Psychology of Design – by Richard Lee

One of my wife’s favorite stores for home furnishings is Restoration Hardware.  So when I saw its fall 2011 catalog sitting on the coffee table, I took a minute to glance through it.  It was nicely bound with luxurious cover page that read “There are pieces that furnish a home.  And those that define it.”  The CEO’s welcome letter started with a line “Every movement has a lunatic fringe…”  Huh?  He goes on to talk about America’s first Nobel Prize winner and how his company is inspired by progressive thinkers.  OK, I get it…  

I turn the pages to find more and more pictures of hallways, living rooms, kitchens that I would want to live in.  Nice layout; appropriate, insightful, witty commentaries; I could not put it down until I reached the end of the 600+ page catalog.  As far as RH is concerned, mission accomplished.  The founder of cult yogurt shop Pinkberry is famous for pushing form as well as function.  He once stated that his learning how lighting, mood and music affect consumer behavior did not come from formal education in design, rather his after-hours job as a doorman at a night club.  Well, who can argue with Pinkberry’s success, especially after recent 30MM in growth capital investment from the Starbucks founder.

The rest of the corporate world is catching on what the Madison Avenue and other advertising and PR executives have always evangelized – form counts as much as function.  Presentation is equally as important as content.  Who can forget a Silicon Valley urban legend of Steve Jobs walking into early Mac keyboard assembly line and asking an engineer to open up the cover to the back of the keyboard?  When the wiring behind the scenes did not meet his standards in the aesthetics department, he demanded a redesign. 

As WSJ recently proclaimed, forget B-school.  These days, D.school is the place to go.  The trend is yet another step up from mass customization.  It’s a combination of psychological and almost anthropological observation of human needs to solve problems that have yet to be articulated in order to best forecast demand.  From consumer products to professional services to B2B offerings, we can no longer ignore the psychology of design in order to arrive at desirable results.  Besides…   How else would Milli Vanilli have found a career in lip synching?

Requiem / Paean for a Dot-Com Darling

It’s a tale that unfolds more than we care to count, but is heart-wrenching to see nonetheless.  We’ve seen it many times: a young star meets with great success early on.  Their ascent is met with many accolades and kudos.  Then, they fall from grace.  Scandal; missteps; a change in public sentiment.  No matter how hard they try, they can’t reverse their fall from the great heights.

Sock puppets and search engines

yahoo pets.comI’m talking, of course, about Yahoo!, the once-revered icon of the late 1990’s dot-com era.  Two young Stanford grad students, Jerry Yang and David Filo, unleashed on the world an indexing service that would help navigate journeys on the increasingly congested “information superhighway.”  In this context, Yahoo! was nothing short of revolutionary.  Even its silly name seemed to capture the slightly irrational, but very fun, mood of the time.  This was when “burn rate” was a proxy for a company’s growth prospects, Herman Miller chairs and foosball tables represented credibility, and Jack Welch could get upstaged by a sock puppet as a company spokesman.

I have fond memories of that era: it’s when I moved to Chicago, fell in love with the woman with whom I just celebrated 11 years of marriage, and arrived at the very satisfying answer to the Frequently Asked Question, “what the hell are you going to do with a History and French degree?”  It’s why I still have a great deal of affection for this Sunnyvale company, even after the Microsoft acquisition debacle, the dustup over Carol Bartz ignominious departure, and the Scott Thompson resume kerfuffle.

Having logged time at two financial services companies, I was obviously a big fan of Yahoo! Finance.  There were two services, however, that capture the era well.

Yahoo! MailWashington University alums will recall standing in line waiting for the sterile “green screen” terminals to check their “Pinemail” in the Olin Library.  I quickly tired of the clunky interface I used to check my email after leaving St. Louis, and abandoned my “@wustl.edu” account for a Yahoo! one.  Granted, I am on the whole underwhelmed by Yahoo! Mail, given their glacial pace of introducing upgrades, and the fact that their integration with Outlook is a joke.   However, my Inbox is an ever-evolving scrapbook, a digital collection of moments I’ve shared with friends, family, and professional connections.  It’s why even though I have a Gmail account I’m still not parting with my Yahoo! account.

Geocities.  Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram have found a captive audience in folks looking for exposure – sometimes a little too much, as in the case of the “oversharenting” moms and dads examined in The Wall Street Journal.  It wasn’t always this easy.  I hate pulling out the “in my day” card, but you had to sort of know what you were doing in the late 90’s to publish content.  Geocities was the middle ground between Facebook and WordPress, that offered some primitive drag and drop tools for building and maintaining Websites.  Through Geocities I was able to share pictures with relatives in India, develop a Web portfolio to show hiring managers that a liberal arts grad could write code, and acquire a minor following from folks interested in sound clips from Goodfellas (one of my all-time favorite flicks).   Geocities has unfortunately gone the way of Delicious, Briefcase, and other sunsetted properties.

Holding out for a Hero (or a Good Product)

Ashton Kutcher was recently tapped to play Steve Jobs in an upcoming biopic.  At time of writing, if we were to associate a celebrity with Yahoo!, it would unfortunately be the likes of Lindsay Lohan or some other misstep-prone, washed up train wreck.  I’m holding out hope though.  Few seem to recall that the Apple of today was very much like Yahoo! before Jobs rescued it from the brink in the late 90’s – incidentally, while Yahoo! was riding high.  To win over the hearts and minds of customers and investors, Yahoo! needs to completely reinvent itself like Jobs did with the iPod, as opposed to half-baked, poorly executed attempts at innovation such as Livestand, and now Axis.

I’d like the next chapter of  the Yahoo! story to unfold like the amazing scene in Limitless when Eddie Mora shakes off the cobwebs, gets to work, and starts kicking some serious butt.  It would be nice for Yahoo! to replace “LiLo” with Bradley Cooper as the star with whom they are identified.  As talented as he is, however, I’m not sure Cooper could pull off the Jerry Yang look.  There’s always Eddie Murphy.

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