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Charles Eames, “good design”, and communications strategy

I have been paying a lot of attention to the work of Ray and Charles Eames, the famous designers who built so many beautiful pieces of furniture, accessories and toys, mostly for Herman Miller. They had a remarkable career of innovation, designing such classics as the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, the Hang-it-All, the Eames Chair, etc. Not only that, they designed extraordinary toys such as the House of Cards. “Take your pleasure seriously,” said Charles Eames.

Eames also had a healthy attitude toward design. He told the chairman of Herman Miller, Hugh Dupree, talking about “good design”. Charles Eames said, “Don’t give us that good design crap. You never hear us talk about that. The real questions are: Does it solve a problem? Is it serviceable? How it is going to look in ten years?” Here is a snippet of video related to this:

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He makes an excellent point here that is relevant to communications management. As communications managers, we talk a lot about good strategy and design, but the problem is that those terms, while they are well defined in terms of management theory by people like Peter Drucker and Roger Martin, are pre-conceptual in communications management. 

What do I mean?

It’s simple, really – to be able to say that something is good, it means that you are judging it against a model or against a set of well-defined parameters. Eames rejects the idea of a holistic “good” evaluation of design, preferring to ask pragmatic questions about specific qualities of the design. He says this because his target audience is people… the range of interpretations of good design in the subjective realms of the minds of his audience is as varied as there are members of the audience, for sac person’s mind is the product of their individual genetics and personal experiences. So rather than aim at “good design”, he aims to solve specific problems for people, create a serviceable product that will stand the test of time. Very human solutions.

Communications managers face the same challenges that Eames faces when designing furniture or works of art for the home and office: we are dealing with the fundamentally subjective perceptions of a massively varied set of publics, regardless of what client we represent or which organization we communicate for. Thus, strategy for communicators must incorporate design, for design makes ideas, things, living spaces and communities pleasing to people, but I suggest that when we design a communications strategy we ask ourselves the same three questions:

  • Are we solving a well-defined problem in a measurable way (qualitative or quantitative)?
  • Will people find our communications serviceable (useful, enriching, engaging, pleasing, convincing, etc.)?
  • Will our strategy help to build the brand in a way that will still resonate in the future (is the strategy sustainable or cumulative, rather than contextually-limited fix)?
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