N.B This is the unedited transcript of the interview.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Robert Brunner. I am the founder and partner of a design and development company in San Francisco called Ammunition. I've been practicing in the design business for, God I hate to admit it, over 20 years. I founded a company called Lunar. I went on to be Director of Industrial Design at Apple for about seven years, became a partner in Pentagram and then about four years ago, branched off to start Ammunition.
So design is your thing.
I'm sort of a rare child of the computer industry. My father developed the first hard disc drives at IBM back in the late '60s and I literally grew up with the stuff in my garage, and being born and raised in Silicon Valley, I always had a fascination with how things work. Somehow I started out in engineering school and found my way over to the design department, which you know, pissed my dad off but at least I found the thing I really enjoy to do and manage to make a living out of it.
Your recent book ‘Design Matters’, what is it about?
The book was born out of a bit of frustration of working with a lot of companies that didn't really get the idea of what design is or could be for their company. I was running into this, "Robert, put racing stripes on it and get out of the way" kind of thing where they don't understand what it really means.
The title came from a class I was teaching at Stanford to engineering students on design, on aesthetics and I was trying to get across why it's important. It was about the time the original iPhone launched, and I asked the class this question. I said, “If Motorola went out of business today, who cares?” And no one raised their hand. I said, “Well if Apple was out of business today? Who cares?” Everybody raised their hand. “Why does it matter? Why do you care that this company exists or not?”
Discussion ensued about how the products made them feel. They felt like they were part of a club. It was about empowerment. All these really emotional things you know, that the relationships that this group of young people have with a brand. And that, so it mattered in their lives. I mean, beyond just the products the fact that the companies just didn't matter to them.
How do you create what Apple created?
You're not Apple and you shouldn't try to be Apple. The important thing is to be who you are and be a good one and matter in peoples' lives and care and be passionate about what you do. That's what companies like Apple do. They have an idea of who they are and who they need to be and what they mean to people and that embodies the work that comes to the company.
Now there's a lot that goes into that and I always say if it was easy, everybody would do it, but what's first and foremost to understand is that the misnomer about design, and the thing that most business people don't understand, it's a very simple reality, is that the design of things is in fact the interface between your company and its constituents. And design in that sense is a higher level thought. Everything that you create, whether it's a product, a service, a retail space, the way your customer service people interact with customers, everything happening is designed one way or another and that defines who you are to people.
So it's important that you think about that and be authentic and do it in a way that matters to your constituents or they won't care. When you start to look at design that way, as the thing that defines who you are to the rest of the world, you of course give it more importance, but you start looking at who participates and how you participate and so forth. And creating that idea of who you are to the rest of the world.
So what are the first action steps a business should take?
Well one of the things that's very important is that you as a company, you step back and look at what I coined as your ‘customer experience supply chain’. That is the designers know what they do is very important, but in the active originating, defining, creating, developing, delivering and supporting a product, there's a whole chain of people and events that happen and it's important that the design of the thing and everything that surrounds it be a constant topic of conversation and align to a strategy and align to values and beliefs and all the way through that system.
I tell this example, years ago I'd been doing work for Dell. I was good friends with the General Manager and yes, he called me up and said, “Robert, our packaging sucks. Can you fix it?” And I went down and I said, “Well you know, I can certainly make it look better, but why don't we spend a little time sort of looking at how things work around here?” And found that it wasn't a design issue, it was that no one shared a belief strategy about packaging across all the groups that contributed to it.
There were all these departments that developed the things to create the box but they where either under resourced or over resourced. No one was incentivized to do good design. Everyone was incentivized to cut costs and then ultimately the guy who decided what the box was like was the fellow in charge of the bill of materials, which ultimately means he tried to cut costs at the very end to meet his target.
So ultimately, they had bad packaging, so my point is that you need to empower the designers do a good job, but then you got to work out that supply chain because it won't matter unless everybody's aligned about delivering a good package. And that's one of the first steps is understanding that customer experience supply chain.
Another thing that's very important to know is what a brand is and what your brand is. There is again a large misunderstanding of that in the business world about what brand means.
What is a brand?
I'll tell you what a brand's not, a brand is not your logo. A brand is not your advertising. It's not your corporate identity system. It's not your product. It's none of those things. A brand is a gut feeling that people have about your company. And I always say, when more than one person have the same gut feeling, you have a brand.
