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Dan Formosa: At the Forefront of Smart Design
Like many new businesses, Smart Design was founded by a collection of college classmates who wanted to change something. Dan Formosa, along with several college friends, had a background in design and ergonomics. The group believed that design should be about people, not things—and Smart Design was born. In the beginning, it was a hard sell—not the designs themselves, but the idea that the needs of individual people should be involved in the development of design. Formosa was interested in how design can affect our quality of life, improve performance, and affect behavior. The original Smart Design team pulled together techniques in biomechanics and cognitive psychology, recalls Formosa. This was a type of an approach that no other design group was undertaking in the U.S. at the time, so it was an early test of our beliefs about what and where design should be. Smart Design was successful throughout the 1980s, but Formosa admits that it was an uphill battle to convince clients that design was, indeed, for everyone.
Then came OXO. Around 1990, Smart Design acquired the manufacturing firm OXO as a client, giving Formosa team a chance to re-invent the design of common household products ranging from can openers to scissors, resulting in the OXO Good Grips line of kitchen utensils. Because of the mundane nature of these products—consumers weren’t accustomed to shopping for a potato peeler that actually felt comfortable in the hand—once they caught on, the idea that everyday design matters began to take hold in the marketplace. Smart Design client base grew significantly, as did the company. Firms such as Ford, ESPN, Samsung, Nike, and Microsoft began to request Smart Design services, and the number of employees increased.
No matter how much talent lies in the firm, though, managing a company of designers can be like trying to herd cats. Everyone has an idea, and everyone is running headlong in a different direction. So leadership is critical to the firm success. Paulette Bluhm-Sauriol, director of brand communication, observes that while most designers are detail oriented, Someone has to make sure that the team is keeping the big picture in mind, not just the details. That part of her job as well as Formosa : maintaining the overall vision. She also notes that, as a leader, Formosa has the natural gift of connecting and empathizing with people, whether it is employees or potential end-users of Smart Design products. Dan has the ability to make going into people lives and becoming part of their lives comfortable, she observes.
This was particularly true during the development of a new type of pre-filled medical syringe that Smart Design undertook for UCB/OXO Cimzia. The medication Cimzia is a solution that alleviates chronic pain in patients with certain conditions. If patients could administer the solution themselves in a comfortable way, it would enhance their lives. When the pharmaceutical maker UCB and OXO partnered to develop the new product, they went to Smart Design for the design. Formosa asked his team to go straight to the patients themselves to ask them what they needed. Designers met and observed patients in their own environment, giving them a chance to express their wishes. It can be uncomfortable, but it amazing how you can get to the big ideas by approaching the project his way, says Paulette Bluhm-Sauriol.
The syringe has met with marketplace success, and has even won an International Design Excellence Award. Most important, patients are getting what they need, which is exactly what Formosa strives for in each product his firm designs. If someone buys a product or signs up for a service, they expect it to work. If you actually encounter a product or service that exceeds expectations, that is the sign of a great design, he says. Formosa also contends that the same principles can be applied to the design of a delicate hospital instrument as are applied to a pizza cutter. Since our focus is designing for people, then that is the common ground, he asserts.
At Smart Design, the corporate culture supports the notion that the ideas of every employee are important. Regardless of job title, each person is considered a designer, with something valuable to contribute to the process. Formosa doesn’t mind the potential chaos of this kind of organization—it how he operates. When we have everybody thinking everything, it a positive sign, he says. It a formula that works.
Questions for Critical Thinking
1. Describe Dan Formosa vision for Smart Design. Why do you think it took so long to gain popularity in the marketplace?
2. Identify Smart Design strategy for competitive differentiation.
3. How would you describe Dan Formosa leadership style? Do you think it is the best style for Smart Design? Why or why not?
4. Discuss Smart Design corporate culture. Do you think it is effective for the kind of business the company engages in? Why or why not?
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