The year was 1930, and Henry Dreyfuss—later to become known as the founder of industrial design in America—had been asked by Bell Labs to join a multi-agency effort to design “the phone of the future.”

As Dreyfuss described it in his seminal work Designing for People:

“…I suggested that a telephone’s appearance should be developed from the inside out, not merely created as a mold…and that this would require collaboration with Bell technicians. My visitor disagreed, saying such collaboration would only limit a designer’s artistic scope.”*

Months after he declined the assignment, Dreyfuss recounts, the Bell representative returned with a changed point of view; he admitted frankly that the telephones of the future submitted by the ten commissioned artists had been unsatisfactory. Some of them were quite original…but all of them were impractical.

Accepting the new commission, Dreyfuss went to work. He not only insisted on close collaboration with Bell’s engineers and manufacturers, but he conducted some unusual primary user research:

“Because placement had a bearing on design, we had to determine what people did with phones, and that is why the telephone company permitted me to act as a repairman’s helper when he went on his rounds.”

The result of this inside-out-design process was the Bell 300 phone—black, with a rotary dial—with which those of us of a certain age grew up. With its successor, the Bell 500, it remained the standard for decades.


Business communications can get business results by applying a similar inside-out, user-centered process. Whether a communication is offset, online or digital, begin by involving everyone who touches it, from concept to delivery. And involve the  “engineers” (the client’s legal, systems and operational personnel who must approve, implement and maintain the solution) early on. That means a strategic analysis often starts in an organization’s mail room or IT department, or with a print-on-demand or technology partner.

You might not get to pose as a phone repairman, but you’ll find the results can be simple—and startlingly effective.

*Dreyfuss, Henry, Designing for People (New York: Allsworth Press, 1955, 1967, 2003)

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