When architect Louis Sullivan stated that “form ever follows function,” he meant it. But that was in 1896, when the height of “design” meant being able to easily understand a building or product’s function based just on a quick glimpse of what it looked like. In today’s industrial world, looks can be deceiving. And that’s just the way both companies and consumers like it.
When it comes to the importance of today’s biggest corporations place on art and design, be it a major technology company or a producer of household cleaning products, it’s hard to argue the role that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs played in bridging the gap between industry and aesthetic. Today, nearly four years after his untimely passing, his influence can still be felt and seen on a daily basis. And it’s certainly no coincidence that of his many memorable quotations, one of them was (admittedly) stolen from Pablo Picasso.
“Picasso had a saying,” Jobs once shared. “He said ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” While Jobs and his Apple cohorts were never shy about sharing the inspirations for their ideas, they also inspired the industrial world at large to think differently—and with a design-minded focus.
Stop, for a moment, and take a quick look at the objects all around you—the chair you’re sitting in, the shoes on your feet, the computer screen in front of you, the cell phone that’s probably not much further than an arm’s length away, and the vehicle that’s parked in your driveway. As different as each of these items’ uses may be, give them all a closer look and you’ll see that there’s something that connects them all: an aesthetic that made you decide that this is the chair I want to purchase, these are the shoes I want to speak for my overall fashion sense, this is the computer that best suits my needs, this is the phone/all-purpose gadget that I won’t be embarrassed to whip out in front of people, and this is the car that I want to be seen driving.
Every single one of these items speaks to something about your personality, and not just from a functionality perspective, though that’s certainly an important part of it. Whether it’s because of a bright pop of color, a perfectly proportioned size, or the kind of angles that set your heart aflutter, there isn’t an industry today that isn’t taking form into consideration.
Going back to Jobs, the patron saint of artfully-designed consumer products, one really only needs to trace the generations of any one Apple product—from the iMac to the iPod to the iPad to the iPhone—to witness the increasing tendency toward everyday products as fashion statements (which might also explain why so many people will spend days lined up in front of an Apple store to be one of the first individuals to get their hands on pretty much any new/updated product upon which Apple wants to slap its logo). And the number of well-known fashion designers like Ralph Lauren and Rebecca Minkoff who have hopped aboard the wearable technology trend only serve as further proof of the collision between art and industry.
From vacuum cleaners to trash cans, “design” is no longer optional; it’s a necessary phase of development in order for a company to remain relevant and competitive in today’s business landscape. The word itself has evolved from a verb to a way of life for executives in every industry.
Take the automotive industry as one example: While design has always been a part of the process from an engineering level, car-makers—much like fashion designers—need to be on the bleeding-edge of the art and design worlds. In order to break through and become that product that everyone aspires to own, auto manufacturers need to understand what elements will make a driver truly “love” his or her car, from the inside out. (German automobile manufacturers learned this lesson the hard way when American drivers weren’t interested in cars that didn’t have cup holders.) It’s also a business where everything counts, so designers need to keep abreast of whether big and boxy rules the day or sleek and sexy wins. Today, the answer to that would be the latter, as EyesOn Design, a near three-decade-old organization that recognizes innovative new steps in car design, confirmed when it recently handed its coveted 2015 EyesOn Design Prize for Best Production Vehicle to the all-new Ford GT supercar, citing its lightweight carbon fiber construction, EcoBoost performance system, and aerodynamics as just a few of the elements that set it apart. (Its jaw-dropping good looks don’t hurt either.)
While some may see it as an exercise in surface-level aesthetics, thoughtful design has the distinct ability (and advantage) to permeate the consumer on an emotional level. And that’s something not even the most brilliant executive can put a price tag on.