In spite of Watson's extraordinary accomplishments and his awe of Olivetti, he missed something of fundamental importance when giving shape to his vision. His rendition of good design making good business meant that good design had the strategic value to shape the company's public perception and create more sales; in other words, design was an added value rather than something integral to the products themselves. It is not an accident American corporate culture to this day relegates design beneath marketing, and while every major company and well-funded startup seems to have gone into a design frenzy recently, almost all of them keep perpetuating the vision of design as a marketing instrument.
There lies the fundamental difference with the European culture of entrepreneurship that shaped Adriano Olivetti and his company. His penchant for design was not business strategy: it was a byproduct of his cultural commitment to a new renaissance for his country, a feeling shared by many intellectuals of his time, including architects and designers in Olivetti’s circle. Being interested in architecture and design meant understanding how to build a better world, and as a result of his commitment, those principles were embedded in Olivetti's very raison d'être.
Though for very different reasons than Adriano Olivetti, Steve Jobs was the one American entrepreneur who was able to truly understand the cultural value of design as something that goes beyond a superficial marketing instrument. With an extraordinary culturally committed and product-centric vision akin to the most enlightened European entrepreneurs, he was able to embed this understanding so deep in his products that they became synonymous with it. Jobs did this on a scale that no European company ever had the chance to, and he raised the bar to standards that are hard to match.
In the first issue of Bulthaup Culture, CEO of Bulthaup Mark O. Eckert writes:
“You'll certainly know the saying ‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.’ Tradition does not mean fearfully clinging to what has disappeared, but rather to keep a direct line with a source of cultural energy. A culture takes shape from tradition, which becomes a source of novelty.”
Unlike Eckert, a second generation entrepreneur that has been able to bring Bulthaup into the present without losing any of its cultural energy, many of the entrepreneurs who are called to bring a company forward after the visionary founder has passed away don't seem to be able to carry on the underlying vision, renewing it while staying true to its core principles. This has been the case with both IBM and Olivetti, and arguably with Apple as well since Steve Jobs has passed away.
A clear position emerges from our reasoning: in order for a company to truly embrace design as a driving force in its own self-determination, the entrepreneur himself must become intellectually involved in design. Understanding how designers and architects influence our culture and help shape our society is not a newfound necessity born from a recent year’s trend — it has always been crucial to anyone who harbored the aspiration to build products that make people’s lives better.
By growing a culture of exchange that is founded on the shared values between designers and entrepreneurs, the permanent things they care most about, companies can be empowered to create not just generically “great” products that will sell, but truly good products that will change the world.
Michael Klein is Creative Director at Beck & Stone where he leads the design team in its endeavors to connect ideas to culture. A native of Italy, he resides currently in the Netherlands.