Jesper Bo Jensen, Ph.d., Futurist / 11. dec 2008

Over the past years, design has been on everybody’s lips. Elaborate speeches on the great-ness and the future of designs, but also ordinary businesses that wish to improve their pos-sibilities in the market. Design often creates additional value for the producer, because the customers perceive design products as being more valuable than ordinary products. So far, so good. But not really. Many product development processes fail. Businesses end up with failed projects and half-finished solutions instead of brilliant new examples of their skills that the customers just have to own.

There may be many reasons for development processes failing. The organisation may be set up wrong, the support of the management may lack, the employees may be incompetent, or the business may be struck by misfortune or merely end up at a dead end from which there is no way out. Over time I have had the opportunity to visit various business stock rooms and basements in which old scrapped product ideas are stored for better times – they await the business historians, who may show up one day to study the past. These chambers of horror clearly show that something went wrong.

When something goes wrong

Murphy’s Law rules: Something always goes wrong when you least expect it and everyone who can fix it has gone home for the weekend. But things do not go wrong without a reason. People create misfortunes; it is not some magic stroke that runs solid projects into the ground. It is human to fail – and to omit. It is the sin of omission that causes so many “de-sign misfortunes”.

Examples are legion: When Sony designed its Betamax-system for video cassette, they omit-ted to analyse what such new machine was to be used for. It was assumed that video would be used to postpone i.e. the taped news and watch them 2 hours after they were actually aired. The first generation of Betamax tapes could only record 60 minutes, while the compet-ing VHS-system could record 2 hours. Sony had omitted the first phase in which it should have been examined what the video recorder was to be used for, and VSH ended up taking over the entire market for video films and recordings from television. The home cinema – that was what people wanted the video for.

Coca-cola and new coke is also an example of a gigantic failure that could have been avoided, if Coca-cola had worked more on the predesign phase. People did not want a new coke; they were happy with the existing type, but would like to have it marketed differently. Coca-cola should have used more energy and time on the analysis before initiating the secret product development.

The preliminary phase where the prerequisites of the product are examined is called predes-ign. It is a process which – prior to the design or development process – is carried through to research and clarify, which prerequisites concerning customers, markets, future development and other relevant matters may have an impact on the product in question or the service that is about to be developed.

Predesign can identify the possibilities of the design before it is initiated, which is called de-sign opportunities. Addressed directly to the designer that means: Think before you draw. Predesign exposes the strategic possibilities of the future product, sets up and analyses the scenarios in which the future product or service plays a part, examines image and branding and exposes everything that is otherwise taken for granted.

What is predesign?

When a car manufacturer starts on a new car model, he could just go ahead and ask the de-signer to develop something fancy that is sellable. Often it starts with something more, i.e. a number of prerequisites for the design work. It may be a number of assumptions that mar-keting lists together with the more strategically oriented staff and the product engineers. These assumptions make out the platform that the further product development is based on. In the example with Betamax it was an assumption that the video recorder would be used to delay watching TV shows. For a new car model there are design lines, market size for i.e. small cars and a number of other assumptions in play. The total input into the design process – assumptions – very much determines the agenda for the process. That means that if such assumptions are not correct it is most likely that the product or the new service will become a failure. Sometimes one can be very lucky in choosing its assumptions with this somewhat random approach and other times one will surely fail the entire development right there.

The problem arises when no validation of the assumptions takes place. It may be the market managers who believe that there is a demand for a product in a certain market in which competitors are doing well. It may also be the product developers who want to apply a new process, of which they expect much, who thus suggest the assumptions that imply such process in the future production. Or maybe the strategists believe that there is room for gambling in a specific area.

Predesign is to validate assumptions. Predesign is to carry though a controlled phase of analysis and fix the relevant criteria for choosing the product line and lay ranked, controlla-ble foundation stones for new products in order for them not to fail because their homework was not done properly.

How is predesign used?

Let us use a car as an example. When European car-makers plan new models it is essential that they know whether we – with our increasing wealth – will draw nearer the pattern of consumption that we know from the US middle class with cars for different purposes, i.e. an off roader for golf and skiing, a sprawler for the family trip or the swift convertible for her shopping trip or a vintage sports car for him for relaxation, or whether we will continue to demand multi-purpose cars – cars that can be used for many purposes. A predesign phase that thoroughly examines the possibilities of the future car demand will validate the subse-quent development of the model, so that you do not after 4 years of development when it is time to market the car, end up standing there with a perfect car for a market that disap-peared two years ago.

A very important part of predesigning is to map the future development – analyse future customer needs and competitor initiatives – so that you do not end up with products for markets that no longer exist or have changed significantly.

At the same time, predesign is the cheapest phase in product development. It takes place only on paper and only paper will be lost during this phase, as no funds are tied up in the development of the product or services and no investments have been made in logistics, production etc. It is cheap to make changes in the predesign phase, but also very expensive to fail in this process. So considering the costs, it is very sensible to invest in this phase – low costs, great potential to avoid loss, and possibility of great gains through thorough analysis.

Predesign not only concerns businesses that produce goods. It also concerns services – i.e. the financial sector. In the financial sector there has for years been a problem in relation to developing new financial “products” (actually services, but often referred to as products). They have been unable to come up with something new, mainly because the sector has not considered the needs of the customers, but have instead been absorbed in developing new algorithms and other sophisticated solutions that often have not become a success. When developing products from the business to the customers instead of making serious consid-erations and analysis of the customers’ actual needs during the development, you end up with solutions that rarely excite the customers.

Significance as a concept

Merely talking about predesign has an effect. Through the concept we can establish an im-portant phase in the development process, which has to be carried through before we can move on. By starting working with the concept of predesign many businesses can ensure that some thorough preliminary work has been carried through before starting to find solu-tions. The design of the product or service itself is a solution to a problem, while the predes-ign phase ensures that the problem is defined correctly before creating a solution.

