up routers; and I’m talking about it at a bigger scale than your house.
RZ There is a very clear tiered system. Like I have a friend [sure], a good friend, who said, “You know, I’m working towards level three Cisco certification.”
PF That’s right. Well, you go and you get the book or the interactive DVD and you learn about Cisco Systems and you take the test and they give you an actual certificate.
RZ Yes. And! And employers, whether you’re looking for a job or you’re at a job, it is directly correlated with how much you’re gonna get paid; how much your comp is; it’s actually a real thing. So there’s structure—
PF No, and we have none of that. You have a law degree and we also have the—I think The Webbies named our podcast as an honoree.
RZ Whatever. Amongst 420 others. Thank you, Webbies, we appreciate it.
PF We still hung it up in the office where we do most of our sales—
RZ We’ll hang anything on the wall.
PF We really will. I swear to God, if you send us any piece of paper—
RZ A certificate of some sort!
PF—that’s just like, “Postlight, great agency, thumbs up,” with a little ribbon it [yeah], we’ll put it up on the wall where we do all our selling.
RZ I—please. Send them along. So, in classic IT infrastructure, blah blah blah, there’s a clear sort of institutionalization of what advancing in your career looks like and how it’s tied to money and role and status.
PF Well, now, let’s be clear too: there’s a clear definition of what you’re gonna do all day.
RZ There is. There is.
PF You know you’re a Cisco Router Level Seven Certified Engineer. You’re gonna be settin’ up Cisco routers at a certain scale. There might be things goin’ into ‘em; things going out; puttin’ ‘em on the network; cataloguing them; putting those little sticky notes on ‘em or you gonna get that tape gun that can print words?
RZ Mm hmm.
PF That’s good stuff. I like those.
RZ Yeah, I like those too.
PF I really—If I could just walk around all day and just label stuff.
RZ We’re all over the map now, Paul.
PF Hey, let’s bring it back to design.
RZ Alright, so in the design world and actually, is it an issue—is it—Look: first off, the subjectivity and I’m not gonna get into the personality profile of designers because we have some amazing designers at Postlight.
RZ I’m just gonna leave it at that. But! There’s subjectivity, there’s creativity around it. So now you’re asking them to please, please organize this into a chart . . . a hierarchy of needs that represents design success, right? So, you have, as you see all of this stuff going—And I’m not gonna touch content strategy, I’m not even gonna go there. That’s sort of—
PF That doesn’t have anything to do with design. Leave that alone.
RZ It is a—it’s a—it’s a step-daughter of design but let’s park that, park that.
PF Hit pause for a second! Why does our industry have terrible title inflation? Why are there so many titles? What’s your hypothesis? Do this fast.
RZ Because I think it’s really hard to define design.
PF I think it’s that and I think also people go for a territorial imperative, like I think one day somebody was sitting there going like, “User Design, User Experience!” And then they like typed in userexperience.org and were like, “This is mine now.”
RZ That’s right.
PF Then there’s a conference.
RZ And there’s a conference and I think because it’s been loose and fast but still! Something has happened here. Let’s put aside the title soup that is design. Something meaningful has happened over the last 15 years, very meaningful, which is design and the importance of design has insinuated itself into the formula needed for business success.
PF That’s right. That’s right. No, I get newsletters—I sign up for like corporate consulting newsletters cuz I like to understand what I’m supposed to be doing [Rich chuckles] and you get—it’ll be like McKinsey which, if you don’t know it it’s as much of a consulting firm as a consulting firm can be—
RZ It’s the top of the top of the heap as far as—
PF And McKinsey will send you like probably ever two to three hours, you’ll get a newsletter that’s like, “The importance of design in today’s world,” or whatever.
RZ Let’s back up, though, McKinsey what did they do—what do they do—what did they do before this cuz they don’t only do design. They’re not a design shop.
PF No, no, no, what McKinsey used to do is you’d go in and you’d say, “I have a concrete factory that I bought in Spain and I’m interested in seeing if I could provide the Egyptian market with concrete.” And they’d go, “Ok, let’s figure that out for you.”
RZ In a reasonably cost effective way.
PF That’s right. And you’re like, “I have 40,000 employees.” And they’re like, “Eh, alright.”
RZ Also, “Find me efficiencies; find me ten percent of margin; find me—like what do I need to do?”
PF There’s a real direct line. You go get an MBA at Harvard and then you literally just sort of just take the train down and go talk to the people—
RZ McKinsey’s influence is incredible. They advise governments, they advise the largest companies in the world, so they’re incredibly influential.
PF And over the last couple of years, boy, do they like to talk about design.
RZ That’s right.
PF And what they mean when they talk about design, I’ll admit I don’t often read the importance of design articles when McKinsey sends them.
PF But what they’re talking about is that kind of like overall gestalt where you like picked up a company’s products and you recognized the quality of them and—
PF You know, getting out of our zone for a minute, you know who’s good at design? Oxo. Do you know that brand?
RZ I do know that brand.
PF It’s a British like food brand. It’s not very expensive stuff.
RZ Yeah, it’s just thoughtful and it’s . . . kind of a tip towards minimalist and it’s—
PF But it’s also kinda classic—
RZ Functional and attractive.
PF Yeah, it’s not expensive, like the coffee maker is a good one. It’s like 90 bucks.
RZ Very successful company and they do really nice things.
PF Yeah, and it’s like—It’s the Volkswagen of food, right? And it’s—that is a company where design has that tremendous impact on their overall bottom line.
RZ That’s right, that’s right.
PF Another one that’s more tricky but really interesting is GE.
PF GE has gotten very focused on design and they have problems that will be like, “We wanna unify all of the interfaces to our industrial motors.”
PF And have them run on one internet of things operating system.
RZ Sure, sure.
PF They just released a hot plate with Buzzfeed.
RZ Why did this happen? And I think the reason it happened, frankly, the shorthand reason is Apple. I think before Apple it was understood that we as humans are subservient . . . is that the word? Subservient.
PF Well, it could be the word. Let’s see where the rest of the sentence goes.
RZ Yeah, is subservient to the machine. Meaning this magic thing showed up that somehow, I used to do it with a pencil, and this machine is doing its thing. And it is understood I need to get trained, and I needed to learn, and I needed to follow the way the machine told me it had to be done.
PF So we have to frame this a little bit because what we’re talking about here specifically is the computer industry and technology and engaging with machines, with digital devices.
RZ That’s right.
PF Ok? Because in other parts of the world, cameras, for example, or cars. There was enormous focus on design and enormous attention paid by Polaroid or by Ford Motor Company.
RZ One button . . . you get a picture.
PF Yeah, or just like, “Here’s how your tail fins look.” Like those things sold and connected with people on design but computers were expensive consumer products.
RZ And complicated consumer products and so this—this almost cultural war ensued that, frankly, for many years Apple lost, right?
PF IBM won.
RZ IBM won!
PF And the PC clone makers won because they had cost advantage.
RZ They had cost advantage. They, frankly, copied the Xerox PARC innovations of Windows and the mouse and all that.
PF Well, now we’re getting—This is getting tricky, right? So start—
RZ But lemme finish this thought.
PF Yeah but your chronology’s off.
RZ No, no, lemme finish the thought.
RZ I think it wasn’t primary. I think they found some cool things that expanded the audience dramatically but really it wasn’t the main thing, right? It was still hard; it was still—you still couldn’t just put it in front of someone and let them run. You still had to learn stuff. There was a way to become an expert in word processing, like it was still not the main sort of driver.
PF Well, and let’s—I mean, here’s the thing: WordPerfect. Right? Here’s a good example. Huge word processing program, very important [yes], used by every industry. You needed a keyboard overlay to know how to save files; you needed to know how to start up your computer so that you could then type in like, “wp” and that would run WordPerfect. So you needed that level of instruction.
RZ There was all this trimmings around your document, right? All these sort of like little character—the symbols.
