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The importance of cake visualization

October 16, 2009

NYT Cake

The New York Times had a wonderful  article on Tuesday about cake wrecks. As you might expect, it describes disastrous cake designs resulting from misunderstood specifications left by customers to their bakeries. The photograph above is representative of such a miscue, with its beautifully glazed inscription “Congratulations as small as possible”. There is apparently an entire book dedicated to the important topic of cake wrecks, not to mention a highly popular web site attracting 100,000 visitors a day.

At the risk of appearing the nerd trying to analyze humor, many of the cake wrecks struck me as failures at co-creation. There is a big difference between asking for cake specifications and allowing visualization of the cake. The former is classic company-centric design (give me in text form what you need, for example in an e-mail). The latter, by providing a visualization tool, allows true co-creation. In this second scenario, the customers can now insert themselves into the baker’s value chain, i.e., they become bakers themselves. If I can visualize my cake, I will not only make sure “as small as possible” is not part of my cake’s congratulatory inscription, but I may also decide to change other things, such as the color of the inscription, or the shape of the cake. Emotionally, I’m now officially a baker.

Few designers understand the experiential power on customers of this small step that goes from specifications to visualization. Companies who deal with physical products naturally find it easier to provide visualization platforms, but the visualization trend is also reaching industries with such abstract products as software development, advertising and chemical design.

We’re all in the cake business.

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