Uncork a grand design: Tom Peters On Excellence

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The Independent Online
I HAVE LONG been distressed by the failure of American business to realise the strategic potential of design - and appalled by how many items are pitifully designed.

Put bluntly I believe that, in a crowded marketplace, design may be the most potent tool for differentiating one's products or services.

I love well-designed items: Federal Express air bills; the handy Ingersoll-Rand Cyclone Grinder that will, for example, take the burrs off a cast engine-block; and my fabulous corkscrew by Le Creuset, which, among other things, will eject the extracted cork with one easy flip, courtesy of an ingenious bit of gearing.

Despite my appreciation of design, I wasn't a raving fanatic. Until now.

Nothing sticks until you live it. And about the time you read this, my fifth book will be arriving in bookstores. (I won't mention the title, lest you think this is a sales pitch and thus discount my message).

For the first time in my writing career, design took a front-row seat alongside 'substance' (the words).

In the past, despite my interest in design - my last book, Liberation Management, devoted two chapters to the subject, one on instruction manuals (don't get me started on that) - it remained an afterthought in my own work. I was the main man, the word guy. The designer could jolly well march at the rear of the parade and clean up after me.

This latest book translates my seminars (said to be energetic) to the printed page, and the content is a plea to spice up our organisations to suit the spicy markets in which they perform. Both ideas - seminars in print, and spice as substance - led me to muse that the book might benefit from a 'little more' design input than usual. Little did I know what was in store. Donna Carpenter, my editor, and I observed that periodicals are typically livelier than books (the wonderful new Wired is a case in point), so we turned to magazine designer Ken Silvia for assistance. Design and writing then proceeded in parallel, and my editor and I ended up spending exciting day after exciting day with Ken. Quite simply, the process changed our professional lives.

Here is what we learned:

1) There is no distinction between content and packaging. The design, as much as the language, is the book. Design conveys substance - energy, speed, spiciness - as much as the words do. Sure, designer Silvia has a thousand tricks up his sleeve. So do writers. but in the end he contributed as much to the grand concept as I did.

2) Design alters content. If you watch a designer work to draw in the reader and create or animate the message, you start seeing the words differently.

The process amounts to far more than 'getting the words right' but the new idea is also more than 'getting the words and design right'. Design and words become one and, I think, become far greater than the sum of the parts.

3) Design should take an equal and early seat at the head table. Like Ford (in recent years) and Apple (from its inception), I learned that a designer should be part of the dream - on board at the creation and an equal partner throughout.

As I edge toward my next book, Ken Silvia has joined in before the formal start. He is participating in the murky pre-sessions in which the most general of courses are considered.

4) Collaboration speeds the process. Writing is a big enough pain; why add design to my platter? Taking another chapter from Ford, the 'extra' time my editor and I spent on design has shortened the entire book development process by more than 50 per cent. To be sure, page-design software helps; but the larger fact is that our team travelled constantly and effortlessly through what are normally a dozen steps, tackled in sequence.

5) We've barely scratched the surface. Writing books has been my preoccupation for a dozen years, but this process has up-ended my idea of developing a communication vehicle (which is how I think about a book now). I have already changed my stripes, but believe there's much to learn.

I could sign off solemnly by saying: 'Of course, readers will make the final judgement.' And that is true. But the larger truth is that whether the book spurts or sputters, there's no going back for me or my editor.

Design can transform and remould every step of product or service conception, development, production and delivery. It is more than a potent tool; it is an essential strategy, culture and mind-set for expanding horizons about what is and what can be. And that's no small thing in a marketplace where so damn many products look like, feel like, smell like and ride like all the others.

TPG Communications

(Photograph omitted)