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Rob Brady Discusses The Business Of Design With CEOwise Part 2

Rob Brady sits down with Sean Burke from CEO Insights to discuss the business of design. This interview originally appeared as a podcast on CEOwise.com. In this interview with Sean, you will hear Rob discuss: what it is like being in the “eye candy” business; the increased importance of design in business; how design is used to create a competitive advantage; the definition of Total Brand Synergy; how he determines if there is a market for his innovations;  and much more. Below is the second part of this interview.

(I)There's a lot of CEO's out there who are listening to this.  A lot of them have zero design experience.  What two to three insights would you share with them about how they can differentiate their product and service with the use of design?

(R)This very rarely comes up in conversation, but I think more and more it will.

(R)They need to be aware of design.  There's a call that I got from a presentation I did for General Electric and it's from the honorary chairman of Sony, Norio Olga -- hopefully I got the pronunciation correct -- but his quote is, at Sony we assume all products of our competitors will have basically the same technology, price, performance and feature.  Design is the only thing that differentiates one product from another in the marketplace.  And here's the CEO of Sony -- I'm going to guess probably not a designer, but a business person -- Robert Hays, who's the professor at Harvard Business School, quoted as saying 15 years ago companies competed on price, today it's quality and tomorrow's it's design.  If you're not a CEO that's aware of design, you're either in a unique universe where it doesn't matter or you're going to find out about it in a harsh way because your competitors are going to show up with that fact.  When you think about design, realize that you can't get a designer, a credible, talented designer involved in your program too early.  If you're just scratching your head, if you're whiteboarding different ideas, if you're thinking about different ways to go attack your competitors or to offer different designed products or services to your client base, get a designed in the room.  It's not just about the math, it's not just about honing what you've got in production, it's about creative thinking and I think designers and the way we're schooled, we think that way all the time.

(I)Right brain, right?  You look at it spatially

(R)Totally right brain.  And I would challenge the designers that are out there listening.  You have to be right for an analyst brain, you're got to be aware of the other technical aspects as well, but we work with a number of our clients very early on, very confidentially -- they're called design summits and sometimes we host them here where we bring in people that are very close to the subject and people who are just very creative and are away from the subject, have nothing to do with the subject, but are very creative thinkers, and we put them all in a room and we have a different format of how we go about distilling different ideas for that mission.  But I would say a couple things to think about is certainly if you're a type of business right now that's dealing with the recession or the thought of a recession or that R word has entered your mind, those clients of ours who are dealing with that issue right now are talking to us about their future.  Where I think it's easy to bury your head in the sand and say let's get to a low burn rate, which is probably a smart move, but let's get to a low burn rate, put our head in the sand and hope for the best and see when things turn up. We have clients who are right in the heat of that because they're dealing with products that are gas consumables.  For whatever reason, they're dealing with their session and they're investing in us right now to look at their product from a product and a service aspect, and we are developing new designs for them.  We're a known entity, we're a known cost, all the numbers are talked about up front so they know what they're getting into; but we're setting forth in front of them a whole series of solutions that they can then weigh as to which one they think is the most marketable and then they can pull the trigger on the one they think is the best when they're ready.  So it could be that we need to talk about design, but we're not ready to act on design; but the last thing you want to do is say let's just wait to see when things turn up and then invest later on because then it's too late, you're trying to scramble to get things, you're having to throw tons of money at something, to be able to get it out faster then it should be and nothing is worse than racing to embarrass yourself.  Spend the time to get it right.  So the smart CEO's that we're dealing with right now are investing in the studio to look for future products for them and if they can afford to move forward with it, they will; if they can't afford to, they have it all locked up, they know what the next product is, they're waiting for market conditions to be just right and then they'll pull the trigger.  They're in command of their future.  And what we're trying to communicate to all of our clients is you're looking for basically three things, which is aesthetics, ergonomics and performance.  And when you talk about aesthetics, it's really about brand.  What is going to differentiate your product from others and how can you extrapolate that to a series of products.  From an ergonomic standpoint, what are the human factors; how does the human interact with your products, how can you do that better, more compelling.  And here again in all these things, it really goes to not only the product but also the packaging and the whole service aspect.  And the last one is from performance standpoint.  Make sure that your products are performing properly, prototype as often as possible and when you bring designers into the equation, we're great at prototyping, we're great at not falling in love with any solution.  We'll trash it and start all over again.  I do that to my clients -- typically what happens is we actually give them a series of solutions and they say, on now we have a problem, we don't know which one to choose, and so we'll work through that.  But if they make a comment of I don't think you're hit it on any of these, we say great, let's start all over, let's focus in on what we've learned, let's hone it, let's turn this and get it right, but then again maybe you're not right; we want to go to the voice of the customer, we want to bring your customer in here, have them look at this, let us listen with designer ears at what your customer is saying and we can certainly hone the product from there.  So if you're a CEO and you're thinking about developing any type of a product or service and you don't have a designer somewhere on your staff, you've got a gigantic hole, you've got a hole in your organizational lineup and I think you're going to have a greater challenge in being successful.

