It’s the time of the year so I was strolling the local Christmas market lately and passed by a craftsman who was weaving a basket. Somehow I was instantly impressed and stood still, starting to observe the activity of the basket-maker: his movements were swift and confident and he was even able to have a conversation with other observers, whilst craft-fully weaving this basket. All of a sudden he paused – he was about halfway finished with his piece – as if he felt something was not right: and indeed, the basketwork at the bottom had a different colour as the one at the top, also the braid seemed thinner. So he pulled all apart and started over. Upon which an old lady couldn’t resist and mention how pity this was and that she’d never noticed – and that he was almost finished anyway. “Dear Madam, he replied, you have to this work with conviction!” Baskets, he added, one should only sell, if they’re tip-top. “If you can improve, you have to improve, even if it means to start all over. You cant sell inferior crap!” he finished off in a truly convincing manner and continued weaving. The older lady patiently waited till he was done and then bought the basket.

This made me think of a meeting I once attended when working for a large company. It was about the introduction of a new product and in this context also ‘design’ was given a special spot on the CEO’s agenda. Part of this review was to examine the development of a particular product category – for us designers a great opportunity to show how well we had made progress – at least that’s what we intended to accomplish…

The CEO walked past the exhibited samples and carefully examined all, taking a closer look and comparing old with new. “Why did we ever launch this product, if we can do so much better?” he all of a sudden threw out, pointing at a truly mediocre, if not even dreadful product, which, standing next to it, had been replaced in the meanwhile by one with an improved design. The functionality did remain the same between the both, only the execution did improve: the second was much better indeed.

The CEO didn’t let loose, but most of the participants rather wanted to move on: some of them felt disaster creeping in on them, very few others felt that this might be the moment to call the elephant in the room.

But the CEO refused to go on to the next point on the agenda, now that he clearly had a case to prove that with the same technology you can produce better products: he wanted to have answers, op the spot – and then he turned to the designer in charge…

[The fact that only once per year he was conducting a ‘review’, and that due to this ‘re-viewing’ he was missing out on a lot (like the introduction of the first product), consequently meant that his questioning came too late, but this did not come to his mind… he was expecting action at the design side, not at his.]

Somehow embarrassed we designers were looking at each other, not at all prepared for this questioning, really. The designer in charge exactly knew where the problem laid, but he wasn’t sure if he could just raise the issue, just like that.
The product managers had given him strict boundaries concerning costs, technology and manufacturing requirements, to do the first design. They had purchased the ‘inner guts’ somewhere at a supplier and then asked him to give his best ‘shot’ to create a ‘sellable’ design.
Under protest, he gave in and started his design work, but not before he got the assurance that with the second release he would have more freedom to change and adapt the ‘inner guts’ as well. When the final design proposal was ready he and all the other designers were not satisfied at all – though the work was done and the product needed to be sold ‘as is’. The designer had no power to put-in a veto on the market introduction. Why was that: were the designers short of conviction, were they not ‘powerful’ enough?

The designer under question was surrounded by the CEO, the managers and the designers, all waiting for his reply: how could he raise the issue and name the elephant in the room?

After thinking briefly he tried it with a story and told them about a visit he paid to a Christmas market – and about discovering the true conviction of a craftsman…

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