PF That was the reveal codes mode.
RZ And all the weird—yeah, exactly.
PF And so the PARC interface turned that into moving the mouse around. That was what—
RZ That’s right.
PF—happened with the Mac in 1984; it commercialized Xerox PARC’s research into a way that people could just go buy a computer for about 24 hundred bucks, I think. [Exactly] And then change the font.
RZ Which, listen, I’m gonna do what you say. You are . . . miles ahead of the typewriter. If I gotta learn this, and I gotta be a pro at this, even though I’m a paralegal, I’ll do it [right] because you’re giving me something so immensely valuable. So—
PF Well, you and I, our careers, like we’ve learned how computers work at kind of a command line level.
RZ Yeah. I mean, look, I actually, early days, one of the things I loved to do, even though I have a law degree, I loved writing Microsoft Word scripts.
RZ I thought it was so cool. I’m not a programmer. I could do these little interesting things.
PF You could mess with the words in the document and—
RZ Yeah and you could have these little—like you could have like light logic around find and replace. It was just—it was fun! And it gave me a sense of power.
PF Now, if you were thinking about design in that era, what you thought about were like bronze stereos.
RZ Yeah [chuckles].
PF Or whatever, you know? [Yeah] Like if you think about like a CD player where the CD was like hovering a little bit [yeah] or it was about audio, cars, cameras, anything but computers.
RZ Yeah, exactly. And Apple took a position, and they said, “Listen, we think the human should drive.” Which means they ceded business, by the way. They effectively said, “You know what?” Except for like design professionals, they pretty much said, “You know what? I don’t care about the specialized training that is needed here because I’m gonna create the machine that really you could step up to and just feel like it’s connecting with you almost on an emotional level.
PF We gotta back this out, right? So in the seventies—in the late seventies, early eighties they’re working on like the Apple 1, Apple I, Apple II, they get like Frog Design to make a nice interface but ultimately you have to put a disc in and load—
RZ It’s still pretty hard.
PF And you were talking about design, but the reality is they didn’t know you could use a computer to design like when they were building the Apple II or the early Mac. There was—that thing 128K. You could draw a rectangle.
PF So they assumed that people would want this sort of general creativity engine in black and white, as opposed to typing commands for powerful business uses.
RZ Make it easier. Make it [yeah] more approachable, right? And then they made a bigger bet with the Mac. Or I don’t know the sequence of things when they tried it with the Lisa and whatever it failed and—
PF So you got the Apple II, the Apple II eight, and then they sort of go off—a group of them go off and hijack the Macintosh project and start to backfill it with Xerox PARC research.
RZ Right, which is—
PF And specific, like the stuff that Alan Kay had done about Smalltalk and all these sort of windowing interfaces.
PF You know, and actually, and then, yeah, the Lisa’s coming out, it’s all a sort of—This is the thing: it’s not like this one singular vision, there’s like four or five competing visions. But if you look at them—if you look at like what the Lisa interface looks like, you look at where the Apple II was, the Mac just pops. It’s like the first thing and there are stories where—I think like Steve Jobs drove a Porsche into the office, like had one put in—or a motorcycle—
RZ Which makes sense.
PF [Chuckling] It was how he wanted to communicate the value of design. He had like some fancy vehicle.
RZ Yeah, and the command line where you had to type a sequence of characters to get something done, was—I mean it’s there but it’s really hidden way. Like this is the thing you could walk up to and it has metaphors against everyday objects.
PF A little screen, a little trash can, one button on the mouse—
RZ A trash can! Let’s pause for a second on the trash can, right?
PF That’s right.
RZ Like I know what a trash can does: the things I don’t want anymore and I want out of my way and I don’t care if they ever come back go into the trash can. Like—
PF If I remember, didn’t Windows—couldn’t use the trash can, it had a recycle bin.
RZ Because of legal?
PF Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
RZ Yeah, I bet there was a thing there.
