Designers are often asked to sift through complex situations and distill information into themes. We convert these themes into insights, opportunity areas, and design principles. This is an important part of the creative process, because every project needs focus—a rallying point—that keeps everyone (including the client) aligned with its vision.
At a high level, design firms as a whole also need focus. They must elevate certain messages or themes above the noise of the industry at large, so that everyone on staff can align and move forward in the same direction. One such message is passion. Some people say, “We all need to figure out what our passions are and trumpet them loudly.” This idea is alluring in that it appeals to our desire to simplify our increasingly complex and confusing world. But it should be taken with a grain of salt. Having an emotional response to a problem and being able to empathize with users can provide a nice boost of energy in any design effort. But passion is really only a small part of the equation.
Let’s begin by looking at Apple, because that’s what every designer does. Steve Jobs’ attention to detail and commitment to quality are legendary. When discussing the topic, he would sometimes refer to how cabinets are made. He said it was just as important for the back of the cabinet to be as beautiful as the front. “For you to sleep well at night,” he said, “the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”
Jobs was passionate about his job. In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, he told the graduating class: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Jobs also knew that passion alone wouldn’t produce great product designs. But rigorous attention to detail and quality, in addition to aesthetics, would.
The word passion comes from the Greek word pēma, which means “to suffer.” In today’s world, we tend to overlook the suffering part. It’s still there, but we usually focus on the positive aspects of the word—and take it to mean “having a powerful emotion or feeling” or “a strong desire” for something. But a passion isn’t an ordinary desire or a casual want. It’s something we want so badly it hurts.
How does suffering help designers? Passion and empathy come from the same place: emotion. As designers, we need to understand the emotional qualities of the experiences we create. As frog founder Hartmut Esslinger put it: “Form follows emotion.” Although passion can ignite a team’s effort, it can also get in the way. Just look at Jobs’ career: His obsession for quality and aesthetics did not always produce successful results—and it sometimes contributed to failures. For example, his insistence on the cube shape of the NeXT PC led to high production costs and overheating issues. In this case, following his passion did not pay off.
Let’s consider a few other, more recent failures in the consumer technology space. Was passion the missing component? Or were other things lacking?
Case 01 Google Wave. The people behind Wave were very passionate about what they were doing. They had exciting ideas and the engineering know-how to make those ideas a reality. But Google Wave was a flop. When it closed back in 2010, the general consensus was that Wave failed because it was too complicated and no one really understood why it existed.
Case 02 Microsoft Kin. This odd little device was an attempt to produce a cool mobile phone. I suspect the people behind Kin had passion for what they were doing, but the product failed for various reasons, including the fact that it wasn’t a true smart phone, yet required an expensive data plan. It was scrapped within two months of launch.
Case 03 HP Touchpad. Many thought the Touchpad could be competitive because it ran Palm’s webOS, an alternative to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms. But it faced major obstacles, such as a dearth of apps, poor timing, and really stiff competition. HP needed far more than passion; it needed to move quickly and present a compelling value proposition.
Passion isn’t enough to create innovative designs. We need a compelling vision, empathy for users, good systems thinking, design chops, experience (previous failures and successes), technical savvy, commitment to an excellent user experience, tremendous attention to detail, sound processes, strong advertising and marketing acumen, excellent engineering, great quality assurance, solid financing, agility, and a deep understanding of the problems and challenges we face in implementing solutions. Passion is just the beginning.