(I)So what's the future of design, what can we be looking forward to?

(R)I think future is going to be brighter from the design side.  I think you're going to see a lot more -- my favorite products in the world are digital products.  They're insanely smart.  Take an iPhone for an example, every time I hook up to my computer, it goes back to Cupertino, California, says, hey, you guys got any new software for me?  And every once in a while they say yeah, as a matter of fact we've got a lot of new software for you.  I tell my family how I got a new phone and they were going crazy because I'm always buying different stuff and they say, well, why did you get a new phone this time.  I said I didn't, I just hooked it up to charge it and now I have GPS on my phone when I didn't have it before.  Or as you know in June with that particular company there's going to be a lot of new push technologies that are coming.  So I've already bought this phone and it's getting smarter every day.  I think digital products are going to be a compelling component to anybody's landscape; no matter what they're doing, if you can connect it to the web, connect it and that's also going to allow you to do something that's very, very clever in product development and that is, you can release your product sooner to the marketplace, you can begin the revenue stream sooner than anyone else because if the product isn't perfect you make it perfect by software updates.  And when you have a computer you don't think twice about coming in in the morning and hitting an update or doing a patch or what-have-you.

(R)I think you're going to see that across the board.  I think cars, the scooters that we've designed or the motorcycles that we designed with Vetrix, there is a way for updates to be e-mailed to you; if you need to take that e-mail and put it into your computer and it makes your product smarter.  Now knowing that, what can we do to have a different user interface every time you update your console?  Wouldn't it be great to have a flatscreen in front of your car so every three or four months you can have a completely different instrumentation setup, all kinds of different things.  And I think that's where the future of the products are going.  But also when we say the future, I often joke that I don't know what today's date is because all the products that we're working on are basically 2010, 2011, 2012; so when you ask me what today is, I've got to think back for a moment.  We're not doing anything in 2008.  We're so far into the future that it's a blast, but when I see the possibilities with digital tools, we're taking any and every product we can and figuring out how to give a digital component to it.

(I)So what advice would you give to our listeners who are pursuing their goals?  Words of wisdom.

(R)Well, I don't know.  I'm living it today, so I feel unbelievable fortunate.  My wife is a fabulous designer and she and I had this discussion not too long ago and it was about design and we feel that everything we do design is pervasive in everything that we think about and everything that we touch and organize.  We have the saying the design chooses you.  You don't choose design.  But I think what it comes down to at the core is one's passion.  I'm really passionate about design.  And fortunate to be passionate about design; so when I work 50, 60, 70, 80 hours a week, it's not really work.  As I've said in the past, I'm not doing somebody else's taxes here, I'm designing jet boats, motorcycles, watercraft, consumer electronic products, new industrial products, taking technologies and trying to mobilize them into consumer products.  So for me, I'm still passionate about it.  It’s really not work.  I couldn't tell you what my hobby is because this is all I every want to be doing; if I'm not at home with my family, I want to be developing new products.  So I think it's a pretty big bold question you asked and I think it's related to passion.  I think if you can find what you're passionate about then all the self-sacrifices and all your focus and energy, it all makes sense, it's all very logical.  But if I wasn't passionate about this, there's no way, there's no way I would invest this personal level of attention on it.

(I)Good.  Well, thank you so much for your time.  I do appreciate it and I'm sure all of our listeners will get a lot from your unique focus and what you do.  So best wishes.

(R)I've enjoyed it, and thank you very much.

(I)Thank you for listening to this episode of CEO Insights.  For more CEO interviews, for insights into business best practices and for our business blog, visit us at www.ceowise.com.  Leave us a comment.  We'd love to hear from you.  Until next time, so long.