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Aug. 10, 2010
Design Is How it Works at Clif Bar & Company (UPDATE: Winner’s Announced)
UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who submitted a comment and for supporting Jay's new book. The winners (who will receive signed copies of Jay and Gary's books and a month's supply of CLIF BARs) are: Samantha, jnylyn78 and mommaof3ontherun. Congrats!

Way back in 2006, Clif Bar & Company founder, co-owner, and co-CEO, Gary Erickson published his book Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business: The Story of Clif Bar & Company recounting Clif Bar’s origins and our journey to become a different kind of company. Today in 2010, Clif Bar is once again the subject of another great new book: Design is How it Works, How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons, by Jay Greene. In this book, Jay Greene, former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and an award-winning journalist, explores how Clif Bar and other successful companies have made design thinking part of their DNA.

Design Is How it Works by Jay Greene - About Clif Bar

Jay visited Clif Bar & Company for a few days in October, 2008. He caught us at a particularly exciting time — not only did he visit us a few weeks before the 2008 presidential election, his visit also coincided with our Annual Epiphany Ride and Halloween festivities. In celebration of Jay’s book hitting shelves, I asked Jay to tell us about his book and his visit to Clif Bar & Company. We will also be doing a little giveaway — leave a comment on this blog post today and three people will be randomly chosen to receive an autographed copy of Jay’s book, an autographed copy of Gary’s book, and a month supply of CLIF BARs in your favorite flavor!

Kate: What is “design thinking”?
Jay: It’s really the practice of applying the skills designers use to create products to solve all sorts of business challenges, even ones that don’t require a focus on aesthetics. Designers intuitively use creativity and empathy to help them create something that has an emotional connection with customers. They prototype concepts and collaborate with colleagues to test theories and come up with novel approaches to new products. Design thinking applies those concepts to businesses where appearance doesn’t count for much. Design thinkers use anthropology, sociology and psychology to study customers in order to understand their unstated and unmet needs.

Clif Bar & Company is really a great example of that. While it might be a stretch to call a CLIF BAR aesthetically beautiful, the folks at Clif Bar use the same tools as designers to come up with their products. They do ethnographic research on runners, cyclists and hikers to understand their needs. They also prototype concepts to test their theories. By doing this Clif Bar comes up with products that their customers really crave even if they never knew to ask for them, such as the women-specific LUNA bar or the easy-to-eat CLIF SHOT BLOKS.

What role does a company’s culture play in design thinking?
It’s huge. Great design flows as much from a culture that nurtures it as it does from the creative minds that often get the credit for it. The companies that do design consistently well have CEOs that embrace the importance of design, even if they’re not designers themselves. They give employees the mandate to take risks to come up with the most innovative products and services. They accept the occasional failure as the cost of being creative, and rather than bury that misstep, they use it as a tool from which employees can learn.

How did you choose the companies featured in the book? And, how did you know that Clif Bar was a good fit?
It was important for me to focus on companies in a variety of businesses, companies that are large, medium and small, companies that are publicly traded and privately held, and companies from both the United States and abroad. I wanted to make the case that any company can do great design. And I wanted to show how there are several different approaches to doing great design. Apple, the design poster child of the day, does terrific design. But, it’s not the only company that does design well, and its approach to design isn’t the last word in doing great design.

Clif Bar appealed to me because it’s not a company that seems like an obvious candidate to include in a book about design. The folks at Clif Bar use the tools of designers – a deep understanding of customers, detailed focus on the experience of using the products – to create new business. Clif Bar shows how design thinking can be applied to businesses where visual aesthetics play a less important role. It broadens the message of the book.

You visited us during the Clif Bar Annual Epiphany Ride, what mileage did you ride and how was the ride?
I rode the 150-mile loop. With all the hardcore athletes at Clif Bar, there was no way I was going to ride one of the shorter loops. If I had, I think it would have hurt my credibility when it came time to interview them. And I love riding long distances anyway. Two months earlier, I did a ride near my home in Seattle called RAMROD – which stands for Ride Around Mt. Rainier in One Day – which covers the same distance and has the same 10,000-feet of elevation gain as the epiphany ride.

That said, those Clif Bar folks are fast. And the ride I did included some of the cyclists on the LUNA Chix Pro team, like Georgia Gould, who finished eighth in the mountain biking competition at the Beijing Olympics. I stuck with them for the first 60 miles. But I started falling off the pace of the strongest riders after the third or fourth big climb of the day. Still, it was a terrific ride with great scenery and the perfect way for me to really learn about the Clif Bar culture.

When you visited the Clif Bar offices – was there anything that surprised you about the office or the folks that work here?
I visited the Clif Bar offices a month after the epiphany ride on Halloween. It’s clearly a company that likes to have its fun. At least half of employees came to work in costume. Michelle Ferguson, the senior vice president of brand at Clif Bar, came as Cinderella and Kevin Cleary, the president and chief operating officer, dressed up as a punk rocker and serenaded employees during the weekly Company Meeting with his version of the Clash hit, "Should I Stay or Should I Go."

Clif Bar President and COO Kevin as Clash

Kevin Cleary, Clif Bar's President & COO, listening to the rules of play for apple bobbing contest.

From a design perspective, who do you think had the best Halloween costume at Clif Bar?
One employee dressed up as Sarah Palin. I don’t know who it was. But she nailed it.

Clif Bar's Cassie as Sarah Palin

Cassie Cyphers, Clif Bar's Community & Eco Programs Manager, doing her best Sarah Palin.

What is your favorite Clif Bar product and flavor? And, where is your favorite place to eat it?
I tend to use Clif Bar products when I ride my bike. Strawberry CLIF SHOT BLOKS are a staple. I’ll often carry a CLIF BAR in the back pocket of my cycling jersey as well, generally a rotation among Oatmeal Raisin Walnut, Carrot Cake and Maple Nut. If I’m doing a ride longer than three or four hours...I’ll throw in a Peanut Butter Pretzel CLIF MOJO to add something salty to the mix.
Posted by:
Kate Torgersen
Office Life, Sustainability

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We like getting our heart rates up, taking a big breath of fresh air, savoring delicious food. But we also love telling stories and here's where we type 'em up. (BTW, it works both ways; leave a comment—please and thank you.)

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