PF Alright, so we gotta fast forward because it’s 1984—
RZ We gotta fast forward and it’s also we’re eight hours into the podcast. So, so Apple loses the first 20 years! They lose the battle. Microsoft become a juggernaut. IBM and the standardization of the X86 chip and motherboard and hardware specs allowed anybody to make ‘em, except Intel had to put the beating heart into it, and you had this explosion!
PF Well, and let’s be clear here: the Mac still as a platform compared to Windows machines is not as successful in any way.
RZ Exactly. It’s—
PF It’s like the Twitter to Facebook. It is like—but iOS is a success.
RZ Ok, so now you jumped ahead. So, eventually, I mean if you look at a race, right? And the car that’s running second and it’s about 28 car lengths behind the leader and then in about 2005, 2006, it just jets across. And finally, we turn the corner, and design leads. Design is business success. Like there was a moment when the market valuation—let’s get really pure business: the market valuation of Apple surpassed Microsoft. That car passed the leader [right] and kept going! I don’t know the math of how—it’s probably multiples of how much more valuable Apple is than Microsoft today. I don’t know what the number is but it’s probably pretty significant. And what that proved out—
PF Well and even if it’s not, Microsoft is vast and Apple came from behind.
RZ Came from behind and it’s an incredible story, right? [Ok] I mean it’s a phone but really it wasn’t the fact that it was a phone, it was the fact that pretty—I mean, how old? My son needs to get hold of my phone. My son is four years old [mm hmm]. He just wants my phone. He can interact with it; he understands it; and let’s put aside that it’s cobbled together technology and some stuff was stolen from here and stuff but that’s not the point. The point is it became the holy grail. And it’s changed the way we think about what business success is, and now consulting firms, IBM—IBM is a big interaction design arm now that—they’re really trying to push, have just sort of paused and said, “Oh my God, this is a key ingredient to business success.”
PF Ok, so let me do two things. When IBM used to deliver your point of sale service in—across your chain of shoe stores.
PF So you’d go in, and you still do, you hit an IBM device in order to say [yes], “Bob just bought two pairs of shoes, how much did that cost?”
PF Ok? And there was very little focus on design, it was, “Can we put the stuff on the screen and train the people how to use it?”
RZ That’s right.
PF And so the business case for design starts to show up as, you know, even well before 2006, it’s like, “Well, you know, a little interaction work here could save you some money cuz people—”
RZ And time, which is key, right?
PF And time, yeah.
RZ Like you weren’t—it used to be like a paper slip. You had to kidna do a copy of the card, that’s why the numbers were embossed on the card, so you can get em onto the piece of paper, right?
PF So the technology is always a struggle, and the—it takes time and design takes time and it adds expense, so it was always a little bit of an extra. But, at a certain point, it’d be like, “Well this point of sales system looks a little bit better.” . . . And then—but there wasn’t this like massive, overarching business idea ideology where you’re like, “Make it beautiful and simple and you’ll have an enormous valuation.” And that—
RZ That’s exactly right.
PF Whether that’s real or not, right?
PF It doesn’t matter if it’s real, that became the perception. And suddenly design started to get sort of back filled into business [yeah] as this utter necessity. Which it is. I mean, frankly, like—
RZ I’m glad it’s there! I had a tiny shop in 2004, 2005 and design was like part of our story. I mean—
PF Here’s what happened, right? In 2004, 2005, like 2006 is kind of a cutoff point. Before that, the web and digital design was a lot about just getting stuff onto the web. You were designing documents in document style experiences. You were gonna do a search engine; you were gonna put information up about a company [sure]; you’re gonna let people track personal preferences or buy things. Things like that. But those things are rendered as documents. And then after 2006 you had this handheld device that can load the web and then very soon after you get the concept of apps. And stuff starts to get dynamic and interactive and it’s no longer about documents but about interacting with human intention. And that’s much, much more complicated. Designing things that are accessible, that work well, that are based on documents, you’re inheriting an enormous amount of knowledge and understanding. You know you need margins; clear typography; high contrast.
PF You design the document; you get it right; and it’s done once. You do it.
