Working in New York City more than a decade ago, I was always charmed by how the cost of umbrellas would magically increase during a downpour. Those umbrellas never lasted. They just worked until you reached where you needed to go.
Riding the subway, watching people struggle with their half-broken umbrellas—aren't all umbrellas half-broken?—was an object lesson for me in the value of selective innovation. There's a reason GORE-TEX jackets cost so flipping much: a guarantee of staying 100% dry is almost impossible to deliver. This is a valuable problem, with a valued solution for products that last.
But there are so many short-term solutions, it's almost overwhelming. Mr. Wikipedia says that there are four people at the patent office employed to sift through patent proposals for umbrella-related inventions, and a fellow at Totes was quoted saying that "it’s difficult to come up with an umbrella idea that hasn’t already been done."
That's some market for innovation for the problem of "staying dry." It's a valuable problem that people keep solving over and over again, seeking new niches to monetize.
Now, let's think about web pages. Proper placement of where the search box should go, and how it should behave: pennies or millions, depending on the scale of traffic flowing through a web property. The impact of poorly considered design decisions can be like accidentally nicking an artery while shaving. At times, this is the value we provide to our clients, often in the context of seemingly small yet critical decisions in creating an existing product. But such decisions map back to a much larger context, grounded in customer and business considerations. People will always be searching for content on web pages. Do they need an umbrella or something more durable?
Back away from solving small problems at key points in each of your projects and consider: How valuable is the larger-scale problem I'm trying to solve? With regard to human need? From a business standpoint? Where do I need umbrellas, and where do I need to invent something that will durably last? That can't be easily copied?
This kind of thinking is useful when clients come in crowing about their new umbrella idea, when really they need a waterproof jacket. When discussing a potential new project, ask your client about what problem(s) they're trying to solve. Then, ask them how that problem came about. Usually, that points to a much larger, more valuable problem—where the rain is currently pouring. Gauge the value of the largest problems you can help your client solve, then consider the effort (and decisions) that will be necessary in your current project to move you towards influencing them. It takes more effort to make that waterproof jacket, but it'll last them longer and retain its value better.
How does that change your conversation with the client? Is that a problem they're willing to let you discuss openly? Look at it from a few different angles or higher-order perspectives? Change the nature of what kinds of projects you'd like to retain?
Once you start seeing what you do as a designer in this way, you'll have greater clarity regarding exactly what kind of value you're providing as a designer. Solve valuable problems, charge your customer what the market will reasonably bear. And remember that people won't pay much for umbrellas. At any price point, they always vanish into the closet.
Now, please excuse me... this was one of the few sunny days we've had in Seattle all year, and I'm going to go get my yearly Vitamin D allotment.
This post was inspired by recent discussions with David Conrad, studio director of Design Commission and the co-presenter with me for an AIGA Seattle Design Business for Breakfast next week about how to structure a design studio for success.