What's important to understand is that you can't actually control what your brand is, you can only influence it. You cannot control what people feel about you. You can only influence it. So as you start to think about that, you realize that it's very important, every opportunity I get, it's to communicate about what we are about and what we stand for and what our products are and what they mean. You have to do it authentically, especially today, because in the world today, everybody knows when you're lying.
I've been saying lately that the idea of advertising is dead because you can no longer wrap a story around something late in the process because people have access to too much information too quickly and know exactly what people experience all over the world so you can't be anything other than authentic. The important thing is to understand what it is you're about and constantly communicate that to people in an authentic way that has meaning and matters in their lives. That's the way you create a very strong brand.
If you look at the companies that do that, whether it is your Apple, your IKEA, your BMW, Nike, Virgin, whoever, you see that, that they actually have an energy that constantly comes through, whatever they do and in a way that matters to their constituents.
What have those companies done to harness that authenticity?
Well, the challenge with this and why I say if it were easy everyone would do it, is I say, “Just be yourself. Just be a good one,” right? And so you have to, first of all have to have some self-awareness of what it is you're good at as a company and a manufacturer, and then be diligent about sticking with that. One of the things about a great brand is, when you look at the great brands of the world, they're actually fairly narrow in their focus. If you look at Apple, or let's take a company like Nike, they tend to focus on communicating to serious athletes yet they would go out of business if only serious athletes bought their products. So their message is focused, but it has broad appeal.
They're very aspirational. Apple's kind of the same way, BMW others, but to the business man, that's sort of counterintuitive. The businessman typically thinks, “I want to be everything to everybody. I want 12 year olds and 80 year olds, 5 year olds to like me.” And then you're nothing to nobody and so it's very important you stay focused on who you are and what you're good at. If you're really good, you’ll have broad appeal to people. That's challenging for someone to do.
You think being really good will then create an aspirational brand?
There's executing on that, but I said the first steps are being very aware of who you are. I always say there's three things, “Who are you?” Most companies can answer that. “We're a manufacturer of stereo headphones.”
“What do you do?” would be the next question and most people start to get that wrong. They'll say, “Well no, I told you we manufacture stereo headphones.” No, what you do is you're delivering a great audio experience to people in ways that they can use and enjoy and really appreciate.
And then the third question, which people have a really difficult time answering is, “Why does it matter?” Why does it matter that what you're creating, why does it matter to people? Those are the things you have to start to ask yourself and the products and services that you deliver. And if you constantly do that, it will keep you focused on doing something that is authentically yours and that is good and that people will actually will want and care about.
Is it possible to build empathy through testing?
Well I always have mixed feelings about testing because I've seen a lot of products driven towards mediocrity through the testing process and that is what a lot of organizations will do is go out and simply ask people, “Well, what do think about this?” or “Here's three ideas. Which one do you like best?” And just sort of asking people for their preferences or asking them to give their feelings.
The reality with most people is they have a difficult time articulating emotions and they have a difficult time saying what is right. They typically base all their answers on what they know today. While that information can be useful when you're trying to move a design for it, it can again be very limiting because what you end up is, what I used to call this sort of 7 out of 12 syndrome. You take 12 people and if 7 of them like something, then that's a good design. But there's a lot of dynamics that go into that, that drive that. And what you usually end up doing is picking the least offensive idea, which is not good because the least defensive usually translates into, “I've seen this before. I'm comfortable with it. I'm okay with that.” But when you're trying to innovate, what you really need to do is to get beyond what people know today and more into what they're doing today and what they're going to do tomorrow and what's important to them in their life, work, play, whatever.
In my experience, you do that in a couple ways. You do that more by observing than by asking and getting into peoples' lives and seeing what they're doing and finding those little wedges of frustration or delight that occur and building outward in that. The other thing you do is step back and look at things. An example I love is the recently deceased clip video camera of where the entire world of video cameras was headed down a path of belief about how videos are captured and made and archived and this thing called YouTube had popped up and someone realized wait a minute, the world's about to take a turn towards how they look at video and discovered a new way or a much simpler way of dealing with it.
That's the type of thinking research you need to look for is what patterns are changing in peoples' lives and what's going to happen to make something different? Then after you start to create some ideas around that, you can take them and have people use them and talk about them and observe what they think and what works and doesn't work and modify and perfect what you do. But if you fall into the trap of, “Hey, I've got this really simple, cheap video camera. All it does is you take little videos and plug it into your computer. What do you think?” People will probably say, “Um, you know, I don't know. I, you know, I need all these features and I've got a big library of video cassettes, so I don't want to lose those ...” You always get into all these legacies that pollute what people, pollute people from looking forward.
