Product design is about hitting the right buttons

One of the best lines to come out of the Design Week/British Design and Art Direction Design Summit on The Product and the Brand came from David Ingram of car manufacturer Audi (see “Product Design”). His simple observation that “No one makes a bad car today” speaks volumes for the future, not just of product design, but for the whole industry. If even the car companies have ceased to trade on technology, looking instead to enhance “customer experience”, then there’s infinite scope for designers to create the wow factor that sells a product to consumers.

We’ve been here before, not least in post-war America during the golden age of “design as styling” when designers such as Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy were employed by the likes of Studebaker to “package” products to ensure built-in obsolescence. If the styling wasn’t hip, customers would move on to a new model, whether or not the technology changed. That was the theory behind many designs that ironically have become much-loved collectables – classics even – since those optimistic days.

Styling has little to do with it now – though how much the current vogue for transparency in domestic products is about fashion and how much to do with materials technology is hard to say. Customer experience is the new catchphrase; some would also talk “brand”.

Sticking with cars for the moment, it has more to do with the lifestyle promise the driver buys into than the positioning of the gears. The phenomenal amount of cash and creative expertise thrown at aspirational car advertising is testimony to that, as are promotional events such as the current London Motor Show, which have become showcases for exhibition design.

But car firms are trying to get even closer to customers. German giant Volkswagen, for example, is building a “theme park”, designed by Berlin group Arthesia, around its factory, encouraging customers to “visit” their car as it goes along the production line, and it is possible to have increasingly personal Internet dealings.

Humanising the buying process may smack more of an adoption agency than a car showroom, but it’s the way things are going. The upshot is lucrative work for all manner of creatives, and if, as Richard Seymour of Seymour Powell maintains, product design is about “emotional ergonomics” then a discipline generally reticent about its commercial benefits now has a chance to shine. And with product design in the driving seat rather than just ads, the customer is bound to benefit as much as the manufacturer.

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