Archive for the ‘design’ Category

Harvard Business Review editor responds to critique

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

My post last week on the Harvard Business Review redesign drew a thoughtful response from Scott Berinato, Senior Associate Editor of the magazine. He was kind enough to allow us to repost it here.

Hi, John,

I’m Scott Berinato, senior associate editor at Harvard Business Review. We of course are watching out for reaction to our redesign and your thoughtful critique has been discussed among the editors here. We thought it was appropriate we provide a loyal reader with some (almost) real-time feedback.

I’m the editor in charge of Idea Watch, so I was particularly interested in your comments. Rest assured I’m not trying to give you a headache and I understand your initial reaction to the color and use of bold visuals. Indeed, it was startling to most of us as we started living into the new design. I think the color especially surprised me. I hope and believe some of that will wear off for you, as it has for me.

I’ll try to explain some of the thinking that went into our visual approach in Idea Watch. As this section opens the magazine, we were seeking to distinguish it from other sections of the magazine and make the magazine less daunting. I won’t get too nerdy about magazine architecture, but very short, very visual elements here help readers make that distinction, which our research said they weren’t making before and thus they were feeling daunted by prospect of starting to read the magazine. Thus by changing the pacing we help carry the reader into and through the magazine, the same way a meal changes from one course to the next. Idea Watch is bacon-wrapped scallops to the middle of the magazine’s steak dinner.

My section is devoted to showing off new and interesting business research, so we knew it would be heavy on data. Data lends itself to a visual approach. Without going this way, few of the stories in that first issue could have been told in the space they were told. I would argue they’re told more effectively using visuals as well (and when text works best, as with the piece on brain science, we didn’t force the issue). Especially in my section, where we have such limited space, visual representations of data and information is not just a style choice, but an important tool.

One good example is the trust piece you cited. The author submitted that as an 1,800-word text essay. It was a ‘tweener, too short (and not a big enough topic) for a full feature but too long for an Idea Watch piece. After taking the visual approach, the author was more pleased with the outcome than he was with his draft. He said that we lost none of the important information while making it a more attractive, readable piece of content.

Did we get all the charts right? Probably not. As first efforts go, and for a design staff not used to producing visual information, I’m proud of the results and looking forward to watching as they improve in coming issues.

The first Idea Watch isn’t perfect; as with most magazine redesigns, it really takes place in two phases. First the new design debuts, then it’s tweaked over the coming issues as we learn. I think you were right about questioning the use of those top spaces and whether or not that content is and/or should be related to the rest of the content on the page. That’s a question we’re still working out the answer to. One change we’ve already made in March is to eliminate bylines and bios from those top spaces entirely, instead making them staff-written, uncredited data shots. This change alone, I believe, removes some of that frenetic energy you felt in the section. We will continue to tweak the section as we learn and process feedback like yours.

Finally, on the information graphic about bailout and stimulus monies, the Vision Statement. This is a format we’re committed to (we’ve received positive feedback on this as well). Even more than information graphics contained within article, such as those in the pricing story, creating these large-form graphics is a unique skill, practically an art form in itself. We learned quite a bit from this one (which I happen to love) and I’m hoping you continue to give them a chance as we approach different topics and improve our visual storytelling. (The next one I’m equally excited about, it’s on new ways of thinking about markets in China).

Once again I’d like to thank you for your thoughtful critique. We love to hear from readers like yourself and take any and all constructive criticism seriously. Happy to hear your reaction to this email as well. Write any time.

Scott Berinato
Senior Associate Editor
Harvard Business Review

Why I don’t like the Harvard Business Review redesign

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

I feel a bit like those folks who complained about the new Tropicana orange juice carton.

The editors of my favorite magazine, Harvard Business Review, have completely redesigned the look of the magazine. Editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius writes in his editor’s note, “we are excited to bring you a more modern, accessible magazine.”

He may want to hold off on the “accessible” comment. For me, the magazine has gotten busier – much busier. Bolder text, more graphics, more color. Everywhere from letters to the editor (now called “Interaction”) up front to the recommended reading list in back. I actually put the magazine down the first two times I started to read it. My eyes were boggling from all the colors and graphics.

In particular, the upfront IdeaWatch section (formerly Forethought) is a mess. Longer articles weave among sidebars – some relevant to the article at hand, others completely separate. And I had trouble differentiating. Is “Faith In Firms – as Low as You’d Expect,” on p. 22, part of the article “Can Technology Really Save Us”? No, it’s not. But the sidebar on p. 23, “Gauging the Impact of New Energy Technologies,” is.

This picture with its brilliant coloration and large, cartoonish numbers seems like what Edward Tufte calls “chart junk.” With four pie graphs, two outsized percentage numbers, the picture was utterly confusing to me. It took me a minute or more just trying to figure out what the graphs are trying to say.

And what of this?

