Making products worth making

In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field… In a well-made book… the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles. (Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Style)

I’ve been enjoying a slow crawl through Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. The book has both the poet’s charming ability to turn a phrase and an engaging continuous theme of what Brian Zmijewski terms progressive design.  In Elements, Bringhurst states the goal of typographic design is to represent written content accessibly and accurately1.  The principal tactic to achieve this goal is by designing from the “content out”:

Read the text before designing it… Discover the outer logic of the typography in the inner logic of the text.

In other words, Bringhurst argues that to make something well, you must first understand its core meaning, purpose and character (aka. “the text”). Only after this first step is taken should considerations like fonts, margins, and layout, come into consideration.

This is sage advice for any typographer; I think it applies to business too. Thousands of people make millions of new products every year. Staff are hired, plans drafted, monies spent and then most of these products fail.

So how does a company avoid making products that are not worth making at all? Budget excuses aside, a common element of unsuccessful products (and startups) is that they fail to deliver significant value to customers.  This is a good place to start! To illustrate the point of value, let me replace a few of Bringhurst’s wise words with my own:

Understand the customer before designing a solution… Discover the outer logic of the product in the inner logic of the customer.

“Reading the text” when creating a product, then, is the process by which we can better understand the inner logic of the customer,2 that is, to anticipate their wants and needs. Here are a few questions I’ve found useful:

  • What are some important motivations for the person(s) involved?
  • What job is the product being hired to do by each person involved?
  • What actions allow us to validate that the product/idea is significant3 in addressing those motivations with a minimum of effort?

In my experience if an entrepreneur addresses each of these questions, the processes of drafting a new product, a pitch, a startup company strategy, or a marketing campaign becomes much less challenging.

Ultimately we make products for other people. When we work directly, honestly and sympathetically to help others achieve their motivations, we’re more likely to create a product that, like a well-designed book, feels meaningful and alive.  These are the products that are worth making.  As Jason Fried of 37 Signals has put it:

“Here’s what our product can do” and “Here’s what you can do with our product” sound similar, but they are completely different approaches.

1. Bringhurst’s Elements tells us that the purpose of typography is “to honour and elucidate the character of the text”.

2. By “customer” I mean anyone who decides on an investment of time, effort or money.

3. A good way to measure the significance (value) of a product to a customer is by determining how much they will pay (to make it, to buy it, to rent it, to keep it, etc.)

The photo is of Jitterbug dancers in NYC by Alan Fisher in 1938. The dance was controversial in multiple contexts. Events featuring the Jitterbug filled seats and dance floors (and sometimes the aisles too). The coloration is anachronistic and entirely my fault.