December 18, 2013 — It takes a unique combination of aesthetics, functionality, value, ergonomics and quality to make a product that the consumer will view as good design. There is no standard formula to that equation and it is this variability to those attributes which make product design interesting. I suppose you can call it ‘industrial design Darwinism’ when products evolve over time to changing market conditions, trends and technology. In this evolution the proceeding attributes will always exist, but their individual influence on the final product has a dramatic influence on the result. At the end of the day it is the emotional response of the consumer that will determine a product’s success. That success will then influence following generations of competitor products leaving a legacy, and hopefully, fond memories of a good design.
So, as a product developer, where do you focus the attention to achieve that “unique combination”? The safe money says "right down the middle", hitting high marks in each component is a sure bet for a good design and successful product. But vanilla doesn't stand out in a crowded marketplace, especially in transportation products.
One of our most awarded products is the db0 3.0 Electric Folding Bike. It was a treat to see this rather daring design executed to a high level of refinement and loyalty to the original concept. A lot of credit goes to the manufacturer and client, DK City, for their devotion to our work. I remember someone looking at one of our early sketches saying "You'll be lucky if you get 80% of that bike in production". At the time I would agree. When handing off industrial design concepts to clients or manufacturers, it can be hit or miss with the end result. But DK put in the extra effort to make the final product look as much like our vision model as possible. That devotion paid off with eight international design awards.
In an effort to stand out in a sea of electric bikes, we needed a bold aesthetic. The focal point of the bike, its central folding mechanism (which also contains the battery), required the frame be a thin wall aluminum casting versus traditional welded aluminum. This part looks great - with no weld lines and smooth transitions it's unlike any other bike out there. But that manufacturing process comes at a cost. The frame is heavy and expensive to manufacture compared to a welded aluminum equivalent. Our design formula traded points from value and weight for compelling aesthetics. This off-center attribute arrangement is nothing new in product development, and aims to excite a particular consumer with different priorities. These people will accept a product's drawbacks for something that is truly unique and daring. It speaks to their personality. They prefer some spice in design.
The Maclaren Starck (by Philippe Starck) is one example that stands out as a good looking aesthetic; however, a classic example of challenging ergonomics, functionality and manufacturing. The stroller looked great and still does. But the ergonomics for the child weren't ideal and it didn't fold very well. Plus, it was expensive to build and priced accordingly. With the drawbacks and high cost, it didn't last very long on the market. However, when the product went on clearance the price dropped from $300 to $60, the attitude completely changed and all shortcomings could be forgiven for such sharp styling. The question of good versus poor design then comes down to your perspective. It was a challenging design for Maclaren as it didn't meet all the needs of the consumer. For those who picked it up on sale, it was something to show off.
And for all the products that strive to be unique, there are many that just do the job unassumingly. We take them for granted, sometimes not realizing that we are literally surrounded by great design every day.
About the Author
Erik Holmen is an award winning Senior Industrial Designer at ROBRADY design and a College for Creative Studies (CCS) Alumni.