This blog post was based on my post in FastCo, to read more about Design Talent and Competition on their site.
I recently returned from a week in Germany, where I was a design judge for the Red Dot design competition in Essen. It was no small task – there were 4,428 product entries from 60 countries. I was one of 30 international judges selected to evaluate all this stuff. The thing about Red Dot that makes it so interesting, and why I keep accepting their invitations, is that all of the entries are actually sent to Red Dot for physical inspection. So in competitions like this, the judges can not only look at, but also touch, use, play with, ride, wear, and even occasionally drop, everything submitted. This makes for very thorough evaluations.
This year I was on a team of three judges asked to evaluate entries in “Leisure, outdoor and sport”, and “Gardens” categories. We were asked to evaluate the degree of innovation, functionality, formal quality, ergonomics, durability, symbolic and emotional content, product peripherals, self-explanatory quality, and ecological soundness. What stands out to me most are two things this year: parity of quality, and lack of differentiation.
Good design is abundant
Just a few years ago, some of the Red Dot entries I evaluated were clearly laggards. But this year, I was positively impressed by the overall quality of the submissions. This means that the bar of design quality is rising all over the world, and so any company that wants to compete internationally must have very good design quality.
Lack of differentiation
The second thing that I noticed was basically a design status quo. Because the submissions were all pretty good, it is getting harder to stand out. It is as if design is reaching equilibrium all over the world. This is both good and bad: good because the bar is rising, and bad because with parity of design, it’s almost as if good design is becoming good enough.
The new competition is for design leadership
If formal design is not a differentiator, what is? I think a lot of things, which still involves design but more so design leaders. Like companies in which design is part of corporate strategy, companies that integrate design thinking throughout the organization, that build great design competencies internally and externally, that take responsibility for service design and the entire customer experience, that work to solve the right problems; these are the companies that will gain advantage in the years to come.
In the past, some companies competed well using good design against bad design, and it was easy to win. But the future is about good design competing against good design. So every company has to up their design game just to stay even, not to mention gain preference. Imagine – what if BMW and Nike were direct competitors? Or IKEA and Apple? Or Dyson and OXO? Or Coach and Audi? I think we would see even better design, and more design innovation, more quickly. I believe it is competition on the leadership level that the future holds.