Research is about context; research is about discovery; and then research is about at some point, validation. Those are the things you do. And then in between, you let people, let the designers, let the engineers, explore, try things, take risks you know, push outward and then go back and figure out whether it's going to be viable on the market.
Can you elaborate on the idea that your business is a portal to experience?
Yeah, I mean, not to overuse Apple, but when I lecture, I always give this simple example, that is I'll put up this screen of a picture of a plastic iPod and ask people, “What is this?” and they'll say, somebody will naturally raise their hand and say, “It's an iPod.” And then I'll say, “No, it's not. What that is is a very nice object. It's flawlessly proportioned and executed, perfect finish and details. It's just a wonderful object.” Then I'll throw up a screen that shows not only iPod, but it shows of course, iTunes. It shows the Apple brand. It shows the user interface. It shows the Apple store. It shows the packaging experience. All that together is what represents an iPod. So what happens though, is the iPod becomes an icon and a portal to this broader experience. And it's not like that Apple just woke up one day and said, “That's it.” It evolved over time, but what's important is that there is more to it than the thing.
I always think great products are more than just objects. They're ideas. When you're developing something, it's really important to look at what is the experience you're bringing people through that object, not just the thing. Of course the thing has to be beautiful and has to feel good in your hand and you have to be able to turn it on and all the important things that the basics of that product. But if you're successful, there's an experience and idea that flows through it that people can relate to and get excited about and want to be part of.
A similar story is I work with Beats by Dr. Dre and this headphone line that we've created. Ultimately what we've ended up doing is defining a certain genre sound called Beats Audio, which is very much based on Dr. Dre's sound profile and very much based on modern music, but through the performance of the product and the way it's communicated and the people it's associated with, we sort of created this idea of a certain type of sound and now the products are a portal into that experience and to the point we're actually now licensing out Beats Audio, the algorithms in the DSB to other companies to put in other products.
You get this idea and experience flowing through the product and the product becomes a portal to something bigger and stronger. If you do that, then you've got it. You can be very successful with your product.
Where do you think most companies go wrong in trying to create a successful business?
I think a couple, as I was eluding to earlier. Companies are always trying to be someone that they're not or trying to be someone else. Companies tend to be very risk adverse, which you can certainly understandable, when you're putting in tens of millions of dollars into something, you have to be very responsible with what you're doing, but ultimately, not taking risks is about the riskiest thing you can do today. You have to push forward. All these companies that come in and say, “Hey, we want to wedge in this little bit of territory right between Dell and Hewlett Packard. We think there's an opportunity and we want to position ourselves against these two companies.”
After I get through the questions of well, “Who are you, not relative to those two companies but on your own?" Then we get to, “Well, what about this area of white space over here? Why do you think no one is playing in this space?” What can we do as designers and as a company they're moving towards that.
You really build your own territory. Those are challenging things to do and usually scary, but I think one of the risks, biggest mistakes a company makes is being too conservative on the things that they create. What they end up is mimicking someone else or doing things that have been done before and just eeking along trying to make a business out of that and, while missing the opportunities to push forward into a new territory and really define their own space.
Anything that you think needs to be changed in the world of business?
Well, the one thing we didn't touch on, which is interesting to me is when you look at the number of great design brands in the world, again, you could probably count on two hands if you're lucky to get that far, and what you see in every one is leadership and that there is in fact someone who is the chief experience officer and in some companies that's the Steve Jobs, COO and others it may be a technology leader, a marketing leader, but there's always someone who understands the experience and the values of what companies provide and is absolutely committed and hell-bent to bringing that to the outside world and that's what always makes a great design company.
Of course, you have to have the talent and you have to have the great products. You have to have the ability to create and execute and deliver. All those things are of course, prerequisites, but there's always leadership and that's one of the challenges for companies today is that you can't drive great designs through committees and again, committees lead directly to mediocrity. There really needs to be leadership. It's always a push to really have strong design leadership, have someone that's going to say, “That's right. That's wrong. Do this, don't do that. I don't care, just make it right.” Those are the things that end up driving a great design company. That comes back to if it was easy, everyone else would do it.
Finding those individuals is always a challenge, but if you dig into any company big or small that's doing really great stuff, you'll find one or two people that are making it happen. That's what makes a great design company.