Understanding trends and catching a wave in the marketplace is one of two important elements for creating exponential growth. When coupled with outstanding execution, one's performance can yield results a factor 20 higher than normal.
Are designers "in-tune" with their business segment? When 36 top designers, working in consumer products, were asked to predict the next Industrial Design Excellence Award winners in consumer products, all came up empty handed. The following year, the exercise was repeated and yielded the same result. This would suggest that one needs more than intuition to stay on top of trends and a more systematic approach may be called for here.
Overlooking the obvious is the second challenge to trend awareness and prediction. When six experienced industrial designers were asked to name the most prominent American designed products, they provided a dozen "design classics." However, using web citation as a measure of prominence, the T-shirt far overshadowed all other American products. However, the ubiquity of this humble and personally expressive product caused the designers to forget about it completely.
So, how does one reliably detect trends during the early phase of a trend? One way is by observing global and local behavioral patterns. Systematic and random analysis of information on twitter, blogs, use groups, web news and websites offer tremendous opportunities. As an example, take a look at the number of web citations related to the release of two types of new movies. The traditional pattern is a buildup of the number of web citations at the introduction, with a spike, followed by a drop. Action movies like Batman would be among this type of movie, where the size of the spike and drop-off rate is a good predictor of the movie's future influence.
Hard to type movies such as March of the Penguins are called "Sleepers." They start out having a low web citation count, however, grow steadily and finally outperform more traditional films at the box office. By monitoring the web patterns for movies, products, art, architecture, political events, etc. one can start recognizing these patterns and realize a first step towards making accurate predictions.
A particularly powerful tool is Google Trends. An example of its usefulness can be illustrated with a "tail wagging the dog" scenario that was found in the infamous Danish cartoons debacle of 2006. Observing the Google Trends traffic, from the cartoons release in fall 2005, one sees absolutely nothing! What??? Over the next four months the traffic is close to zero! Then suddenly, in the beginning of 2006, the traffic takes off and explodes. This shows that the articles themselves didn't ignite a reaction and it becomes much more likely that a deliberate "instigator" was in play here. A quarter of a year later, the traffic had dissipated and the cartoons were just a bizarre part of history.
Trend prediction and monitoring assist in product development in two ways. First, it provides an early detection of trends, which designers can then turn into design philosophies and visual storytelling. Also, when the product is announced and released, early market acceptance can be gauged. With 35 to 40 percent of new products failing in the marketplace, trend monitoring helps to stop these unsuccessful offerings early in the process.