RZ Yeah and it’s a blend of marketing. Like, make it look good too!
PF Mm hmm.
RZ And utility. Which is unusual.
RZ To sort of frame what you just said: Jobs gave this amazing analogy once which . . . if he came up with it then he’s a genius. I think he’s a genius. I think—I have other theories, by the way, as to why—I think we talked about them on the podcast [mm hmm] that he was tyrannical. I think which is a key ingredient of getting done what he got done. He gave this analogy and said, “Look, first, when vehicles were invented they served a key function, initially. They were trucks, and in agrarian societies it wasn’t about getting to point A to point B, it was about moving things around and really as a key tool for business, right? And if you look at the first . . . 30 years now, or 20 years I’d say because it’s changed, of computers. It was about getting work done. Now, solitaire, bless its heart, was over in the corner, right? And—”
PF And when you say “getting work done” what we’re talking about is making documents.
RZ That’s right. Spreadsheets; legal documents; contracts.
PF Making documents; putting them on floppies or emailing them. You know, it used to be that Microsoft Word, it might still have it, there was a menu item and it was like “Send document as email”.
RZ Yeah, that’s right.
PF That was where—
RZ It was communication, right?
RZ And look: there was a gaming sector and there was stuff going on but really the computer with a keyboard, like when I played games I didn’t need the damn keyboard but here I was, there’s a big keyboard in front of me and there’s the tools to do—
PF I think it’s a totally sane statement to say that Microsoft Windows, in particular, absolutely existed to serve the business community.
RZ Exactly. Greatly dominated by the business community. And then, and then! To his analogy, then we shifted away. As the cars became more cost effective and more apart of sort of the cultural and social life of just everyone, it shifted away from being this purely functional thing to being something I use to get to my grandmas.
RZ And to go out at night and—and that—he—
PF So you’re talking about mobile just sort of like—
RZ That’s right and he said—
PF You’ve got your Google Maps and your—
RZ “We’re about done with the notion of computers—they are still computers—being—the primary use for them is to serve getting things done and work and business. And we’ve shifted over to them being, you know, deeply ingrained in our lives, in many ways. I mean, we start with them at nine-years-old now.” There was a day—you know, yeah, I want my kid to learn computers, maybe I’ll put them in front of a computer years ago but now it’s just—it’s not a computer. It’s the way we connect socially; it’s the way we buy things, and I don’t mean buy them from business to business it’s how—I mean Amazon has dominated how we consume things. And so, I think that shift is worth talking about and I think that shift leans on design much more so than it used to.
PF I think design gave it a language. I don’t think people can talk that much about programming, right?
RZ Exactly. Oh, for sure!
PF Right, so you’ve got—design is one part around technology that everyone can have an opinion on safely.
PF So that makes it a big part of the conversation. Steve Jobs leaned on it very, very heavily when he was building out Apple. I mean Apple is vast, right? But he was able to say things like, “Look at how simple that it.” Now if you go back and you look at some of the early iPhone apps, it’s all like, you know, fake leather and stuff. Like it doesn’t—
PF It actually isn’t attractive anymore.
RZ [Chuckles] Yeah, the aesthetic has changed but at the time we were so blown away by the thing, we didn’t really care that it was a wooden shelf and [chuckles]—
PF You know what’s tricky, though, is like there was a point where they couldn’t—they didn’t know—constraints are essential. Every design system is a constraint system: you have to follow these rules and if you follow them [sure] you have a good outcome. The original Mac had a tremendous constraint system cuz you couldn’t do anything with that little computer. They were very weak.
RZ It was just so charming. It had that, “Hello.”
PF The Susan Kare icons and it was just so—It was just so neat.
RZ Yeah, all of it.
PF And then as you add colors and drop shadows and things, things get denser and more complicated and the web truly suffered from that. It was the palette with no constraints and people lost their minds [Rich chuckles], right?
RZ Kind of miss that part of the web.
