© Red Dot Design Museum in Essen
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In recent weeks, many organizations have gone out of business. The explanation given publicly for this is that these companies were not relevant to customers. Being relevant, it’s more important than you think. This applies not only to business but just as much to science. In both science and business, people frequently make the same mistake when it comes to interpreting relevance: they claim relevance with the comment “It’s never been done before”. The moment you hear someone say something like that, you know they’ve fallen into the relevance trap.

No one has ever done it

There are all kinds of forms of relevance, but “no one has ever done this before” is not one of them. People often sound euphoric when they exclaim in all their enthusiasm that no one has ever done their idea. It is the type of remark that, on the face of it, seems a logical motivation for relevance and is, therefore, terribly often referred to as such. However, it does not constitute an adequate application of the concept of relevance. There are two reasons for this. First, this motivation has a very quick counter-reaction, namely, “Why hasn’t anyone ever done it before?”. From that perspective, the comment “no one has ever done it before” is evidence of a lack of relevance rather than an abundance of relevance. After all, you could also frame that counter-question as “no one has ever been crazy enough to do it”. That could be because it is a lot of effort for little impact, it could be because there are legal or ethical snags, but it could also be because the assessment is that no one is waiting for it. The latter brings us to the second reason: relevance is always considered through the eyes of someone else. You are relevant to someone else. The fact that a concept has not been offered before is irrelevant; what matters is whether someone else is waiting for it.

Relevance never lies in asking why no one has done it before but in asking why you should. Why market that new concept? Why conduct that research? Not because no one has ever done it before but because there is a real benefit to doing it now. The answer to that question is what Simon Sinek describes as ‘It all starts with why’. When you focus on the why, you become inspiring to others. It sounds so easy, putting the why at the center, but in practice, it certainly is not. Companies and scientists who are very good at this are often the new thought leaders of our time.

Designers, now!

People who are naturally quickly relevance-oriented tend to adopt – consciously or unconsciously – a design-oriented style. Designers answer questions that begin with “How can we…?” such as “How can we reduce our business’s carbon footprint?” or “How can we ensure that vaccination rates increase?”. These types of questions generally lead to some recipe. That recipe will be considered relevant when it solves an actual problem, not a pseudo-problem. Ultimately, it’s all about finding solutions to actual problems, not sexy solutions to obscure problems. Following on from this is the difference between designing and making art. The Red Dot Design Museum in Essen uses a quote by German graphic designer Kurt Weidemann on its wall to reinforce that point:

“Art produces originals, design series.
Art is there for its own sake. Design is a contract-related service.
Design needs considerable objectivity. Art is subjective.
Design enters into intelligent compromises. Art excludes them.
Design is oriented toward the feasible. Art toward utopia.
Design must be comprehensible. Art does not have to be.
Design proceeds from established customs. Art leaves them behind.”

Exactly this life-size difference is essential for anyone who wants to be relevant. Artists make things that have never been made before; designers make things that make other people’s lives a little more beautiful, efficient, fun, or green.