Made to measure

Customisation is high on the agenda of product designers. But how should it be implemented as we approach the next century?

As industrial designers contemplate the wholesale reshaping of their profession – mainly as a result of new information technologies that are questioning the most basic ideas about product form – there is one issue that threatens to dwarf all others in its impact on the design process. And that is product customisation.

It may not be the newest kid on the industrial design block. It has been talked about for years in relation to niche marketing and flexible manufacturing systems. But with last orders now being called on the twentieth century, serious millennial management thinkers are pushing customisation towards the top of the agenda.

For industrial designers, the prospect is both exhilarating and frightening. Customisation suggests, in one sense, a reconnection through new technology to the age of the craftsman when products were tailored for individuals on a one-to-one basis. Giving people more flexible products and specialised services more closely targeted to their real preferences sounds a whole lot more enriching for the designer than the limitations of standardisation.

But there is also a worry. Mass production has formed the philosophical and practical bedrock of the industrial design profession ever since Peter Behrens turned up for work at AEG in Berlin in 1907. Series manufacture has effectively separated designers for industry from artists and makers.

Now, as the champions of customisation publish their manifestos, and some of the world’s most innovative companies grow rapidly by customising their ranges, it is becoming clear that the rules are changing and everything is going back in to the melting pot. Design professionals deserve some explanation. So let me try to guide you through.

The first thing we can say about customisation is that it isn’t the polar opposite of mass production. According to Henry Mintzberg and Joseph Lampel, leading US management theorists on the subject, customisation represents a “continuum” of industrial strategies, not an alternative to them. So customisation is certainly not about a return to a golden age for the designer-craftsman. Neither is it a new phenomenon: many smaller manufacturers have been effective customisers for years in order to compete in specially targeted niche markets against bigger companies. What is new is the attention being paid to the issue by large companies who want to start behaving like small ones. The giant automobile makers – responsible for the most potent symbols of mass production this century – are now exploring how they can customise car interiors to meet increasingly eclectic customer demands. Renault’s Twingo foreshadowed this trend.

What is driving customisation is the different cultural, legislative and trade requirements that persist within different markets, despite the globalisation of business, and the realisation that technical quality is no longer a market differentiator now that so many producers can readily attain it. Customisation does not follow a standard pattern or type. It varies from the “specials” of the contract furniture industry to highly specialised marine and medical products, and from flexible distribution systems to high-tech information and support networks linking producer and user.

Who are the skilled customisers from whom other companies and their design teams can learn? Not surprisingly, many of those European companies at the leading edge are active in design-based industries such as contract furnishings and lighting, fitted kitchens and luxury goods, where user needs extend beyond pure function into less rational areas of emotion, desire and taste.

On one level, the forces of standardisation are growing stronger – witness the power of Microsoft. But on another, customisation is the counter-current – with software responsible for making it happen. Industrial designer John Stoddard of IDEO points out that it is the interaction of hardware and software that creates the opportunities to customise: “The question is whether you customise via the hardware – for example, with a big Mercury button on a telephone – or do you customise in the software, with choices appearing on screen?”

The recent example of Olivetti’s “intelligent badge” project, in which the wearer of the badge can walk to a computer and his personal desktop will appear, or stand next to a photocopier and it will switch automatically to his preferred format, demonstrates the high-tech potential to customise products in use. But the role of software in “intelligent” products is also blurring the boundaries between products and services.

This point was picked up strongly when 100 European design managers and chief executives held a special two-day workshop on customisation at the European Design Industry Summit (EDIS) in Paris, which preceded the presentation of the European Design Prize (DW 7 February). Design Council chief executive Andrew Summers, one of the workshop leaders, explained that “what you do around the product in terms of service, support and information is as important as the product itself”.

The implications for industrial designers are enormous. According to consultant Dorothy Mackenzie of Dragon International: “We need to rethink the training of designers so they can work directly with users in a more interactive way and not just sit in their studios being inspired.” But even identifying the users is no easy task. Summers says: “A building supplier may have four levels of customer – the specifying architect, the contractor, the building client, and the end-user. This all adds to the complexity of customisation.”

But if customisation gives designers a headache, this is nothing to the upheaval faced by large multinationals structured to manufacture, market and distribute on a mass scale. According to Jordi Montana, professor of design management at Esade in Barcelona, the need for lumbering monoliths to get closer to their customers will mean that they must strip out layers of management hierarchy and become “more chaotic, networked organisations”. Or as a Danish manufacturer succinctly put it: “Our company needs to look like a brain, not a machine.”

There are also commercial dangers for companies in going down the customisation route. EDIS delegates pointed out how too much complexity in manufacture can be costly, and how too great a diversification can dilute the corporate identity, to the point at which the company can be destroyed. The general consensus was that consumers could be given “the illusion of choice rather than infinite choice”; modular production, rather than genuinely customised production, was the way forward. It was also suggested that some aspects of customisation could be pushed out into the distribution chain – using dealer-fit systems in car retailing, for example – rather than trying to do it all inside the factory.

In all of these matters, companies will look to industrial designers for a lead – just as they sought ideas from designers to exploit the new technologies of mass production almost a century ago. John Stoddard is optimistic about meeting the challenge: “The traditional product design idea of making the artefact doesn’t take you far enough. Our profession is now going through huge changes, but it could well be to our advantage and bring us in from the cold.”

Working with companies to customise products

Do

Engage users in a real dialogue as a part of the development process

Identify the different levels of the customer base – there can be hidden groups of customers

Recognise that what happens in service terms around the product is as important as the product itself

Use the Internet to share information and get feedback from users

Recognise that customisation may involve creating less hierarchical organisational structures to manage the programme.

Don’t

Make the customisation programme so complex that the time and cost to manage it threatens the entire business

Diversify through customisation to the point at which the company’s core identity is diluted

Try to achieve everything at the manufacturing stage – push some aspects of customisation out into the distribution system.

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