(Full-size version here.)

If you can make heads or tails of this without referring to “How to Read this Chart” two or three times, I admire you.

Unfortunately, these examples are emblematic of the whole redesign. It’s far too busy for my taste. The great content is still there, it just takes more time and energy to wade through the clutter to reach it.

Perhaps I will grow used to the redesign. For certain my comfort level with the old design hasn’t helped me adapt to the changes. But I won’t ever love it, and I would be surprised if too much time passed before a “re-redesign” to improve readability and reduce the noise level.

Related post:
Customers are talking: Tropicana brings back old juice carton

My reading journal: Tim Brown’s “Change By Design”

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Change By DesignChange by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation,” by Tim Brown with Barry Katz. 2009: Harper Business, 264pp.

When did you read it? October 2009.

Subject: A presentation of the idea of “design thinking” – the use of close observation, imagination, and consideration of constraints to conceive and implement innovative solutions to problems in business and society.

Did you like it? How many stars would you give it (1-5)? 3.5

Summary: Brown is the CEO of IDEO, the acclaimed design consultancy that helped Apple create the iPod, designed the MyBook external hard drive for Western Digital and the Palm V, along with countless other products. The first part of the book, “What Is Design Thinking?” reviews the approach that IDEO uses to attack problems and come up with innovative solutions. To Brown, design is far more than putting an attractive package around an existing product – instead, it is a way to start from a ground-level assessment of a customer need and design a total solution to the problem. Emphasis is on going out in the field to observe potential users of products to see what they do (or don’t do), the value of divergent (idea-generating) vs. convergent (integrative) thinking and early and ongoing prototyping.

The second part of the book takes up questions for the future of design thinking, such as: can companies learn to do this themselves? can it improve our broken experiences, such as the dreaded airport security line? and can it help in some of our intractable problems, such as building a sustainable future?

Favorite quote: “Rarely will the everyday people who are the consumers of our products, the customers for our services, the occupants of our buildings, or the users of our digital interfaces be able to tell us what to do. Their actual behaviors, however, can provide us with invaluable clues about their range of unmet needs.” p.41

Did anything surprise you? I was surprised, and frankly a bit disappointed, that the book is focused almost solely on work done by IDEO. While there are occasional references to other thinkers like Peter Drucker, Gary Hamel and William Whyte, they are cursory. There is no bibliography or end notes (instead, there’s a list of IDEO projects referenced, along with people who worked on the projects, for each chapter). The only book discussed at any length is Roger Martin’s “The Opposable Mind.” [Interestingly, Martin has just published his own book on design thinking, called "The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage." I'm reading that now.]

Skating over people (other than a few brief anecdotes) who influenced design thinking and overwhelmingly referring to IDEO projects lends the book the air of a memoir as opposed to a work of scholarship. And given that Brown is IDEO’s CEO, it makes the book feel a bit like public relations. Which is a shame, because the topic is important and timely and Brown’s description of design thinking and case studies are excellent.

Will this book end up on your bookshelf or in the library donation pile? The bookshelf. While it doesn’t reach greatness, it’s a good book on an important topic.

Related posts:
On “The Opposable Mind”
On Gary Hamel’s “The Future of Management”

You know you are the design leader when…

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

I have a MacBook Pro. Since I got it I have realized how often the machine’s image is used in ads promoting web sites, software, etc. Even if it’s software that runs only on Windows! [Keep your eyes open when you're reading a magazine, and you'll see the MacBook Pro's distinctive features--silver case, elongated oval button, CD slot.]

Similarly, if you have a mobile web application, you include an iPhone in the advertisement, like this one here:

So this is the definition of design leadership. When your product is used as background to feature another product, you’re it. And right now in consumer electronics and PCs, that’s Apple.

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A must-read for people who present

Monday, March 10th, 2008

I have sat through, by my estimate, more than a thousand lousy presentations. You know the ones: someone in a suit stands at a lectern and dryly reads PowerPoint bullets for a half-hour, or an hour, or sometimes even longer. The slides use a garish corporate template and contain unreadably-small text, save for a few lame clip-art images. Ugh.

Even worse, I’ve given hundreds of similar presentations.

Luckily for me and other poor presenters, Garr Reynolds has been providing expert critique, tips and examples to help people present better on his Presentation Zen website. (I’ve written about Garr’s work a number of times: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

Now, he’s assembled his ideas into a book.

As you might expect, Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery is beautifully designed and laid out. With lots of white space, beautiful pictures, and a nice variety of page layouts, it reinforces its theme by its very look. [Similar to Edward Tufte's books, Presentation Zen is fun to flip through just to look at the pictures.]

If you didn’t think you could say more with less text, or didn’t know how to find cool photographs that would actually enhance your message, or didn’t know how to make your subject as compelling to the audience as it is to you, Presentation Zen has insight you need.

