Winning in the pick economy

Karim Rashid has his own Karim Rashid Shop where he sells vases, plates, watches. OBEY giant Shepard Fairy designs, manufactures and sells his OBEYware direct to fans and specialty shops. Former Apple design lord Robert Brunner decides to skip client middlemen and design direct to the consumer. These days it’s not enough for designers to be aesthetes. Following the carefully gridded path of Leger plates, Tibor Kalman watches and Keith Haring’s Pop Shop, the new designer/entrepreneurs have become their own trend expert, product manager, sales rep, and CEO combined. As liberating as this may seem, it brings a new rack of responsibilities. And it’s good to be smart about the other side of the fence.

In the early 20th century, companies pushed products from their factories out onto store shelves. Later, thanks to radio and television advertising that reached 80% of the population, marketers were able to pull customers into stores in search of their products.

In today’s world media is fragmented, markets are fragmented. Skews of race, sexual orientation, work life, digital experience, marriage and child status, plus other sociological forces crosscut markets even further. We have microtrends, micromarkets and micro meals. Only in rare cases can products (like oil and toilet paper) claim to be ubiquitous and necessary. These days consumers choose from miles of aisles of cars, clothing, electronic equipment, food, beverage and staples. To push is dangerous. To pull is difficult. We are engaged in a revolutionary new marketing model not driven by manufacturers or their marketing partners.

In fact, it’s not enough to consider consumer push or pull strategies. Because today, the consumer picks.

This new pick economy manifests itself with runaway success stories. Consumers pick new entertainment acts on television shows like American Idol. Starbucks lets customers pick from thousands of coffee iterations. VW lets drivers pick their own colors and accessories on the web. Coldstone Creamery lets customers create their own ice cream concoction. Second Life lets you construct an avatar, picking body and facial features (even features of the opposite sex). Cell phones let you pick ring tones. Medical websites guide you through your pick of treatment options. Sites like Wikipedia let people pick a subject and even define it. Google, CNN, Yahoo! and other news sources let you pick and sort information. People can even design their own pet dogs, as Doodles, Buggs and Pomapoos demonstrate.

The democritization of consumerism and the Internet go hand in hand. People vote heavily on the things they prefer, and are moved to share their views with others on music, fashion, cars—even personal finances. Peer to peer commentary is commonplace, if not downright obligatory. Websites like consumerist.com, digg.com, and blogs like gizmodo.com, scobleizer.com (and hundreds more) keep people attuned to the ins and outs and muck ups of public commerce, go googoo over some new place or thing, or have a bitch session about any subject that leaps to mind.

Online outlets like shopbop.com, drugstore.com, zappos.com, eluxury.com let consumers splurge online, picking and sorting from online retail bins. While consumers hop from category to category, an interesting challenge is posed for product designers who want to stand out.

Pull-down text menus, as just one example, don’t permit sensory/emotional impressions at all. It’s discriminatory (or even random) choice in sans serif.

Products can be shown side by side their hardiest competitor. This naked comparison—while seemingly always the case on store shelves, becomes startlingly brazen online and never serves MOR designs well.

Choices breed indecision. The more choices, the more to compare/contrast, the more to think about, the more likely consumer brain freeze. Some customers tune out and click off, others scurry elsewhere.

Arguably, consumers have always been able to pick and choose. Perhaps it has only been marketer ego and control freaking that allowed concepts like push and pull to exist in the first place. What the new pick model infers is loss of influence. If marketing departments once assumed they could determine purchase decisions through mass manufacturing, mass awareness and “understanding” their consumer, today those methods are ubiquitous, commoditized and even repugnant. The consumer has taken the lead, and it’s time to look for new ways to make a difference.

So how can you help consumers pick you? Opportunities lie ahead for designers in the new pick economy.

Pick esthetics. The Dyson vacuum, the Michael Graves teapot, the Philippe Starck sippy cup, OXO kitchen utensils, Ikea water glasses (for 89¢), and dozens of other examples, have spread juicy design through all categories. (The only thing left, it seems, is the laundry tub.) With so many consumers grazing online, the instant eye candy of a well-designed product creates huge appeal.

Pick tingle. An eye-popping new bottle shape. A clever package design. An exciting new taste. These are not superfluous gimmicks, but are obligatory parts of today’s design mix. The 150-story Chicago Spire designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, currently under construction (and taller than the Sears Tower). Chanel’s $240 million store along Tokyo’s Ginza strip designed by Peter Marino. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago. These are not just artful architectural wonders, but splashes of sense-tingling spectacle. Think fuseproject’s Perfume09 container, Studio Job tables and chairs, Buro Vormkrijgers OVERDOSE lighting, or Spanish designer Jaime Hayon’s cobalt blue furniture. Treeodesign paper boxes and Orikaso cups fold into origamic utility. Dominic Crinson’s ceramic tiles printed with digitally manipulated photographs. And remember the first time you watched the newly reinvented Mini Cooper roll down the street?

Pick buzz. Damien Hirst’s head banging “For the Love of God” is an 18th century skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,601 diamonds. It sold for $100 million dollars. Stefan Sagmeister hand-cut type into his own skin with a razor blade (with help from a stalwart assistant) to produce his (in)famous Detroit AIGA poster. Spencer Tunick lays naked people on the street then shoots the photograph. Spectacle sells.

Pick green. Save the earth and save yourself. Products that help—or at least don’t harm—our environment are experiencing a demand burst. Even the $100,000 Tesla that goes from 0-60 in four seconds (possibly the hottest-looking car on the planet) is not gas-powered, but 100% electric. Recycled paper, fabrics, locally grown foods, and biosensitive processes are being chosen over less sustainable counterparts. Ecophab® is a fabric created from recycled plastic water bottles and just two years ago was almost discontinued due to lack of demand. Places like thisintothat and Alchemy Architects turn “used” objects into reused and fabulous. Ecomaniacs abound.

Pick multiple use. Chilewich Plynyl® floor surfaces transformed into table place mats. Holland Electro’s wireless sound transmitters masquerade as objects d’art. Robert Stadler’s mirror design receives glowing SMS mobile phone messages.

Pick joy. There is nothing like the delight of buying something you think you’ll love and continuing to love it after purchase. Not just those labels, pockets and other add-ins you discover after your purchase. But durables as well: the aptly-engineered Toro lawnmower that starts on the first pull. The bed you can’t wait to climb back into.

Pick simple. Ease of use has become a huge differentiator. (Remember the VCR no one could program? Nevermore.) 80% of iPhone owners use ten or more features. Why? Because friendly menu design helps find them. Chipotle menus are also deliberately simple to help customers create their own burrito fast, easy. Even banks are trying to simplify the design of their loan forms.

Pick downsized. America is buying smaller, smarter. Smaller cars, smaller more bite-size foodstuffs, smaller debt. The great new cars are not ego-sized Hummers and SUVs, they are eco-friendly Toyotas. At the same time, expectations are growing for getting more than what you pay for. Ikea, for example, offers big design often for $10 and less. Target’s slogan nails it with “Expect more. Pay less”.

Pick me. No matter what your product or service category, the consumer’s real demand right now is the ability to choose for themselves. Don’t stand in the way. Instead, encourage dialogue, think of more ways to be amazing, wow yourself. That way, you not only have a better chance of standing out. You have a better chance of being the one who is picked.

THIS ARTICLE PREVIOUSLY APPEARED IN ADVERTISING AGE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.