Three Design Lessons from Star Wars

If you know me, this next statement will not come as any shock:

I’m geek and I love Star Wars.

This isn’t profound by any stretch of the imagination.  I am a small voice in a cacophony of Star Wars Geeks.  In fact, I am probably not particularly far along the spectrum when it comes to Star Wars geekery.  I love that a movie that I saw when I was 5 is still alive in my imagination and I have passed that love on to my kids.  My daughter likes Star Wars.  But where the torch of geekiness is being passed, is to my son.  He is now 5 years old, and I have had my Mom send out all of the Star Wars toys my brother and I played with as kids. There’s the plastic Darth Vader action figure case (with the original Darth Vader action figure and his vinyl cape, et al), the Millennium Falcon, the AT/AT Walker, the Cloud City Pod Car, and the Rebel Snowspeeder. Yes, I love playing with my son by running around the house yelling “peww, peww, peww”, and “Han shot Greedo first”! I might possibly have even maybe played with some of the toys myself once or twice after he’s gone to bed.  But nobody was around to see it so you can’t prove it…and I’ll deny it if you try and say I did.

This past weekend, Spike TV had a Star Wars marathon.  My son and I, even though we own all the DVDs, got caught up in watching the commercial laden version of Episode 2. While I was sitting there, my mind did start to wonder how Star Wars applies to Design. I tend to think that there are several design lessons to learn from Star Wars.

1. Create the Vision then Let Go 

I’m going to say this, more to publicly get it off my chest than anything else.  George Lucas sucks as a Director.  Seriously, he’s horrible. What he’s good at is being a visionary. When he comes up with the story, guides it, shapes and molds it but let’s it go, he allows for magic to happen.  If you don’t believe me, go back and watch Episodes I, II, III, and IV. All directed by Lucas, and all of them are horrible from a cinematic perpspective. With the same set of actors and same visionary at the helm, Irving Kirschner created the epic Empire Strikes Back which is pure genius.

Steve Jobs did this…or so his archetype goes. He created the vision and acted as the final say on all products. But he let his team do the work.  He let the Designers design, Programmers program…etc.  He held everyone to a very high standard, but he knew he wasn’t a designer.  He, in his words, knew it when he saw it but was unable to do it himself.  I wish, after the original Star Wars (Episode IV), Lucas would have done the same. Don’t fall into this trap with your product.  If you are coming up with a new product or company, you are probably an amazing visionary.  Create the vision, guide, shape, and mold, and hire a Design Team. Then get out of the way.

2. Remember Your Archetypes

Every product has a personality.  As does every company.  Star Wars, and every other Lucas epic, is wrought with the simple idea that archetypes are king.  Sometimes the archetypes are instilled from the beginning, other times they’re forged by time.  Here are a few examples:

Han Solo/Apple/Steve Jobs – The Outlaw archetype is the guy that shoots from the hip (maybe even first). He does things different(ly) from everyone else and rules are merely ideas to consider.  He tends to have a chip on his shoulder.  Everybody loves the Outlaw, but there’s always an element that keeps you on edge for feeling that love.

Luke Skywalker/Google/Sergey Brin and Larry Page – The Hero archetype saves the day by choosing the path of good over evil. The temptation of doing evil is constantly pulling at The Hero, and while he may be tempted by the Dark Side he always stays true to his feelings that good prevails over evil.

Darth Vader/Microsoft/Bill Gates – Ruling the Galaxy is a taxing job and nobody is better suited for the job than the Villain archetype.  As the villain, you are going to make a lot of people unhappy along the way, especially when you use the force to choke your opponents into submission. Deep down, you may be good but you have embraced the dark side and have no problem leaving a path of destruction behind you as long as you get to the top.

This is all a very fun way to say, give your product or company a personality. Choose your archetype, even if you don’t overtly announce it to the world.  If you don’t at least consider what archetype your product is to be, you increase your risk of ending up with a product that has a severe identity crisis. I believe it was Yoda who said it best, “If confused you are, confused your customers will be”.

3. “Use the Force, Luke”

At the end of the day, Design is something that requires a good gut. It either feels right, or it doesn’t.  If you’re a Designer, you get it.  You feel The Force all around you.  It comes from years of observing product trends and learning how people interact with products.  Color theory is second nature and the knowledge that changing something by a fraction of a millimeter can make or break the success of a product doesn’t shock you.

If you’re not a Designer, you need to hire a team to design – and I am going to sound like a broken record – then get out of their way.  Being a visionary is one thing.  But having a vision but being unable to share your vision is another causes a lot of grief.  You need to have what you want spelled out very clearly.  If you don’t, you are going to run into exorbitant cost overruns, you’re going to frustrate your designers, and be sitting at the end wondering where it all went wrong.  If you don’t have that vision, be prepared to pay for it.  In either an organized way by allowing your Designers to interview you and then create a visionary document for you which you will sign-off on, or in the painful way of playing the game of “I know it when I see it”.  I suggest staying away from the latter unless you have a very deep pocketbook.

Even with these little tongue-in-cheek metaphors, the bottom line is that developing a product is difficult, expensive endeavor. You can save yourself time, money and headache if you just sit down with a bag of popcorn and watch a few hours worth of Star Wars. Even if you don’t gain any insight into how you can develop your next product, you will at least have a little bit of fun along the way.