Efficiency has come a long way since the days of Henry Ford’s conveyor belt. Yes, Ford revolutionized the manufacturing process at the time, but at the modern world’s pace of innovation and production, efficiency is not just about engineering the most powerful machines. It’s about a simplicity of design that permeates every level of a company’s operations.
Design was once restricted to the physical world: a well-crafted armchair or a cleverly devised lamp. Today it supports every interaction and experience. Improving a company’s efficiency is like building a state-of-the-art product: both have the power to redefine the way we interact with the world.
With this is mind, here are some key insights from the designers behind the most elegant products on the market today.
Beautiful designs helped make Apple the first trillion-dollar company. Fun, intuitive, and easy to use, the elegance of Apple products stretches beyond an uncluttered look. For Apple, the pursuit of simplicity means understanding the essence of every device. “Our goals are very simple — to design and make better products,” Apple’s Chief Design Officer Jonathan Ive told Business Insider. “If we can’t make something that is better, we won’t do it.”
Ive’s vision emerges in everything that Apple makes: from its airy retail stores to its groundbreaking devices. In every case, the company creates an experience for the user. To conjure these feelings, Ive spends endless hours working on things no one will ever see. He holds two or three brainstorming meetings every week with his close-knit team. For every 10 ideas generated, he says only one might work. It’s always about simplifying. Stripping something down to its essence until the team arrives at something truly new. The process takes time. But with a clear eye, the work takes focus – and blossoms.
Nike has built a $60 billion business on its relentless innovation of the humble sneaker. Mark Parker, Nike’s CEO and president, has always sought to improve performance. When he was a runner in college, he would rip apart his shoes, tearing out the outsole and adjusting the insole to fit his liking. When he began designing shoes, it was the athlete he kept in mind, as if he were building something for himself. But he says the key to the company’s staggering growth is a balance between business goals and design. He actually keeps a sketchbook to make sure he’s on track. Every left page is dedicated to brainstorming new business practices. Every right page is full of doodles and sketches of Nike’s next hit shoe.
“Most of us are out of balance,” Parker told Fast Company. “And that’s OK, but you need to keep your eye on the overall equilibrium to be successful.”
Balance has allowed Parker to continually improve his products and stay competitive. “The role of design at a company is to allow you to recreate yourself, to allow your company to find a new way of success before the old way fails,” he says.
Design isn’t just about external appearances. Take Amazon Web Services. As user interfaces go, AWS is not aesthetically pleasing. Nor does it have to be. The effectiveness of AWS’ design, and the key to its success, depends on its guts, not its skin.
“As we go about exposing the guts of Amazon, there are other developers out there who require those same sorts of web-scale services,” Amazon CFO Tom Szkutak told skeptical analysts in 2006 as AWS launched.
“These are assets and skills that we needed to build for ourselves anyway. What we’re doing here is exposing those and, over time, build that into a meaningful business.”
AWS is a case study in aligned incentives: what’s good for Amazon’s infrastructure is good for any other business build on AWS. By modularizing and virtualizing its infrastructure, Amazon pioneered the idea of software as a service instead of a product to license or buy. This was a design choice as much as, say, Apple’s decision to eliminate the home button on new iPhones: Amazon changed both the form and the function of how software is delivered, and in the process achieved a new kind of scalability that has radically increased the efficiency of how business gets done everywhere.
IKEA, the world’s largest furniture company, has attracted a cult following offering chic and affordable items for the home or office. And the company is always evolving. Every year it introduces 2,000 new products on top of its 10,000-item permanent collection. The secret to maintaining order in its sprawling operation is transparency. A large open space with glass walls encompasses the company’s design headquarters. That way, the creators can see all of the other projects in development.
“Because then you get inspired from each other,” Marcus Engman, IKEA’s former design manager, says. Making the operation physically transparent streamlines production. It strengthens creative collaboration.Transparency has become a key factor even in the company’s marketing. Believing that customers cared about how products were made, Engman exposed IKEA’s creative process to the public. “The idea we had was: ‘Let’s be transparent about it. Let’s share our process,” he said. “Then people will see how hard it is. That it takes three years to do a small mug.”
For each of these companies, success has hinged on developing processes and a culture oriented toward paring down products to their essential qualities—and leaving everything else out. It’s a lesson Apple teaches its own designers using one of the most compelling examples in the history of art. In 1945, Pablo Picasso created a series of eleven lithographs, titled simply The Bull, in which he strips down a “realistic” illustration of a bull into a few simple lines. The lesson? They’re the only lines that really matter.