frog: Design Communism

frog: Design Communism

Design Mind's creative director, Scott Jenson, discusses the various market forces that drive design.

  • 21 june 2011

Some innovations transcend short term competitive advantage

I see symmetry between capitalism and design as they both are, for the most part, governed by market forces. Capitalism tends to be most effective at its lowest levels, meeting demand through efficient supply. Companies that do that well succeed and those that don’t fail. The same is true for design: at its ‘lowest levels’, a clean look, a simple flow, and an elegant layout are fairly well understood and valued. Products that reflect these low levels succeed and those that don’t fail.

This isn’t foolproof of course. Just as capitalism doesn’t guarantee all companies will be profitable, there is no guarantee good design will always happen either. What I’m saying is that there are clear market forces operating for basic UX design, but only at these ‘lower levels’ of design.

However, it is at the opposite end, when we get into the ‘higher levels’, that things get sticky. For capitalism, monopolies warp our comfy view of ‘the market,’ which prompts contentious laws to pass. The parallel with design happens when proprietary technologies gain a broad audience. When companies get control of a market and have a lock on users, it is in their financial and—dare I say it—capitalist best interests to use that market power to make a profit.  This cannot only lock out choice, but can prevent innovation. It’s at moments like this that the quiet capitalist in me transforms into a design communist.

Why this matters to mobile
Like many of my neologisms, don’t take ‘design communism’ too literally: I’m certainly not asking for state control of technology. We need to stop assuming that pure market forces will blissfully take us forward to an innovative future. We need a deeper understanding of where we are going in order to encourage more innovation. Raw capitalism is fantastic at improving quality and driving down costs but it also rewards a monopolistic lock-in that tends to discourage companies from playing nice with others.

The entire purpose of this ‘Beyond Mobile” blog is to discuss and explore unlocking the future of smart devices. I feel strongly that this is being held back by a number of forces, but a critical one is being able to liberate web applications on handsets. I’ve discussed this in greater detail in my App Myopia post where I make the case that providing a discovery service to all smart devices around me, through HTML, is a fundamental shift that can unlock huge potential.

We’ve seen big shifts like this in the past. The standardization of railroad lines and universal container ships were broad efforts that reduced proprietary lock-in, but revolutionized their respective industries. Mobile web technology is in a very similar situation. It is not an alternative to native apps, but a basic, core technology that works on many levels. It’s a lingua franca of functional expression that can work not only on multiple devices but even as a service between multiple applications.

The mobile web matters for the simple reason that it doesn’t require an install process. This also means that users don’t need to manage the storage of that app: once used it can quickly fade away with no uninstall necessary.

Companies like Apple and Google appear to be locked into a race of application dominance. They are like the grand railroad barons of the 1800s, arguing over whose gauge rail is best. Yes, they both also have excellent browsers, but we are in need of deeper innovation in mobile web technologies. They don’t appear to see this as in their best interest to push it forward.

The patient always stops bleeding
So what’s the alternative? The evolving HTML5 standard is clearly a good start. Unfortunately, it is a slow, plodding beast. It may be attempting to create a set of non-proprietary solutions, but damn, it feels like it’ll never get there at times.

(Continue reading here.)

[Written by Scott Jenson. Reprinted with kind permission from design mind, a publication of global innovation firm frog design.]

design mind is a publication of global innovation firm frog design that is updated daily to keep the design and innovation community updated with fresh perspectives on industry trends, emerging technologies, and global consumer culture. Learn more about design mind and frog design.

Scott Jenson, creative director of design mind, was the first member of the User Interface group at Apple in the late 80s, working on System 7, the Apple Human Interface guidelines and the Newton. Learn more Scott Jenson.

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