#19 Design the Platform for Constant Design

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Bruce Mau tells a self-effacing story about the time, as a young designer, his group was called in to do some vital brand identity work for a client. He laughs when he describes the unstated assumption by everyone on the team — the designers, the consultants, the clients — that “this time” they would achieve an ultimate, lasting solution because, of course, “this team” was smarter, more intentional and more strategic than the previous one. What makes the assumption so funny, Bruce explains, is that he was commissioned ten years later to conduct a re-design of that same project.

“It’s sort of a weird experience, to dismantle the solution that you created,” Bruce says. And he explains that it led to the insight that the essential concept of “relevance” exists on a continuum that demands constant design. “In fact, the world changes so radically, all the time,” he adds, “… there aren’t that many things that are truly ‘for the ages.’”

When we create brand experiences, it’s essential that they are relevant on both a personal level and in the context of what’s going on in the community, business sector, and technological environment.  By definition, if we are truly relevant in the here and now, we should assume that we will be obsolete in the near future; that’s why it makes sense to design the platform we are using to allow for constant redesign. Bruce explains that as the world shifts, we must shift to stay relevant.  “You have to understand what the transformational context is for the design work that you’re doing, and understand where the new opportunity is situated…. And for many practices … it fundamentally changes the assignment …. how I am going to deal with a design, so that I can keep servicing the stable and flex the other things, so that each year I can refresh it.”

Bruce references the work he did with David Butler at Coca-Cola, where this practice of templating the work was dubbed “freedom within a framework.” They established a set of parameters that worked much like the rules for game play. “For me, it’s a game of sameness and difference,” Bruce says. “So, what are the things we’re going to keep the same? And where are the things we’re going to allow to be different? …. You want to keep as much as you can stable, so you can carry that forward and reinforce the identity, but have enough things that are constantly being refreshed, so that you can remain relevant.”

Think about what newspapers and magazines do. Whether we experience them in print or digitally, the content changes with each publication, while the essential identity — the design of the masthead or banner, font and layout — remains constant. This is the approach we should consider when designing the scenic elements and properties we create to define the spaces in which we host brand experiences.

“The interesting thing for events,” Bruce says, “is that, when you start to apply this logic, you realize, I don’t have to reinvent the whole thing. I can reinvent one thing every year, and in five years, the whole thing is new. It’s a method for sustaining relevance and optimizing the business.”

This approach is equally true when we’re designing less tangible things, like processes and organizational structures. The only hope of “permanence” is to define when and where the updates will happen. Designs that work with Lego-like modular components – content that can be swapped out or upgraded without dismantling the whole thing – offer a possible solution. Maybe the updates happen digitally – or through software upgrades. But they must happen by design.

That’s the secret to designing the platform for constant design. We have to resist the temptation to assume we can “design it right the first time and forever,” as if business is static and nothing ever changes. The beauty of this design principle is that it doesn’t require us to predict the future or know where the winds of change will push public sentiment. It just requires the discipline to accommodate continuous change within the design. It’s a matter of deciding which aspects of the design will remain constant and which will require flexibility.

Plus, there’s a bonus for following this methodology. “It introduces the opportunity to do the Madonna Curve,” Bruce explains. “And for me, this concept is really about understanding the nature of change that we’re moving through. You can’t predict what’s going to happen so you have to build an open platform so that as things happen, you’re ready for it. You’re built to accept new things if you take this approach.”

Here’s the irony —If we think our design is impervious to change, we won’t be motivated to look for change, and are likely to miss important opportunities. But if we design the template (for our organization, exhibit space, e-zine, process, branded experiences, etc.) with the assumption that things are always changing, we naturally form the habit of anticipating and watching for the trends that will drive the needed upgrades. We continuously redesign before we lose relevance. This means that we are ready and waiting to pounce on opportunities before anyone else —which is a pretty solid roadmap for sustainable growth.

Briefly put, designing the platform for constant design is a fundamental growth strategy. It’s how proactive, successful businesses keep their edge.