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Carol Coletta

Rob Forbes was up next. He is the founder of the fabulous chain of stores and the catalog, Design Within Reach.

He is the internal design advocate, but he takes his inspiration from cities. Cities, he says, are significant design statements. Some of the 5000 photos he takes every year end up in his e-newsletter. Sidewalks are his “information highway,” and he calls himself a streetwalker. He is more impressed by the way places get used, rather than how they look.

Rob thinks of DWR as a design company. But the company has run into problems this year, firing its CEO and its head of marketing. So Rob is reevaluating the company asking questions like these: Are we a well-designed company? Has design been central to our strategy other than in the products themselves? How do you measure the value of design?

What is design? Rob uses these descriptions: Design is the artful arrangement of materials or circumstances into a planned form. Design is function with cultural content.

Rob’s business objective is acquiring and retaining the right customers. “If we are a well-designed business, DWR will acquire and retain the right customers artfully with a plan.” (Rob believes that the customer is not always right. He believes the right customer is right.)

DWR’s studios break traditional retail rules. You won’t find lifestyle scenes in DWR. Instead, the products themselves are showcased. They keep no inventory, and they hire experienced people who understand the products.

Artful business design strategies employed by DWR:

Lengthy gestation period for business planning
Quickly profitable without much cash
Single common inventory
Multi-channel reach
Strategic partners with production capabilities
Elimination of middlemen

But, Rob noted, DWR is artful only in an archaic industry (furniture).

DWR would love to be the place where the next smart car is launched.

Design Notes is Rob’s e-newsletter. It now goes out to 400,000 people on a weekly basis. (It has never been advertised.)

“We are known for a conversation with our customers more than anything,” Rob said. He views retail as a conversation with your customers.

Rob was very frank about the non artful design decisions that have been made at DWR. They include needless complexity, technology oversights (He told a disaster story about a new information system that keeps information from flowing.), engineering oversights, style before substance decisions, lack of innovation in the traditional retailing mindset and the tendency to slide into typical retail paradigm.

Simplicity and differentiation is key to our business. Google hides complexity behind simplicity.

Rob complimented Seth Godin’s book, “Purple Cow,” and its emphasis on remarkability.

DWR’s best performance has been in periods of necessity. Its worst has been when the principles that drive its products decisions

Branding has become a leisure activity, and he fears that design is in danger of entering that same category. That is something to guard against.

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