Predesign is very often also to find the DNA of a business – the “design soul” of a business. Many businesses have one without even knowing, and the important part of the preliminary work is often to find the exact lines and the right tone that already represent the products of the business in order for them to create something new, which by the consumers is con-ceived as innovative and in line with the existing business. Whether you are looking for con-tinuity or innovation you have to know the design DNA that you are based on.

Function as a check list

The predesign process is also a check list of a number of areas which you have to go through before you start creating your solution. When listing check points for a predesign phase and subsequently carrying through the analysis etc. required for checking off each point, you en-sure that the subsequent design process becomes safer.

Examples from real life

A thorough examination of the kitchen market, including use, function, sales force and the future consumers’ use of the kitchen and the dining area made it possible to create the framework for a new design line and a choice of product mix for a producer of refrigerators that subsequently extended its product line to comprise other domestic appliances.

A producer of high-end audio equipment reviewed and examined the use of multimedia in the future, including the market development and various scenarios for the future, before designing a music system, which among other things contained a hard disc with room for storing a lot of music.

A newly developed hearing aid, which is not a traditional invisible hearing aid, but a visible hearing aid, went through a long and precise predesign phase whereby possibilities, custom-ers, markets, distribution etc. were established before the designers started drawing the product.


Predesign is to think before you act, before you involve hands, machines, production facilities and communications – and it is much cheaper to think than to invest in expensive production facilities and subsequently failing in the market. So think! Businesses must in the future pre-design before they develop products. For their own sake, for the customers’ sake and for all of our sakes so that we as a society can stay a rich place to live.

Why design?

Where would Bang & Olufsen be without design? An ordinary manufacturer of video-audio equipment – well, more likely a small part of a large group with production in the East. Where would Lego be without design? The answer is that the business would probably not exist. Design is a competitive factor that can make businesses survive. But many businesses will probably claim that their products are in a whole other league than Lego and Bang & Olufsen. Think about slaughterhouse equipment that is only sold directly to the slaughter-houses, or think about the producers of discount beer for the supermarkets; for them there is no need to use design in the development. They can let their engineers fix the new prod-ucts and let the marketing staff sell them. But the engineers think technical solutions and rarely look at how the product is perceived, while marketing thinks about selling. But in a competitive world where the difference between products is diminishing, a large part of the consumer market is headed for IKEA: Good design products at a low price. Price and quality go together – as long as the price is low and the quality is high. In the business-to-business market design is also on its way to becoming an expected quality in a product. Slaughter-houses actually notice product design and buy design products rather than ordinary products – a black design photocopier brought down the market a few years ago. The same people who buy design products as consumers are also handling the businesses’ purchases.

The businesses of the future may increase their competitiveness by designing products bet-ter than they do today. It is the classical use of design that can result in such advantage. Design as form and function in combination and the opportunity to get better products at the same price, or obtain a higher price for products without increasing the costs of production significantly.

Design as storytelling

For the established brands design is a natural part of the process. Designer clothes brands have for years designed their own products and also the car industry. There are a long series of brands that have used product design as a natural part of product development for a long time. But over the past years it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a brand and de-velop it. Many brands have been caught between the really unique products and the ordinary products. In order to increase the brand value, businesses have begun incorporating story-telling in their branding process. To tell a reliable story to the consumers is not an easy task. It requires, among other things, authenticity if the story has to retain its value.

In this connection design is incorporated in a new way. First, the new products reflect the story – and thus the products become the bearers of the business’ storytelling. Second, de-signers are used to further developing the branding process. That is exactly what designers do – to develop and shape based on an overall idea of the use, and thus they plan the brand-ing process, so that the end result is right. The difference between designers and many ad-vertising people is obvious. In the advertising world creativity is used – ideas – to invent a story for the business, while designers seek information about the business, the product, consumers, the surroundings etc. and bring this information into the process, which aims di-rectly at the target. Design of branding thus gives the business a solid standpoint.

Design as development

We often think of design as something that is used in well-established businesses that can see a few years ahead. But actually, design processes are very suitable for creating devel-opment. When business managers look at their organisations they often think of changes in order to obtain a better position in the market. Such changes have over the years been left to consultancy firms etc. to make. But actually, such changes can be incorporated into the framework of the design process. Usually, we are able to define the target fairly clearly – but not the solution that will bring us to the target. In letting the business undergo an internal design process, we can obtain better results in the market. The new big slaughterhouses that are being built in East Jutland are a good example. When it pays off to close a number of slaughterhouses and unite the production in one big facility, it is because the product process and the organisation has been designed in a more efficient and expedient way. So we also need the design concept in production facilities and we will benefit from having designers on such tasks – it could even create more jobs without additional costs.

The characteristics of design processes are that it is very cheap to change targets and ob-jects in the beginning of the process, at which stage the final design is only on the drawing board. In the course of the process it gets more costly to make changes, when important choices have been made, but the processes are planned in such a way that the options are not narrowed down too soon. The message is clear and concise: Design your business, save money and obtain better results.

Design can be used for anything

Designing is a generally useful process. We often associate design with products and graph-ics, but the design mindset is useful in general. We must view the concept design as we view ethics and analysis. Ethical considerations were until recently reserved for philosophers and theologians, but has over the past 10 years obtained general usage in businesses and other organisations. Analysis was for many years something carried out at universities, while al-most all businesses today make market analysis and organisational analysis.

In a few years more businesses than today will design their products and it will be just as natural to design a new organisation, a traffic system or designing development with a certain target in mind. This will result in better solutions.

Published here, 2008

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