While Reynolds echoes themes and specific advice he’s presented in his blog, the accrual of the information between the book’s covers has a more powerful effect than reading the same material over a long period of time in several blog posts. For example, throughout the book he shows side-by-side comparisons of poor slides and improved ones, or shows a number of different ways of conveying the same information with different slide designs. By the time you get to the end, the message is clear.

In other words, if you read Reynolds’ blog regularly, you should still invest in the book. And if you don’t read the blog, you should buy the book right away. And start applying the lessons today. [Please! I'm going to another seminar at the beginning of April.]

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Are complexity and design harming innovation?

Monday, July 30th, 2007

At some level, it’s makes sense that technological advances and the open-source movement have made tinkering with and improving on our favorite products easier. Think of Google Maps mash-ups, Firefox add-ons, videogame hacks, etc.

Yet the proliferation of closed, highly-designed manufactured products (think iPod) limits much of the innovation on these products to the companies that create them (and perhaps select partners). Such is the hypothesis posed by G. Pascal Zachary in Sunday’s New York Times–”In a Highly Complex World, Innovation from the Top Down” (link).

And I can see his point. Think about cars. When I was a kid, you could open the hood of a car and see the engine’s parts clearly; there was plenty of open space to work, and parts were easy to buy and, to some extent, install. Lots of people worked on their own cars.

Now open your car’s hood. Chances are the engine is hermetically sealed, surrounded by wires and electronics and plastic, with not a square inch of empty space inside the hood. When’s the last time you even changed your own oil?

On the other hand, the web and most recently the web 2.0 tools that have come into wide use can make everybody an innovator in terms of virtual goods–wikis, photo collections, videos, playlists, etc.

So, as manufactured products close up, information products open up. Whereas a teenager in the 1970’s had a Radio Shack electronics project kit, now he has Facebook’s API. The net result to innovation is hard to calculate. But the emergence of Google, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, etc., would argue that innovation is alive and well.

That’s progress for you. You just hope your car, or your iPod, doesn’t break.

On designing

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Lots of talk this week about design, including Business Week writer Bruce Nussbaum’s broadside on arrogant designers, and reaction here, here and here.

I am a rank amateur when it comes to the aesthetics of design. For example, my wife created the vision and look for our house’s new addition, specifying materials, sizes, configurations; my biggest contribution was to appreciate the result.

With regards to technology products, I perhaps have more to offer. Aesthetics are a small (though significant) part of what constitutes design for tech products. A much larger component is answering this question:

What will the product do, and what will it not do?

The functions of traditional products (buildings, furniture, housewares) are typically constrained by tradition, physics and the properties of the materials used. Designers of high-tech products, especially those that are software-driven, face innumerable choices about what to include (a term has emerged describing a typical result: “software bloat“). The first personal computers sidestepped these decisions by providing platforms with little built into them (except a compiler–the message to users was, “use it for whatever you can build!”). Word processing programs, spreadsheets, Powerpoint, games, web browsers, anti-virus programs, e-mail programs, etc., followed.

Formerly lower-tech products like automobiles and airplanes now confront this scoping problem. BMW replaced radio knobs with iDrive, a function-stuffed, nearly unusable system. Delays in Airbus’s A380 project stemmed not from issues with airworthiness, but from problems with the 300+ miles of electrical wiring.

iDrive and PCs demonstrate the biggest negative side effect of the urge to function-stuff. The more things a product can do, the harder it is for mere mortals to use. Consider the following question: if you have one PC in the house, in which room do you place it?

Apple’s genius with the iPod, iMovie and other products was to design them to do less, to make them supremely usable (and good-looking) and of limited functionality. For them, the iPhone will pose a challenge: how to create something with as many uses as a Swiss Army knife but which doesn’t baffle its buyers.

(Picture by Annette via stock.xchng)

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Favorite non-business business blogs

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

Can blogs that aren’t about business shed light on problems we businesspeople face every day? James March, the professor who taught us about foolishness, might say yes. Here are my favorites:

  1. Hobby Princess – all about handicrafts, yet sprinkling in lessons for those of us in business. Check out this post about how small can be better than big. Or this one about the conflicts between copyrights and open source.

  2. Greg Mankiw’s Blog – economics brought to ground level by a Harvard professor. Ostensibly a tool for his introductory econ students, the blog takes on questions of government policies and looks at them with an economist’s eye. Want to learn what Pigovian taxes are? Check here.

  3. David Report blog – on design of architecture, furniture, clothing. Beautiful pictures and some thought-provoking commentary about how design can improve or degrade our lives.
  4. Bill Walsh’s Blogslot – the author, a copy editor for the Washington Post, regularly points out poor grammar and word choice in the nation’s newspapers. The lessons for anyone who writes (i.e., all of us) are invaluable. Here’s a simple take on an emerging problem in blog grammar.

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