pighead.jpgDesign matters but you wouldn't guess that from reading this strange article on the design process at Chinese computer maker Lenovo in BusinessWeek.

Given the big business challenges facing Lenovo — see yesterday's EngagingChina story
— it is looking for $350m in cost savings by 2008. I'd have though a
good place to start would be by axing its external design consultancy, Ziba.

Award-wining it may be, but Ziba's consumer research on Chinese computer buyers, which BW reproduces in its entirety, is impenetrable and pretentious. Its also unintentionally hilarious. A few excerpts:

To
create product experiences that connect with China's consumers, the
team needed to understand three cultures: China, users and products. To
build these connections, the team developed an approach called 'Search
for the Soul,' which integrates immersive experience (live-the-life),
rapid ethnography, and method acting to uncover latent needs and wants.”

In this latter-day search for the Soul of a New Machine*, the designers left no stone unturned:

A
professor of Chinese history was brought in to lecture on key cultural
differences between the US and China. The team collected Chinese
objects of desire — wallets, lighters, and cell-phone holders — and
assessed their colour, material and finish properties. To connect with
popular culture and messaging, we hired a Chinese exchange student to
help interpret lifestyle and technology magazine articles and
advertisements.”

The search continued:

The
team split into two smaller groups, and both spent four weeks immersed
in three different regions in China. Design anthropologists, design
strategists and industrial designers talked on cell phones as they
commuted on bicycle with Beijing workers. They ate from street carts
and dined on pig brain and pigeon in large banquet halls. They walked
the ancient Hutong alleyways and sang late at night in karaoke bars.”

Keen
to be at the cutting edge, they embraced radically new forms of
behaviour such as using a notebook PC in Starbucks or sending text
messages in a nightclub. And so it goes on.

Chinese
manufacturers are often told they need to take product design more
seriously if they want to make inroads into western markets. Lenovo, in
particular, wants to pick up the batten from IBM, which had a good
reputation for product design, mostly due to its Thinkpad line of
laptops, which Lenovo now owns.

Design can, of course, be used
as a strategic weapon — witness the continuing success of Apple's iPod
whose designer, Jonathan Ive, is profiled in the same BusinessWeek issue.

yoga.jpgLenovo's Yoga (pictured) and the other designs BW reproduces are certainly interesting, but they are design concepts rather than commercial products.

Besides,
not many people buy PCs purely on the strength of the design. The few
that do opt for Apple or, perhaps, Sony's Vaio. Most are more
interested in stuff like specifications, support and price. If it comes
in a boring grey box, so be it.

Am I being too hard on Lenovo
and its designers? Perhaps. But in a former life I worked for a
computer company that took design very seriously indeed. The company,
Italy's Olivetti, employed award-winning designers who produced some
snazzy products — and also a lot of humdrum stuff.

The products
were invariably late and over-priced, and the company started losing
large sums of money. Today, Olivetti computers are found in design
museums — but not on people's desks.

*The Soul of a New Machine is a gripping account by Tracy Kidder of the feverish struggle to develop a new computer at Data General in 1981.

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