PF Well, I do too, like the Geocities frenzy. But then you get to the iPhone and then especially the iPad which, my God, like all these sort of fake skeuomorphs around where, you know, it’s a—if it’s a calendar—
RZ Notepad, it’s a yellow pad!
PF Yeah, if it’s a notepad, it’s a yellow pad; and if it’s a calendar, it’s like a leather desk calendar. [Rich chuckles] And then slowly, Jony Ive got that out of there and went pure digital. “Look, here are these abstractions. Here’s a shape. You don’t have to wonder what it is.”
RZ Yeah. When I first saw that, I was repulsed by it. My brain had been so programmed. My muscle memory was so used to, you know, leather and wood and steel and I thought, “Wooh! This is bad. This is ugly.” [Right] And now I can’t imagine—
PF Going back to that.
RZ—going back to that. You know.
PF So, alright, we’ve—
RZ I hate acknowledging that Jony Ive was right.
PF He’s a very good designer. He’s an extraordinary designer.
RZ I know he’s just—he’s exhausting. I mean just the whole thing.
PF I mean everything you’re talking about where you’re giving Steve Jobs credit . . . he’s like 40 to 80 percent, or 100 percent Jony Ive.
RZ Yeah but. I think. You know.
PF You just don’t like him.
RZ No, no, no.
PF You don’t like that he comes on and there’s a spinning, rotating thing and he says, “Magnesium.”
RZ He’s exhau—I just get tired and he’s been wearing the same shirt for ten years because he can and it’s just—
PF I would love to wear the same shirt for ten years and just—
RZ For different reasons, Paul.
PF—speak in a plummy accent.
RZ So I wanna talk a little bit about what this did professionally. Like, the designer was the idiot. Not the idiot. He was just so marginalized in the beginning, it’s like—He just had to do it. He was sort of a necessary evil and it was—It just wasn’t important. It was just like—“Of course I gotta connect these things to button, so where’s the guy who makes the buttons?” [Mm hmm] And then little by little, the power dynamic. And including the political dynamic started to change and the influence started to escalate over time. And it was [chuckles] actually pretty fascinating to watch and now there are directors and vice presidents and chief creative officers and chief design officers and all these people who are—
PF Well, in a technology context. These people always existed and had power in other industries but they didn’t have power—even in the early days of the web . . . they weren’t that powerful.
RZ They weren’t that powerful. That’s right.
PF And now if you are thinking about a serious organization that builds and ships projects—
RZ Even business to business.
PF Yes, that’s right, almost especially now. Like software as a service is a huge part of how people get business done like, you know, [yup] whether it’s Salesforce on the big side or lots that we use like, you know, to track who’s in and out of the office we use a thing called Pingboard.
PF Right? Like all of these products need some approach to design.
RZ Without a doubt.
PF And they need—They all have design leadership guiding the [that’s right] flow. And that’s just understood that you do that.
RZ Yeah, and as we look at—I mean, when a prospect walks into Postlight and they’re just looking for something ground-up. I don’t think we’ve ever put forward an effort without design.
PF No, some people come to us because they know us as a technology shop, [yeah] but when somebody walks in and they’re just like, “Hey, I heard you’re interesting. Tell me what you can do.” We lead with and discuss design. It’s the one thing that really, I think, everybody [yeah] kind of has in common, including our engineers. Like these products have to be well designed or they won’t find a place in the market. And, you know, I was reading—somebody had a tweet not too long ago . . . and it was about how there’s this real culture of like, “Ship whatever crappy MVP you’ve got! Just get it out there and—”
RZ Learn, yeah.
PF It doesn’t work anymore. You actually—the competition is too fierce. You can put any piece of crap out into the world, no one will pay attention. Their lives are filled with well designed, attractive products.
PF And it’s unfair. It’s not the same playing field that we had 20 years ago, where one or two people could make a really good app and it would look as good as any other app.
RZ Yeah, if you wanna play, you need that actor in the mix. It’s just there’s no way around it.
