Why the Democratization of design is a good thing -- really

How did design get so popular? Why has every business from Procter & Gamble to the corner restaurant decided that design is going to help them connect to a broader audience? There's something going on here, and everyone wants a piece of it, but I think many are missing the real reason this change is taking place.

Design's power lies in its fundamental purpose, making something better -- an experience, a product, a message, a cause. We're seeing that purpose utilized today in the way products like the iPhone and the Mini are changing entire business categories. We're seeing it in the way better products and services are identified, packaged and presented to their audiences?not only to look better, but to be better -- for you, for the environment and, yes, for the bottom line.

The best advertising agencies have realized design's power for years. They've made it part of the creative process and brought it to bear on how brands are brought to market. Today's enlightened marketers realize that until you've quite literally created the brand through the best product, identity and packaging, you are in no position to advertise it. Hopefully the days of adding design at the end of the process -- a prettier package at the close of a "brilliant" 30-second TV spot or just the right logo to sign off a print ad -- are fading fast.

Design, in its broadest definition, is not just another way to market a product or a new version of advertising. Design is a way to create a more meaningful existence, a way to transform a mundane lifestyle into one that separates one person's life from another. Design can change the way we look at the world as well as the way the world sees us. It's a way of leading a unique and individualized existence, a better life.

We live in a time when the range of choices is absolutely staggering. Virtually anything that's created in this world that could bring us what we want in life materially is at our fingertips. Technology has given us this range of choices, as well as filtering devices that allow us to focus on those products and services that will help us to design our lives. From our kitchen knives and toothbrushes to our children's education, from the houses we live in to the way we entertain our friends or plan "once in a lifetime" vacations, the ability to make all aspects of our lives more meaningful is what design is all about.

The companies out there that embrace this cultural phenomenon are providing their audiences with a way to experience their brands in a personal way. Nike lets us design our own individual sneakers. HP allows us to create a truly personal computer. Levi's helps us customize the fit of our jeans. Mini gives us the kit of parts to make our car, ours alone. And the Bahamas invites us to design the ultimate family vacation experience on its Web site. As business comes to realize that people want to design their lives, the real democratization of design will take place.

Our industry has evolved from marketing through metaphors that suggest an experience an audience might desire to offering the audience the ability to make that experience their own. Creating and reinvigorating brands with this in mind will be the difference between success and failure in the new world of marketing.

The key is collaboration. Not only with those who can help us create a total experience -- professionals from advertising, design, architecture, product development, media, etc. -- but most importantly, with the audience we're trying to attract. They know what they want, and they're the creative resource we need to depend on to help us design brand experiences that will truly change their lives. What's required is an "open-source" dialogue that invites the audience into the creative process. The more they can relate to how designers and creative people think and work, the more they will appreciate breakthrough creativity and accept new ideas. They are, after all, the ultimate client.

I know this open-source point of view concerns some designers. It's the fear that the "amateurs" will take over much of what we hold dear. But consider my new found love of golf. I began golfing eight years ago, and now I have a genuine appreciation for what Tiger Woods does. Believe me, he is not concerned about me as a competitor. Nor do I believe that the way he and I golf is anywhere near the same in terms of process or end-result; nor will it ever be. (Damn.)

When design becomes an important part of our culture, appreciated and practiced by many, at many different levels, as it is in Japan, those who practice design as professionals will find true respect and, more importantly, an engaged and grateful audience.

So cheers to the design era. And with it, a challenge to all involved in branding and marketing that truly understand and embrace the reality and substance behind it.

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