All a matter of opinion

Product design owes a large debt to public opinion, says Peter Hall, but that opinion, often guided by marketing departments, can sometimes be based on false premises.

I have to agree with Hugh Pearman’s general, though risky, distinction between what architects do: high-value, low-volume items; and what product designers do: anonymous, mass market things (DW 13 March). The result is an inevitably lower public regard for the work of the product designer. A building might be called ugly, but rarely is it dismissed with the derogatory words reserved for consumer products, like stupid or useless. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion when it comes to product design.

The problem for designers is further confounded by the fact that some ill-informed opinions carry disproportionate weight. You might surmise that every toaster, car and leaf-blower that reaches the shops is subjected to the same streamlining effect of the market; that what sells survives. But life isn’t that simple. Even the most innovative, ingenious and stylish products can be mis-priced, mis-marketed and dumped at the last minute.

This predicament hit home recently when I was interviewing veteran-industrial designer Richard Sapper. He complained that there are those in marketing departments who think the easiest thing is to do exactly what their competitors do. His case in point is the computer industry, where many an idealistic product designer has been reined in by opinions, often of the knee-jerk variety.

When personal computers first arrived over a decade ago, some computer company (possibly Apple with frogdesign) set the design precedent: cute, box-shaped objects with an off-white finish. Apple’s competitors, naturally, decided to follow suit (though generally leaving out the cute part) and, suddenly, retailers had an opinion; off-white is nice. They told the marketing departments of the computer manufacturers not to bother doing anything else, and the marketing departments in turn advised the product designers that any creative expeditions in the direction of curvaceous orange and green machines would be severely misguided, since the public doesn’t want them.

Demand, it seems, is never a pure and simple statistical factor, but is moulded and shaped by public opinion.

A few years ago, an IBM design team led by Sapper managed to get a sleek, black, angular laptop computer, the Thinkpad, to the market, and a survey of buyers, post-purchase, revealed that 30 per cent had bought the machines because of the design. According to Sapper, it was a shock to many people, because it showed that, after all, the man on the street is not so immune to aesthetic emotions.

As a result, perhaps, black is now considered a popular colour with trendsetting and pioneering types in the computer-buying market.The IBM design team has subsequently tried to persuade its marketing people that its desktop machines should also be black, and driven by the same sleek, architectonic forms as the successful Thinkpad. So far, they have won half the battle; at the high-end of the consumer desktop machines, the Sapper-influenced black, Brutalist forms prevail. At the low-end, it’s all grey and somewhat compromised.

Then, aside from the second-guesswork that pervades marketing departments, there is the all-powerful opinion of the company chairman to contend with. At Apple earlier this month, a sorry gathering of developers stood in a parking lot outside the company headquarters to protest, or was it mourn, the demise of the Newton operating system, Newton-based Message Pad and Emate kids’ computer.

Here was evidence of the very weighty opinion of interim CEO Steve Jobs. As those around Apple know, Jobs is on a mission to recreate the company in his own image, and the Newton, being someone else’s idea, wasn’t part of it. As a Newton user, I can say that I was disappointed, but also relieved. The MessagePad made an elegant and a wonderfully lightweight laptop (with keyboard attached) as well as a fun gizmo, but an extraordinarily frustrating computer when I needed to transfer information. Jobs’ plan, to replace the Newton OS with a stripped-down Macintosh OS, makes sense, if it came a little late in the day.

You have to wonder, however, at the subjective nature of such opinions. Rumour has it that Apple’s new G3 Powerbooks due this spring were to have worn an unusual finish of translucent brown until Jobs insisted they must be made black. Shame. Luckily, he didn’t veto the new big silver Apple logo that graces the case, despite the fact that some have dubbed it the mark of a computer-maker drained of colour and life (and money). I consider the old rainbow logo a silly remnant of a lost era of Californian history. But that’s just my opinion.

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