PF Yeah, I mean you can still, you know, an individual can still like take a web framework, follow a grid system, and get like a nice digital product out the door but it’s not really a one person thing anymore. Like you have that designer, you have the engineering, you have product people keeping it all together.
PF And, you know, for better or for worse, there just is an inherent hierarchy in any product getting across the line.
RZ Yeah, and . . .
PF Cuz it used to be random. It used to be like, “That guy’s pretty good at design; he’s also not the worst programmer—” I mean it was that crazy.
RZ Yeah, well those, we called them something. Right? The designers that can program?
RZ Even if they can’t go tot—really too deeply into programming but if they’re effective in helping implement the thing, we call ‘em unicorns because that is a special, special person that has an eye; can bring forward a well designed, attractive, easy to use interface, and code! Get into the code behind it. We call them unicorns.
PF Well, there’s a real sensitivity there, right? They understand how it works.
RZ Which is just a very rare, very rare thing.
PF It is.
RZ And it’s—when we find one, we’re just like, “[Gasps] I think he’s a unicorn!”
PF Good designers can—and good product manager—I mean there’s a real range here too. Like some people mostly work in comps and things like InVision, some people—some of our product managers what I would say is they’re really good at inspecting the element. They’re like, “Hey, I see a problem,” [yeah] and they look at the problem and they actually are able to dig into the code and kind of cut and paste the problem into a bug report, and that’s plenty, then the engineers can take it. And then there’s a very unusual kind of person who’s like, “Lemme fix that.”
RZ And they go in and do it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF But those are very surprisingly few and far between. Like it’s just it’s very hard to work across disciplines and be good in two disciplines.
PF To the point that we don’t really look for it—
RZ No, it’s like a nice surprise.
RZ Yeah. I wanna share a final thought!
RZ A couple of weeks ago, we talked about how it’s an uphill climb to replace legacy systems and we really got into the human dynamic, the social dynamics of dealing with that because we think they’re even more significant than the technical dynamics. You know, in relation to design: a powerful—an impactful, high quality visual design, and that can take the form of screens, or a prototype, a prototype being something you can actually click around with but doesn’t do the—all the functionality, is an incredibly powerful political tool to help move along what you’re trying to do. It just—you have this barbed wire of stuff in front of you that you have to pummel through and an effective design can be incredibly . . . what’s the word I’m looking for?
RZ Empowering and . . . normalizing!
PF You know what it is? A good—I mean anything that makes it real, makes it harder to blow something up.
RZ That’s a good summary phrase of what I’m trying to say.
PF Yeah, if they see a lot of work has been done, that there’s multiple screens, that it’s ready and closer to getting built—
PF It’s more—
RZ It’s tangible.
PF It’s hard to tear down. So like, you know, if I came to you and I say, “I have a great idea for, you know, a new kind of podcast app,” you could say to me, “Hey Paul, well, you know, there’s a lot of people with great ideas and I’ve seen a lot of podcast apps and I don’t really see any I love, so what do you got for me?” And I go, “Oh well, you know—”
RZ “Gimme some time, right?”
PF “It’s cool, lemme come back to you.”
PF If I came to you and I said, “I figured it out, I’ve got five slides I wanna show you about how this new podcast app is gonna work. And it’ll take about two minutes.”
PF You’re gonna go, “Alright, fine. Lemme see ‘em.” And you’re gonna give me specific feedback on the slides, not the idea. You’re gonna give me feedback on the artifact.
PF And it forces you to talk about it as if it was real.
RZ Yeah, and—and every so often, it creates an emotional response and people are just like, “Woah! I want this—” Like, you know, all of a sudden you’ve got an advocate in front of you because they saw something tangible and they connected with it emotionally.
PF That’s right, I mean design can push through institutional inertia.
RZ Exactly. Hey, McKinsey! If you wanna use that quote . . .
PF That’s right.
RZ Just say it again, Paul, but say it with like—as if you’ve been hired at a very expensive rate.
