It happened again! You blinked and the world changed. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t notice (it was hidden in plain sight). But whether you saw it or not, all of a sudden the planets realigned, the tectonic plates slipped, the paradigm shifted. While you were dealing with your day-to-day affairs, function and competency took to a back seat to design. It’s John Lennon’s prediction coming true: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Back in the dark ages of analog production, we bought stuff because it worked better than other stuff. The Sears Craftsman tools in your shed were unbreakable and warrantied for life—in case it ever turned out that they weren’t. The Mercedes diesel in your garage would run for 300,000 miles without a hiccup. The Timex on your wrist would “take a licking and go on ticking.” Those products were successful because they were anomalies. Back then, most stuff just plain didn’t work. These things did.
Remember your old television? It broke all the time. Tubes would blow, dials would strip, and those funky remote control buttons would stop controlling remotely. But today, TVs simply don’t break. I’d be willing to bet that your giant flat-panel TV works just as well today as the day you mounted it on the wall.
Remember when cars used to leave you stranded? Back then it made sense to spend the extra money for a Volvo or Mercedes because they were so much more reliable than less expensive cars. But today, an inexpensive Kia or Hyundai will provide you just as much hassle-free driving as the most expensive BMW or Bentley. Maybe more.
Today people just expect the things they buy to work. And so function and competency are taken for granted. Instead of worrying about how well things work, consumers now buy things for how they look and feel, and more importantly, how the products make them look and feel.
Design, the former handmaiden to production, has become the differentiating asset consumers look for. To completely mix my metaphors, the king and queen of the prom have been upstaged by the AV guy with tape on his glasses.
Good design used to be something that was hard to acquire — it took a lot of time, money, and discerning taste — not to mention an unwillingness to accept the ordinary. Back in the day, being well dressed or having a beautifully designed home or office was a mark of distinction that was simply ‘out of reach’ for most people.
But today good design is available everywhere you look. Crate and Barrel, Target, and West Elm peddle it in every mall in America. Apple promises that the ubiquitous phone you carry in the pocket of your (designer) jeans or the computer sitting on your desktop is the most highly evolved industrial design you can own. Even products as prosaic as Nest thermostats, Plumen light bulbs, and Dyson fans have been designed to within an inch of their lives.
What hasn’t kept up with the blinding pace of design growth is the ability of salespeople to use aesthetics to meet their quotas. Believing that most consumers are still buying products based on what those products do, most salespeople are still busy demonstrating features and explaining capabilities instead of promoting what people are buying. Today an in-depth understanding of the modern consumers’ purchase motivations is what the best salespeople are using to push their products and services. Instead of inventorying capabilities, the savvy salesperson understands that their job has changed the best of them into editors and curators – constantly reappraising the aesthetic and lifestyle advantages of the products they sell and demonstrating these benefits to their customers.
After all, that’s what their customers are buying, even though they think they’re buying old-fashioned functionality.