How designers control space and time for fun and profit

Creating value

People have picked up and crafted tools to control space and time since the beginning:

Raw materials Tools
Rocks Tools and weapons
Leaves Brushes, clothing and baskets
Balls Games and wheels
Strings Instruments, weapons and life-saving equipment
Blades Weapons and farming
Cotton Clothing
Trees Books, buildings and boxes
Copper Electrical, pipes and money


It’s true, we all have design and creativity in our heritage.

In a world that spins into entropy, creating our future is the only way out of it.


Humans are good at that. In fact, our rate of controlling our fate increases as our rate of technological innovation increases. Maybe we’ll out-create our capacity? Time will tell.

Delivering unique experiences

While we still have time to ourselves, there are some amazing examples of how using time and space as ingredients in our creations delivers unique experiences. Professional designers, architects, filmmakers and writers know all about this.

Remember when Hollywood used to set up a movie with two minutes of credits at the beginning? I’m not talking about the artistic presentation of a James Bond film; I’m talking about literally rolling names. Go back to the ‘80s and watch the beginning of “Fletch.” Then jump ahead a few years and watch the start of “Lethal Weapon 2.” Big difference. You are literally dropped into the action from the beginning.

The design of film narrative — especially many mainstream American films — has evolved to speed time up, to get you into the story and then back out to set context.

Designers of retail space have learned to leave open space when someone enters the store, versus crowding them with product too quickly. This breathing space allows a customer to adjust to the environment and survey their choices. A more recent trend in retail design is to greet someone upon entering, walk them to their chosen product or service area, and customize the purchase process for the customer (recently I’ve experienced this at Apple, AT&T and Cox retail stores).

Graphic designers have always used the tool of white space to allow users to slow down, rest their eyes, and focus on a big idea or singular message. User interface and user experience designers also deploy white space to allow the user to focus on a central interaction on the screen.

In an experience economy, products and services that leverage the ingredients of space and time to comfort and support people have premium value.

Consider newspapers.

We’ve used this old-school tech for decades to distribute news and information. The design of short column widths allows the reader’s eye to quickly, effortlessly consume paragraphs of text. It’s a designed timesaver that’s a vast improvement over a longer horizontal formatting of text that takes more effort and is more likely to result in the reader losing his place.

Consider Nest.

The one-button thermostat. It learns your behavior. You get to the point where you don’t even touch it. You just got 15 minutes a week back. It’s eliminated the dominance of 20-button models that required manual intervention. Nest saves you two hours when you go on vacation. Instead of spending that time trying to program a vacation setting on a 20-button box, you tap away on Nest and walk away.

Living Room

Consider Disney.

Yes, the innovation and storytelling company disguised as an amusement park and media company. Disney also transforms your time and space. Instead of asking you to stand in line at one ride while other rides are open, they created FastPass, where you get a ticket with a time you’re allowed to go to the front of the line. You then take back the three hours you would’ve wasted waiting.

Consider Apple.

iphone-box-designThe company’s most successful product is arguably the iPhone. The box it comes in is one of the most elegant space and time designs of all time. When you get an iPhone and take the wrapper off you are presented with two choices. You can try to rip the hefty box apart to get at the phone. Or, you can allow gravity, the vacuum created by the design and shape of the box, and time take its course in slowly easing the lower end of the box down, revealing the precious iPhone.

Ripping the box apart would be less enjoyable and still probably take longer than the forced patience and careful reveal of the iPhone box.

Other Apple examples include iTunes, where you pay for a song with a dollar instead of paying yourself a dollar to hunt the net for a clean, accurate, illegal, copy of the song. Or Apple Music, where you pay $15/mo and world-class music connoisseurs pick out songs and craft well-considered playlists for you and your family that perfectly fit your musical tastes. Or the Apple Watch, with its ability to tap you on the wrist and give you just enough info so you can keep your phone in your pocket and your attention on the real-world interaction in front of you.

Consider In-N-Out Burger.

Employees at fast food restaurants In-N-Out Burger and Chick-fil-A transform their drive-through lines by walking out to cars instead of waiting to start an order until a car finally makes it up to the window. The line redesign changes your experience in a number of ways, from the time it takes for your interaction to begin to the time it takes to place the order and start cooking. Time optimized, by design.

Consider the UX designer next to you.

She’s the one who just redesigned your bank’s ATM user interface, saving you two minutes every week for the rest of your life. She was hired to do that a few months ago after designing an app that lets you find and view every Terry Gilliam film clip ever created simply by swiping your finger. She designed that app after getting home from her day job, where she fixed the registration flow of an e-commerce site — making it possible for you to actually complete your order on a mobile phone without pinching and zooming for 20 minutes while swerving between lanes of traffic.

Her impact saved you 18 minutes and possibly your life! (Please don’t shop, text, read, watch Terry Gilliam movies, or do anything else while you’re driving.)

Consider ROI.

It’s a designer’s best friend. ROI indicates the return on investment. For example, if a designer optimizes the UX on a series of support screens so that a three-minute task is now a 1.5-minute task, productivity increases by 100 percent. Consider a company with 100 support reps who have an average salary of $40K; you can now assign or retrain the reps for other work with a savings of $2 million per year.

Fun, profit and value

Changing the way people spend time and move through space creates fun and profit. This is the new understanding of design’s power. It’s why many, if not most, successful technology startups in today’s economy have a designer as a founder. It’s why designers in larger organizations are surfacing from the basement to the boardroom.

From a retail experience that gets you what you want, to software products that know you and what you need to accomplish, to a design team that can listen to your business challenges and design ways to save tasks, hours and money — design creates value.

Image by: Rusty Russ via Compfight cc