PF You know, one of the things that we learned at our offsite, and that we discussed quite a bit, is that design can cut through organizational inertia at a one point five rate of—
RZ Don’t—don’t—[Paul chuckles]. You had it and then you had to kind of go into a—you started doing wheelies, and nobody—you didn’t need ‘em. You didn’t need ‘em. Ok.
PF I need to go put on a suit.
RZ Institutional—what did you say? Organizational—
PF Organizational inertia. Yeah.
RZ Is a very—
PF Design can push through. It’s momentum. Where organizational inertia is slowing down progress.
RZ That’s right. Dude, we could’ve, by the way, audience! As Postlight, we could’ve pocketed that and put it into one of our slides or one of our proposals but free of charge! We’re puttin’ this one out there.
PF What a lucky audience.
RZ What a lucky, lucky audience.
PF Oh my Lord. Alright.
RZ Share the podcast!
PF Let’s get outta here!
RZ Alright, Paul, great discussion, actually. We covered history and we covered its power—
PF The problem with this discussion for me is there’s so much detail. It’s actually very hard.
RZ It’s true.
PF Like we’re like, “Blah blah blah! Design!” And I think it’s [stammers] like we’re not wrong about what—
RZ No, no, I think we’re sharing insights but you’re right, it’s an—[stammers] the different dimensions of this are significant.
PF But I do agree with you that the iPhone was the sea change.
RZ Without a doubt.
PF Mobile changed everything and it took us from documents to more dynamic experiences and . . . forced design because it was in everybody’s palm.
PF And because two of the largest companies in the world were in total competition as to who could have the best interface.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF It forced design into everybody’s consciousness every single minute of the day.
RZ Yeah, I think everybody says, “Design—the iPhone is a sea change,” but I think what we’re talking about is quite different than, “Oh my God, everybody on the subway is using it.” Like what we’re talking about is this thing changed business; it changed what people perceive as—what—necessary for business success which I don’t think a lot of people think about when they think about the iPhone.
PF No, and I think it was just kind of the death knell for batch style computing, like it just—it got everybody away from thinking about documents and thinking about experiences.
RZ I got badass on the DOS-prompt and I felt—there was nothing that felt better and I’m like just running at 80 miles an hour and there’s all this shit flying by on the screen and I know exactly what’s going on.
PF You know, there’s a concept that’s gone which is the concept of the power user . . .
RZ That’s too bad, man.
PF It was the person who knew how things were going under the hood.
RZ I would just play Rush’s like Hemispheres and I’m just killin’ it on the DOS-prompt.
PF Oof. That’s rough. The—you know the other concept that’s gone is the prosumer. Remember the prosumer?
RZ Oh, I’m glad that one’s gone.
PF Prosumer and power users. There’s no—
RZ We’re good.
PF You’re either a complete amateur or basically a pro. They cut that middle out.
RZ Yeah, I know, there used to—I mean there are still toasters out there with 11 buttons but separate podcast. Different podcast.
PF But it’s 2017, I’m gonna go take 30 dollars and buy 25 camcorders and just [Rich laughs] throw them away.
RZ Just use ‘em once.
PF Yeah, exactly.
RZ Alright, Paul! Great chat.
PF Alright, anybody needs us: email@example.com. You’ve been listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight. We build apps, websites, mobile platforms, non-mobile platforms, all the things you need to make your web and digital experience real for your customers and users. [Deep tone] Postlight. [Music fades in.]
RZ Hmm, strong. Strong.
PF We’re nice. We’re ok. We’re ok. We’re alright. We’re doin’ ok. We’re doin’ fine. We’re tryin’—
RZ [In high pitch, nagging] We’re not al—Dude, that’s why we do the podcast cuz we’re trying to tell everyone that we kick ass. [Mocking tone] “We’re doin’ alright. Blah blah blah.” That’s not—I’m gonna send you some marketing links and we’ll go from there.
PF Ok. I’m gonna—
RZ Have a great week, everybody!
PF I’m gonna go check out some marketing links.
RZ [Chuckles] Bye.
PF Bye [music ramps up, plays alone for six seconds, fades out to end].