More than just froth

Design To Grow is a new book examining the role that design has played in the exponential growth of Coca-Cola

It’s Design Indaba 2011, one of the biggest design conferences in the world. On stage is Dutch maverick Maarten Baas, famous for his Smoke series of charred classic chairs. In the audience sits David Butler, VP of innovation and entrepeneurship, and de facto design head, of Coca-Cola.

Butler has given his talk. It was not well received. “One Tweeter called me the Martha Stewart of the conference, evidently a derogatory reference to the previous year’s least-favourite speaker,” Butler ruefully notes. On Design Observer, Julie Lasky will write that Butler was “this Indaba’s only out-and-out flop. Exhorting the audience to add value to business through systems thinking, which he illustrated with banal drinks dispensers throughout the world, Butler managed to be both condescending and unconvincing. The tea-table chatter at break time was scathing.”

Baas meanwhile is garnering wild applause for a heartfelt attack on big companies using design to create profit. Design should be for
a higher purpose he argues. Butler drily wonders whether that purpose includes creating $4,000 Smoke Chairs.

This episode is related towards the end of Design to Grow, a book by Butler and Fast Company’s Linda Tischler, but it goes to the heart of the book’s context. Subtitled ‘How Coca-Cola learned to combine scale and agility (and how you can too)’ this isn’t your standard designer monograph. It’s about the value of creativity to business: a very big business.

The Design Indaba’s reaction to Butler is reflective of the industry’s conflicted position when it comes to what its skills are used for. Barely a major conference goes by without someone making an impassioned plea from the stage for us all to stop designing ‘stuff people don’t need’: usually after they have run through a portfolio containing a good deal of just such stuff designed by themselves.
“I was mystified,” Butler writes. “‘Is he really saying that $4,000 Smoke Chairs are ‘good’ and products that a lot of people like and can afford are somehow ‘bad’?” he asks himself. He bemoans the fact that the industry celebrates “rock-star designers who create esoteric things that win awards and inhabit museums”. Design, he complains, has become synonymous with all that is “cool, luxury, sexy, out of reach for most people, and mostly reserved for the rich”.

His book instead focuses on the impact of design on what was famously celebrated by Andy Warhol as being one of the most democratic products on Earth – Coke. And it’s a fascinating story.

Butler talks about his early struggles to explain what ‘design’ is to his colleagues and what its value could be. Shortly after he took the job in 2004, Butler was invited to a marketing meeting and asked to choose his favourite out of three new label designs for Fanta. It was, he says, like an “art contest”. No discussion of the brand strategy, the market or consumers, just pick your favourite. “This was exactly what I had been afraid of,” Butler says. “I knew we had to think about design differently. Design had to be bigger than a label, a package or even a brand.”

Butler wrote a manifesto for what he believed design could do for Coke. He called it Designing on Purpose and set out the argument for creating systems and tools that would connect up the company’s design teams and programmes. Design, he argued, could help solve major business problems for Coke.
Butler is big on systems – for an organisation as large as Coca-Cola they are essential. He led the development of the somewhat ominous-sounding Design Machine, in fact an online tool to help Coca-Cola designers around the world create localised material that is in line with global marketing strategies and design guidelines. The system sets out the rules for using the Coke logo and various design elements but also allows for local flexibility. “It streamlines the process for local approval and legal review, and can reduce the usual agency/company development process from weeks to minutes. To date, Design Machine has generated over $100 million in cost savings with more than 35,000 users in over 200 countries,” he says. That’s the kind of design language that big corporations understand.

Butler also talks about some of the systems Coke uses around the world for sales and distribution, and how design has played its part. Its South African bottler, for example, came up with the idea of Micro Distribution Centers, or MDCs, as a means of distributing the product in rural Africa. A pilot programme in Ethiopia enlisted local entrepeneurs to create a network of employees to deliver to small shops and bars using bicycles and handcarts. Today, Butler says, the programme employs over 12,000 people across Africa, many of them women, and provides regular training in business skills. He even credits it with helping develop a growing middle class.

That’s a positive story but, unsurprisingly in a book of this nature (and which carries Coke’s logo on the cover), there is little questioning of the context of this programme. Has Coke’s presence displaced local brands, for example? What has the impact of its entry into the market been on health and obesity levels? Are these local entrepreneurs paying a living wage?

So Design to Grow is a one-sided story but, nonetheless, it’s a valuable one as Butler makes the case for design and what became known as ‘design thinking’ at one of the world’s biggest companies. You may or may not like Coca-Cola and all it stands for. Set that aside and there are lessons here that can be applied in any organisation – that design is about more than decoration, that it can help an organisation do what it does, not just sell or talk about what it does, and about how to win over colleagues by speaking their language.

In proving the value of design at one of the most commercially-orientated organisations in the world, Butler has ironically achieved what many in that Indaba conference hall would no doubt appreciate – he has set out a convincing argument that design can do far more than just sell stuff.

Design to Grow, by David Butler and Linda Tischler, is published by Portfolio Penguin, £14.99,

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