Why Design Is The New Differentiator In Tech

I have been working with various tech companies in multiple industries for decades and have seen up close and personal how they go about creating products.

Almost all are engineering driven and, for many engineers, the challenge is cramming as much into a product as possible (in some cases just because they can) not because the customer actually wants or needs it. In my role as an advisor, I often take the customer’s point of view and try to force issues like ease of use, simplicity instead of complexity and, more importantly, what is the real use case for the products or services a company is developing.

There was a recent article in Fast Company entitled “4 Reasons why Design is taking over Silicon Valley”. In the story, they quote Kleiner Perkins Design Partner John Maeda, who says Moore’s Law just does not cut it any more. His key point is speeds and feeds are not as important as in the past and “Design is more important than silicon.”

Those are probably fighting words over at Intel but Maeda is correct. While processing power is still important, the shift is on to create not only products that are easy to use but really well designed. The article also points out many major tech companies are either buying design firms or hiring design experts to help them develop products. Maeda also says in tech you need to start with design first. This is very new thinking when it comes to engineering driven companies of all types but I believe very soon design will be the real differentiator of tech products and what is inside these products that make them tick becomes less important to the buying decisions of customers.

The fact Apple is the poster child for design is not an accident. I met with Steve Jobs the second day he was back at Apple and asked him how he planned to save Apple. At the time, Apple was one billion dollars in the red and about six months from bankruptcy. His first answer to my question was he would go back and take care of his core customers. During the time Jobs was away, Apple had strayed from creating the kind of products that put Apple on the map with computers optimized for engineering, graphics designers and desktop publishers. He said his first goal was to go back and give them great products again to help them do their jobs better.

The second answer to my question was he was going to put more focus on industrial design. At the time he did not explain what he meant but, in the mid 1990s, PCs all looked alike and, to be honest, were mostly ugly. My reaction at the time was how in the world will industrial design save Apple?

Well, the next year Jobs and Jony Ives created the first iMacs, the candy colored all-in-ones that got great interest from SMB, consumers and education markets and helped Apple get out of debt. By the early 2000s, Jobs had changed the design of the iMacs completely and gave the industry what has turned out to be the desktop PC design that, even today, dominates this segment of the computing market. The iPod followed shortly thereafter and then the innovation of the music store and eventually an app store tied to the iPhone. Apple’s attention to design has helped differentiate them at the hardware and software level and you can see the importance of design even clearer with the Apple Watch about to hit the market. In fact, this specific product has brought design to the forefront in tech and has most competitors rushing to figure out how to create products where design is a key element of what they offer. I don’t think it an understatement that design is going to be as important as silicon when it comes to creating products the market accepts in the future.

John Meada has created a “Design in Tech Report” and it is worth downloading if you are interested in how design is going to shape Silicon Valley and the tech world in the future.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

430 thoughts on “Why Design Is The New Differentiator In Tech”

    1. that is true..they were all still boxy with monitors on them. In fact, that is why Apple was failing so much. Spindler had decided to go after the IBM PC customers and created Mac’s that looked like them. The Mac was in the background for a lot of that time with Apple pushing the traditional form factors. Jobs changed that with the all in one.

      1. You’ll note that I it commented on a factual observable, that they are identical, without any commentary whatsoever on taste. They all look alike! That’s all.

        1. And all BMWs look the same. There’s a difference between looking the same because there’s no design or poor design and looking the same because a strong design language has been applied.

          1. Not related to my original comment. It’s odd when one says all PCs look the same, in an article about design, and not in fact mention the same for Apples machines being identical.

          2. So they are not the same according to you, but PC’s of the ’90’s are…
            Slide whistle….

          3. I’ll try one more time, then I am indeed letting it go. A product line that shares a strong design language and is well-designed will look the same. You can definitely see that Apple’s products look similar, and within the same model lines, identical.

            PCs in the 90s looked the same because of a lack of effort in design, and Macs for a while didn’t look any better.

          4. Then you should just let it go. So not the point I was making. I’m letting it go too.

    2. Jobs’ point was that no company was differentiating their PCs by being different. Desktops (even Macs) were all beige boxes.

      Apple’s fewer subsequent models (iMac, iBook, Cube, titanium PB, etc) were identical but they were increasingly different from models from other computer companies.

      1. Agreed. That was when? It was fresh then. Ubiquity and time have resulted in a sea of identical machines. Let me stress, I’m not judging taste. Just keeping the goalposts the same distance apart.

        I’ve read this too many times from other’s. If uniformity is something to criticize, it’s something to consider for all, otherwise it’s a false test.

        1. It isn’t uniformity being criticized, it is poor design being criticized. Uniformity isn’t inherently bad, but why a group of things is uniform does matter.

        2. It’s still fresh now. Apple’s Mac lines are still pretty distinct from those of other companies, and they have evolved since 2003. Even though a few competitors have copied MBA/MBP/iMac for a model, they still sell far more of their other more bulky, more plastic, or black models. Macs are obvious when placed in TV shows/movies.

          The MBP of 2008 is much different than 2015. And of course, there’s the Mac Pro. And if you’re talking about silver coloring, well, now there’s gold and space gray.

  1. I used to tell “my” devs “You’re mom has to be able to use it”. That wasn’t *that* straightforward to start with. Now I have to add “your niece has to be dying to use it”. Eye-rolls all around.

  2. I disagree

    with the advent of minimalist white boring design that is taking over our screen i failed to see why one will say that Design Is The New Differentiation.

    in my observation what is taking over Silicon Valley is conformity, fanboyism and mass market boring aesthetic that is not friendly except for lazy analysis who think it’s real design.

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