What can design thinking do for a company known for its technical and scientific prowess, but which is essentially clueless when it comes to industrial design? About four years ago, Dow Corning Corp. decided to find out. So far, according to one company official, it's quite pleased with the results.
For starters, consider that person's title: Chip Reeves is Dow Corning's director of design and discovery. The Midland, Mich.-based firm, a 50-50 joint venture between Dow Chemical Co. and Corning Inc. since 1943, is a specialty materials company known for its portfolio of silicones and silicon-based materials.
Reeves is not a designer, but has immersed himself in that world since his employer recognized it had a problem making its materials accessible to those who might use them.
Reeves said Dow Corning's leadership realized addressing the issue would take time.
So we started a program that I've been leading now for just about four years, and we put it into what we call the business and technology incubator at Dow Corning which means it doesn't have an immediate expectation of delivering sales results this quarter or this year. It's a longer-term view. They've given us some time to get the momentum going, and at a speed that's right.
In a fall presentation at the Industrial Designers Society of America's international conference in Miami, Reeves shared the journey with a roomful of designers. But other plastics companies might do well to absorb some of the lessons learned.
Reeves recounted how Dow Corning had excellent scientific credentials, and ran a very good Web site, from the perspective of offering detailed technical specifications about its materials. We've got this real cool chemistry set, he said. But the company's approach to marketing and selling its wide range of advanced materials was typical for most materials companies, meaning it offered catalogs, technical data sheets and small sample jars of its liquids and gels.
He said that when the company set off to find a better approach, We didn't have design in our sights. He said they knew their materials had great stories to tell and offered good properties. But who cares that you can make something slippery or sticky or that you can make something stretchy or bouncy or feel good? The answer that we came to, with that internal dialogue, is that the design community cares that's the starting point for thinking about new material and new product concepts.
Dow Corning then acted on its plan by taking three steps. The company:
* Internalized design.
* Transformed how it interacted with customers.
* Infused design more deeply into its organization.
To internalize design, the firm hired its first industrial designer Kevin Shinn, former head of design at Rubbermaid Home Products in February 2007.
That was an important step, Reeves said, because nobody at Dow Corning really understood industrial design. Shinn, who now also serves as vice president of IDSA's Mideast District, continually had to explain to people within the company what he does for a living, and what ID is.
He's wired differently than everybody else at Dow Corning. We're a technical company, we're a science company, and he's just a different fish, Reeves said.
Shinn also found the move challenging. In an interview with British designer and materials expert Chris Lefteri, for the fall 2009 edition of a Lefteri publication called Ingredients, Shinn explained: The cultural part is probably the biggest challenge. It's both rewarding and frustrating all at once. Bringing two cultures together that are historically very different means there is a lot of internal training and leadership that has to take place to help culture shift.
On a daily basis, Shinn said, my goal internally is to maintain my creative edge. Externally, it's really rewarding because you bring new technologies out there to designers where you can see a real need for that translation and bridging of knowledge.
According to Reeves, Dow Corning internally is very slowly starting to create a recognition and awareness that design has tangible outcomes and it creates value.
The second step involved changing how it interacted with customers. To help with that, Dow Corning hired a design firm to assist with that research. The result was an informational tool it calls the Discovery Kit. It's a physical kit that contains different kinds of items to explore and learn about various materials. The purpose is to tell stories.
For example, there are material samples as well as something that resembles a baseball card containing text written in the first person from the material in question, explaining what it is, what it can do, and what its properties are, but in a conversational, non-technical way.
The aim is to inform and to stimulate dialogue. The text refers only to generic material types, such as silicone-modified thermoplastic. There is no mention of brand names.
That comes later in the dialogue. The first experience [involves] just understanding what the possibilities are, Reeves said.
He added that most people they go to see whether designers, students or customers expect them to come bearing the tools of a traditional materials company, meaning a PowerPoint deck and a catalog and technical data sheets.
The hosts, Reeves said, are pleasantly surprised by the more-physical experience offered by the leave-behind Discovery Kits.
We're definitely making progress at making our materials more accessible.
Finally, to infuse design more deeply into the fabric of Dow Corning, Reeves said he and his team are making a concerted effort to demonstrate the value of design thinking to the company's own marketing, commercial and technical teams.
He admits it's a very abstract proposition initially, to explain how, by engaging a design set of minds and eyes, you're going to get to a different place and a different level.
The biggest challenge has been dealing with the sea of faces who are very strong from a scientific, technology and engineering perspective.
You can get people in the room, and you can do the dance, and say that design has really got something that's meaningful for us here, and you can show some slides. And you can get this kind of blank response.
It all takes time and commitment, and an effort to personalize the examples and build them into each separate group's priorities so they resonate. But it is extremely rewarding, Reeves said, when someone suddenly gets it, thereby opening the door to a whole new world of product and market possibilities.
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