Product design – function, fashion and avoiding the traps

Product design – function, fashion and avoiding the traps

This article was first published in Business Times on 3 August 2019

Management Unleashed

Product design – function, fashion and avoiding the traps

John Bittleston, Founder and Chair, Terrific Mentors International

When you first meet someone you assess whether you like them, whether you would trust them (i.e. if they tell the truth) and whether they could become close to you. The first judgment you make is not always correct but it tends to be quite good. What you think of them will be mostly caused initially by how they design themselves – their clothing, jewellery, cosmetics, hairdo and accessories will all make a statement about who they want you to think they are.

Designing yourself is your first priority
If you get to know them a bit better, your judgment will modify. What they do and say, how they behave, whether their thoughts are intelligent, what their interests are will all contribute to your modification of that first impression. External designers largely make the initial impression. After that your personal presentation will decide the verdicts. In both cases, design plays a hugely important part in establishing what future dealings, business and social, you will have with them. Your personal presentation is very much design too.

Design has made one of the greatest contributions to people’s needs to express themselves and to communicate to the market both functional and emotional issues. If the great writers, painters and thinkers of their times influenced society in how it should develop and what its aspirations should be, product design creates, perceives and defines a market. It is often difficult to know which it is doing at any particular moment. Often, all three at the same time.

Design is a characteristic of a product, not an add-on
Emotional views of products play a vital role in their commercial success. Originally thought to be either apparel fashion, cosmetics, jewellery and similar enhancements of a person or building and landscape planning, the design world has developed to embrace every aspect of life. The desk you sit at, the environments in which you work and live, the shower you use to clean yourself all make statements about you and are all susceptible to design enhancement.

The same is true for products from consumables to household equipment to motorised scooters to the boxes which bring your children their Lego and interactive toys. In other words, design is everywhere and we should pay attention to its ability to influence and accommodate our lives. In order to do this designers research prodigiously. Their discovery is somewhat like market research – which they use a lot – but has to have added to it the intuition of fashion and consumer engagement. Keeping a finger on the pulse of fashion is essential for designers.

Establishing consumer needs is always difficult
Exploring the consumer’s needs and wishes has always proved difficult. People will tell you a lot about themselves, sometimes surprisingly intimate details, but often it is unintentionally misleading. Someone who drinks will always understate how much, a smoker likewise. Some people are always ill, some, seldom – but much of each is how they present the truth as they see it. Design research has therefore to go beyond fact finding, beyond making adjustments to arrive at information on which to base design.

Good design approaches a subject’s practical considerations first. Consumer convenience, ability to understand instructions, value of warranty, method of servicing and repairing, durability (in the case of perishable products, safe period of consumption), price, all amount to essential considerations about the product. Good designers put these first. After that they attend to the equally vital but more malleable considerations of how to package the product and present it to engage with consumers. Designers are the Interpreters of Hope for a product or service.

Initial assumptions are not what good design is about
A designer’s job is to understand their users by going beyond their initial assumptions and the factual information they get from market research. They then put themselves in another person’s shoes in order to create products that respond to a human need. Where market research produces a logical analysis of the situation, design research must deliver an emotive analysis if it is to be useful. The mood, emotions, sensuality of a product are all expressed through its design. Easy to see this when talking about cosmetics or other personal products. However, good design applies to much more than how you sell shampoo. Equally personal products like cars are subject to designers input at every stage.

There are traps in design. The mood of the consumer is changing. For some years now I have used a well-known after-shave lotion. They changed the packaging recently to make the container much heavier, probably in some mistaken belief that it would then prove its manliness. To me this was dangerous waste of resources and I won’t be using it again. Even if I didn’t have the planet’s needs in mind, the manufacturers might have given thought to the fact that their consumers are largely older men for whom heavy objects, especially when near soap, are at risk of dropping, possibly on ageing toes. Anyway, if the objective was to get rid of the older customers it certainly worked in my case.

Today’s design has some way to go to satisfy new planet considerations.
Designers are wonderful, imaginative, sensitive people. They interpret hopes, garnish functions, ginger up thinking, explore adventures. I am full of admiration for them. I notice, however, that they are not yet responding as quickly as they might to the pressing need of the planet, climate change in particular. Just as all our lives are being disrupted – and will, in my opinion, become much more so – designers must apply their skills to the economy of resources and the conservation of assets. It is now critical that design puts utilitarianism first in its considerations.

They must ask What is the minimum design that will make this product work for the consumer?
What is the most convenient packaging that requires least material, most usefully recycled in a circular economy? What packaging takes up least space and weight?

In another area of design, the standards of product instruction have sunk to a low believed impossible even by the greatest pessimist. The necessity – or is it? – to print them in 180 different languages reduces the print size to about Font 2, illegible without a strong magnifying glass. In the unlikely event of a customer deciphering these instructions they increasingly refer to technical matters in jargon of complete incoherence to the unfortunate reader. Making things work from these idiotic references is another matter altogether. A good designer will insist on practical instructions for the use, warranty and repair of the product.

‘Good design is convenient, practical, seductive, considerate.’ I said that first in the early 1960s.

It seems to apply even more today than it did then.