Design Dominance

24 Aug 2003|Christoper Ireland

Denise gently reminded me that the fatal temptation of blogging is talking too much about yourself. I suppose that’s just an easy place to start, but she’s right. Fortunately, my vantage point provides me dozens of other topics. Design is one of them.

I had an interesting conversation with a client last week, who apologized for some very mediocre industrial design by explaining “the form factor is set by the manunfacturers.” He went on to explain that only a few companies can make this particular device and every part of the design represents a tradeoff between features and components. Hence the product can be either pretty or powerful.

In this case, that may be true and there may be no options. But in most cases I’ve seen, ugly or boring design is not inevitable, it’s just most safe and convenient for the marketer. Form factor is a limitation, but it’s also a platform for innovation. For a dramatic counter-example, look at clothing design. The form factor (humans) hasn’t changed in thousands of years, yet the design of our “covering”, clothing, has gone thru countless morphs. By varying structural form, texture, color, size, depth, transparency, accessories, material and brand, clothing manufacturers continue to delight audiences with new looks season after season (well, this past season was pretty “undelighting”, but most of the time they succeed).

This type of design takes great talent and close attention to market tastes and trends, but it pays off handsomely. To those of you who fret over consumers who won’t pay more than $100 for a device, consider that men and women routinuely pay that for clothes that they may toss after a year. They pay up to twice that for shoes and bags–reacting solely to their design. And this is from the mass market–focus in on fashion’s “early adopters” or upscale purchasers and you’ll see them drop a grand on the perfect shirt.

When Palm first hit the market with their gorgeous PDA, I hoped they would jumpstart a more broad-based exploration of industrial design options. Certainly, Nokia and Sony have made some efforts in that direction and Apple continues to hold the high ground. But most of the computer manufacturers are barely breaking new ground (ok, so now we have a few curves and an accent color…), phones have much more room to experiment, PDAs are stuck in a late 90’s world, and god help those home entertainment guys who never saw a button or dial they didn’t like. As my good friend, Bonnie Johnson, once remarked. The biggest competitor technology companies will probably ever face is Calvin Klein. Once he or his collegues focus on tech devices, the game’s over.

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