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Marty Neumeier’s Awesome “Designful Company” Talk at MX09

Posted on Mar 3rd, 2009 by Nate Bolt

Marty Neumeier gave a pretty awesome talk today at Adaptive Path’s MX Conference based on his book, The Designful Company. His intro was engaging right off the bat, so like any talk I think is about to be inspiring, I started taking lots of notes. This is them, and please offer corrections or feedback if I’ve screwed something up.

Why Did I Write This Book?

Not to get great reviews. Because right off the bat I got some pretty harsh reviews. Within the first day, people on Amazon had called it “atrocious” and lots of other things that were less than flattering. But that’s okay because I wrote this book because designers need to be at the business table.

When Innovation was Born in Corporate America

On the same day three (four?) years ago, the Wall Street Journal had two headlines “US Economy loses steam” and “Apple profits increase sixfold.” Wow, that’s quite a different pair of headlines. Marty says that was the day design innovation was born in corporate America. When the journalists asked steve jobs how the hell he could keep that breakneck pace up, he said “we intend to keep innovating.” Awesome quite.

Who is a designer?

A designer is anyone who devises ways to change existing situations into preferred ones.

The dragon gap

The space between vision and reality.  Between what is and what could be. That gap is where the dragons are.  Standard case study thinking does not promote innovation because it’s all about avoiding risk. The designing mindset is different. You get more bang with design. Until the late 90’s office chairs all looked the same until herman miller came along with the aeron chair. At one point it made 30% of all their profits, even though they sell these crazy cubicle systems.

Wicked problem survey

Neutron and Stanford surveyed 1500 CEO’s on their top wicked problems. #1 was balancing long term success with short-term demands. Even though business has been design-blind, the public has not. Famous business person asked the architect of the Eiffel tower “it’s nice but where’s the money in it?” and a true designer would have said “it’s an inspiring symbol of French progress, and nobody will ever forget their trip to paris.” (Nate says: There was something i missed here about “Generate wide-spread wealth”)

How Do We Accomplish All This?

How can we build products or services that out-last the CEO? How do you embed design thinking?  How can we transform our business into a culture of non-stop innovation?


1.    Start with a bold vision. “Who wants a dream that’s near-fetched?” Howard Shultz
2.    Choose your co-conspirators. Align yourself with people who are screaming for change now
3.    Design the way forward (back of the napkin book)
4.    Empower your company

How do you avoid bold dumb vision? (brandon’s question)

Ford had the bold vision of a ford pinto. They made the mistake of deciding their design vision instead of designing it. That’s what happened with the aeron chair. They wanted to make the best chair ever, and they threw out the style guide of all previous office chairs to do that. They made a prototype and tried it with potential customers, and they said “it’s sort of comfortable but it’s kind of weird. I don’t know if I would buy it.” Then they worked really hard on the comfort part of it, and then eventually people said “it’s really very weird but it’s super comfortable.” Then it takes off because it is different. I worry about innovation that aren’t different enough, and the pinto was maybe too different. Clairol “touch of yogurt” shampoo was going too far. You learn to spot a real innovation by it’s combination of being weird and good. That’s where the real art comes in, doesn’t it? Knowing the difference. You protect against horrible innovation by prototyping. Test this out little by little. Either in the market or wherever. Stage-gate innovation is what we call it. Ventures do that by giving a little money, then a little more money. Businesses want to get into the market immediately, and they are impatient. So they take very small risks. That’s just me-too-ism. Anyone who can help prototype. Herman miller said “we’ve gone this far, let’s go one step further and keep trying it in the market place.

How do you convince a CEO that they are a designer?

Aesthetics of management. Comparing various art forms to the way management runs business. Contrast, rythym, and things like that you use in art, you can also use in business.

It’s all about “Creating possible futures” that you then sell up.

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  • Kara

    Great article on Marty Neumeier’s presentation. I’m glad you enjoyed hearing his talk.

    I work for Peachpit Press and thought you and your readers would like to know that he recently released his very first video, INNOVATION WORKSHOP, that touches on the concepts presented in his 3 books. Also, there are exercises that expand to fill a full-day workshop (he usually charges $800 for these). More info can be found here: