Poetic licence

Sebastian Conran dispels the common myth that design is only about aesthetics. He identifies other crucial factors that must not be forgotten to make a product work

If design has a mission, it is to harness technology to improve our quality of life, understanding that successful products should sometimes be charismatic and entertaining and sometimes discreet like the good servant. Either way, they should have clear and appropriate personalities which signal their use and differentiate them from others in the marketplace.

A useful modern metaphor is to see products as poems; verse is constructed from words as products are constructed from detail. A sloppy detail such as an uncomfortable door handle on a well-designed car will upset the equilibrium. Similarly, a clumsy word may upset the metre in an otherwise well-balanced stanza.

In our culture, the role of design is misunderstood, partly because design is a nebulous word and designers are such nebulous people.

In the commercial environment, designing products has to combine skills, sensitivity and experience to create a successful relationship between clients and customers. This is achieved through understanding clients’ needs and desires, constantly updating ourselves on global trends, and by being able to supply the goods.

Perched in front of the metaphorical drawing board, form and function seem good criteria for excellence. However, market analysis defines four criteria, or vectors, which consumers sub-consciously use to differentiate products or services in their purchase decisions: function, quality, aesthetics and value. These vectors of perception are within the designer’s control, teasing out the threads of seemingly subjective choices into objective decisions.

Function – how can a product better perform?

Most products are bought for a purpose and they must serve it. There are many issues involved: performance – how well does it perform compared with other products? Interface – is it easy to use or does it require excessive understanding or concentration? Ergonomics – is it comfortable for all ages and how easy is it for the physically disadvantaged to use? Environment – does it make efficient use of world resources and how will it be disposed of? Innovation – are there any new features that could be incorporated and what degree of innovation is appropriate?

Positive new features with tangible benefits might be removable seat covers and waste-paper bins instead of ashtrays in family cars. These are not merely gimmicks of dubious value, such as electronic talking dashboards which are more appropriate to jet cockpits. Another positive innovation could be a child’s pushchair which opens at the touch of a button, like an automatic umbrella.

Quality – how could it be improved?

This is a subjective issue, which includes expectations of reliability and product life. You begin the design process by considering every aspect of the intended manufacture, including choice of materials and fabrication methods. Does it feel good and solid? Is it too light or too heavy? Is it built to last? Is it well finished? How does it compare to past or competitive products? Does it fall short of, or exceed expectation? Is the quality apparent or hidden? Is it a wolf in sheep’s clothing – good mechanics, shame about the finish.

Past history and brand reputation obviously play an important part. Picture two identical hire cars from different companies: Mercedes and Skoda. Which do you perceive to be the better made? The analogy goes on. After having driven the cars, what is your impression of the different brand expectations? Maybe you will think that Stuttgart is taking its value engineering too far or that Soviet engineering methods are learning from the Swiss watch industry. Either way, product quality must reflect the brand value; be it Selfridges or Woolworths, customers rely on the brand to tell them what what level of quality they expect and want.

Aesthetics

This is what John Punter thinks design is all about, and it is closely linked with brands (just think Armani). Issues to consider include styling – is it appropriate for the intended

market, the tactile experience and current/ future trends? Is the product reminiscent of anything else? Is it distinctive and charismatic or bland and discreet?

A recent example might be Ford which, perhaps having analysed the success of the Renault Twingo, has created the delightful Ka for a niche market – those who might have bought a stylish little sportscar but needed something more practical. Fuelled more by charm than testosterone, the Ka has clearly upset the brand perceptions of the RS Turbo types.

Another example might be Alessi’s cheeky Merdolino lavatory brush which, styled to look like a sprouting plant pot, charismatically cheers up the loo environment. Philippe Starck, however, has uncharacteristically gone down the Dieter Rams’ discreet servant route with his Excalibur toilet brush for Heller Incorporated.

Value – how could we achieve better value?

Manufacturing location and material costs aside, this is partly controlled by the design process. A number of questions are equally vital to commercial success. Does the product represent good value for money? Could sales be increased with a reduced price, or would a small increase in margin not affect them? Is exclusivity desirable for the brand? Is manufacture too costly through design inefficiency?

The obvious conclusion is that the cheaper a product, the better it will sell. Fortunately, this is a misguided view. Value affects how we perceive everything – for example, Amtico wood-effect flooring, which is now recognised as a quality product. When launched in the UK, it was priced to compete with vinyl flooring and was perceived as cheap and nasty. However, when the price was dramatically increased

customers respected the product more and sales improved overnight. The increased price shifted the customer’s perception of value.

But someone, somewhere, can always make a product cheaper, which brings the focus on to how products are sold.

Marketing

Marketing efforts aside, a brand which is perceived to score highly on all of these criteria will be held in more regard than one which does not. When conceiving, developing or improving products or services, our aim is always to maximise each of these vectors.

The market is not a level playing field, the customer has a great deal of choice. It’s not just what you sell, but also the way you sell it. However excellent a product, it is unlikely to survive without good marketing support. But innovation, product differentiation and special features can help the customer compare products in a competitive market. As we all know, good design is irresistible.

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