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July 17, 2015

Retail's Exploratory, Disruptive Design Thinking

Posted by Amitabh Mudaliar (View Profile | View All Posts) at 10:43 AM

What is Design Thinking [ Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ee4CKIPkIik ]

When one of Detroit's 'Big Three' automotive companies hired a new design chief about 15 years ago, the gentleman stated in an interview that he didn't get his inspiration from certain types of cars as much as he did from other industrial products. Yes, here was a newly-minted automotive company executive telling the world that he found design inspiration in toasters and clocks and chairs!

He might have insulted his new employer if it weren't for the type of chairs he mentioned: Eames chairs, the beautiful products of mid-20th century Modernists Charles Eames and his wife Ray. To this day their eponymous chairs command top prices in upscale showrooms. The fact that this car designer was saying he was a fan of the Eames chair was a sign of his sophistication. Car buffs immediately were curious as to what his designs would look like on four wheels.

Today we're hearing a lot about Design Thinking in the corporate world. Design Thinking experts are the latest mega-consultants who proffer their insights to large corporations whose executives want to update and change their corporate cultures. Yet if you're a fan of mid-20th century furniture and the Modernists who crafted those chairs, Design Thinking isn't anything new or trendy - and it certainly doesn't come from hiring a consultant by the hour. That's one reason why Infosys is training both its employees and clients on Design Thinking. We see it as a way of conducting business. Not by the hour, but as a holistic approach that touches everything we do.

Some people might wonder why mid-20th century Modernist furniture remains expensive. Well, Modernists believed that form follows function. Yet their lasting success is that their functional furniture are examples of just how beautiful Modernist design thinking can be. The Eames family was famous for experimenting with materials and shapes. Their chairs not only served the function of being comfortable places to sit, but were also works of art. They were beautiful to look at.

Today, their iterative processes are not only part of the Design Thinking trend that is being embraced by the business world. Their design processes themselves are serving as inspiration to retailers who peddle much different products and services. There's a big difference between the two: corporations that want to change their day-to-day cultures and retailers who want to sell, sell, sell. Their entrepreneurial thinking in the retail space is disruptive and it's derived from exploratory thinking.

An excellent example of such thinking is Airbnb. Their concept, like Uber, was straightforward enough: use social, digital technology to connect people in search of services with those nearby who are offering it. A recent interview with one of Airbnb's founders amazed me. It turns out that his career training wasn't in the hospitality industry or in technology or software. He was trained as a designer. So he and his colleagues approached the business much differently than a hotelier would have. He said that two of the most important things that he constantly thinks about are approachability and global vision. When combined, these two traits are what can form a successful, disruptive business.

They certainly aren't mentioned in the same breath by most people, however. Yet the Airbnb people cite the fact that Charles and Ray Eames were always designing chairs with the desired outcome that they would be cheap enough for nearly anyone to buy them and they would use materials in new ways so that those chairs would be beautiful and comfortable, too (no doubt the mid-20th century Modernists would find today's sky-high prices of their creations to be interesting, indeed!).

The value proposition of Airbnb is very simple. It connects someone who is looking for an affordable, and pleasant place to stay with someone who is willing to rent out that kind of space. But, there's more to it. They ask their consumers what their interests are. For example, if someone is passionate about cooking, perhaps they can share a house with a large kitchen and an owner who teaches them how to cook during the stay. You see, if technology can find rooms for people to rent, it can surely be used to find out more about their interests and provide value-added services.

Perhaps the owner of the house has an impressive library. Can you imagine what book lovers would pay to stay in a home with thousands of good books (and even more comfortable chairs)? Retailing has gone global, whether it begins or ends on a digital device. That's why it's time for enterprises of all sizes to think like digitally savvy retailers and always push approachability and global vision to the forefront.


Hi Amitabh, good insight in your article. wanted to understand though, how is that IT bigwigs such as you guys (and others) especially Indian brands, never seem to get design aesthetics correct - be it their websites, newsletters, blogposts or profiles - mostly they all seem to come out of a technical manual - where as firms such as airbnb, dropbox, slack etc imply such great design thinking that even their mundane blog posts get more views and shares cause of its design aesthetics and content presentation. is there a way , this could be improved? i seriously see a big gap in our home grown IT brands understanding the importance of being 'cool' and not come across as a stoic brand. would love to know your thoughts. I have the same grudge with CTS, TCS, everyone has such 'uninteresting' and bland content aesthetics.

Indian IT needs to start believing in branding and hire some very creative people/teams to get this correct .


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