A Radical Innovation: Build Tech Products People Really Want

Last Updated Apr 13, 2010 2:34 PM EDT

I just watched a video from one of the TED conferences that left me stunned in amazement. The subject was the architecture of a theater, and the video illustrated a different way for designers work with clients. The video suggested something to me that high tech could badly use: meaningful, solution-oriented innovation, and not just better technology. What the industry needs is a manifesto -- a call to action for people to work together as designers, coders, and customers.

Joshua Prince-Ramus, principal of the architectural firm REX, believes that his profession essentially went off the rails over the last five decades. Design and construction became far more complex and, as in all areas of life, litigation increased. Architects faced potential liability, and so they stepped back from execution and redefined their roles as pure creation, "as if you could actually create without knowing how to execute, and as if you could actually execute without knowing how to create." Architecture became the process of "genius" and its product was the sketch, with execution -- bringing the concept to life -- an activity unworthy of the designer.

He's not the first to make such a statement. I remember architects in the 1980s that combined design with a building arm, so they were involved with all parts of the process. But Prince-Ramus has a well-defined philosophy that his firm applies to large-scale projects:

  • Collaborate with the client rather than dictate the design. When you come in from the outside and impose a solution, you don't get to take part in what is really necessary to make things work as they should. It's the ultimate need and concept that are important, and all good solutions require that you get your hands dirty.
  • Embrace responsibility to implement vision. Playing it safe means keeping a distance from solving the central problems. Not only do solutions require you to get your hands dirty, but you also run the risk of nicking a finger. That's part of life. The only way to be completely safe is to abdicate responsibility and, ultimately, not do the work. Can you imagine a carpenter framing a building by refusing to pick up a hammer?
  • Don't rush to conclusions in proposing a solution. Designers need to spend enough time with the client so each understands the other because they typically speak different languages.
The design ethic that Prince-Ramus uses could apply as easily to the high tech industry -- and indeed, most areas of endeavor -- because tech seems to have developed in the same way as most of architecture.

The world needs remarkable solutions for complex problems. Pretending that you can divorce understanding of the issues and design of a solution from the implementation is nuts ... and exactly what much of high tech does on a regular basis. There's a reason that a disconnect between IT and business needs is generally at the top of the concerns of corporate CIOs. In this case, though, the problem rests even more with the business experts than the coders. They often say, "Here's what we want," and expect IT to go off and deliver something useful. But that's back to the impossibility of splitting design from execution, and both being separate from the process the client might need.

The problem doesn't end in the corporate world. Many consumer electronic companies pay little attention to anything other than what Apple is doing, and even Apple often constructs products with its business interests placed ahead of what might work best for consumers. What the industry loses is the chance for startling innovation that could be far more common than the occasional iPhone or iPod.

If you know anything about how theater is done, what Prince-Ramus did with the AT&T (T) Performing Arts Center theater in Dallas was revolutionary. It opened new worlds for the clients, because the design was based completely on what the facility needed to achieve. I wouldn't be surprised if the approach seemed more expensive at the outset, but wound up cheaper when everyone was happier and products were more successful. Ah, to dream, perchance to be...

Image: stock.xchng user juliaf, site standard license.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.