David Law has successfully launched and run a number of influential design businesses, including Speck Design. His work ranges from iPod skins to “camera armor” to video conferencing environments. David spoke to a small group at the University of Edinburgh on 26th March 2008. He proposed that design should be at the core of a modern business, as a competitive advantage to differentiate a business from others. This article summarises David’s argument, describing why there is a need to differentiate, his approach to design, targeting of niches, and how to stay ahead.
Design to Differentiate
Things are getting easier to make. There has never been a more informed consumer. Markets for consumer products are highly competitive, with little barrier to entry. All this means that popular designs are likely to be emulated, eroding prices downward. The aim of most manufacturing is simply to reduce cost to remain competitive.
The solution? Differentiation. A small company cannot differentiate products through marketing, but it can differentiate through good design.
Approach to Design
David sees design as “supercharged problem solving”. The aim is to satisfy a user need.
How is that need found? Observe users. Don’t ask them, watch them. Find where they get mad, and design a product that takes away their pain.
Then create lots of prototypes quickly. For real. CAD is too slow and lacks realism. Better to create a paper mock-up, which can be seen and handled. Keep on iterating until the design is right.
The development process behind a new product can be weighted between three objectives:
For example, a project might be orientated towards speed, with a new product developed in a few weeks. Other projects might be highly cost sensitive. David believes that most companies never consider the balance of objectives, and so tend to end up “somewhere in the middle”.
The mantra “always start in a niche” goes against the instinct of many entrepreneurs, who tend to gravitate towards the biggest problem or market, since the reward from success are greater there.
However, niches have a number of distinct advantages:
- Higher margins
- Lower competition
- Easier to “get in to” and find needs within
- Appreciate audience.
David used the example of Camera Armor: Products that protect SLR equipment while in use. SLRs are a niche within a larger camera market. From this niche it was possible to develop into the larger market for smaller digital cameras – creating innovative cases and a rather dinky little tripod that snaps out from the bottom of the camera when needed.
David Law’s teams consists of a small number of designers. All their products are manufactured elsewhere (in China). The manufacturing process is simple – the real value of what they do is in design.
Could China produce good design? David argued that design needs proximity to the market. However, he did cite the example of Samsung: Historically a manufacturer competing on price alone, they have successfully developed a design-orientated approach, and are increasingly producing genuinely good designs in the vein of companies such as Sony or Apple. [It is possible that eventually Chinese manufacturers will follow this path, and become more design-orientated themselves.]
But if it is easy to copy products, how can value be maintained in good design? It depends on the product:
- Where a key part of the design can be patented, a successful design will pay a long term dividend.
- Where a design cannot be patented (most common), the method is simple: Keep on innovating, and always keep a step ahead.