Originality by Gordon Randall Perry
What has happened to originality in products? With the exception of electronics, vanilla is in. Copycat Eurostyle is hot. Retro has become contemporary. New high-quality, well-conceived, original products are becoming tougher to find.
Originality, it often seems, has become less important than keeping up with the latest Japanese gadget. Except for a handful of companies, many U.S. manufacturers would rather sell products that are safe, rehashed, and cheap than items that are aggressive and original. The problem is that the industrial base in this country has been severely eroded, preventing long-term commitment to R&D investment. Because of intense international competition, we have lost our manufacturing capabilities to a foreign low-cost labor force instead of sticking out the route of developing and manufacturing innovative quality products at home. By doing it here, we not only stem the balance of payment deficit and retain jobs, but we keep the useful by-products of production and creative development. This might mean using an idle CNC machine to experiment with a new product or idea, or developing a new product from the technology that was created to solve a problem on an existing product.
The tradition or making a better mousetrap -- which has always given U.S. capitalists a profitable edge -- means investing time and money to allow customers to learn about and accept innovation in products as well as the product itself. This is true for everything from furniture systems to ballpoint pens. The focus needs to shift from the short-term, bottom line to a long-term commitment to building a knowledgeable and dedicated labor force that can produce consistently high quality products.
Articles in publications geared to entrepreneurs are a source of inspiration. From the artist who starts his own foundry, to the executive who starts his own bicycle-manufacturing plant, these people demonstrate quality and a belief in the integrity of the product. Designers too, can help renew these traditional values.
It's not enough for us, as designers, to just create and develop the great new products; we must also continue to find ways to have them made. We must make a new commitment to understanding how to make products with smaller financial investments; and that means learning about flexible tooling, more efficient manufacturing techniques and the appropriateness of using off-the-shelf components. It is also our job to help clients chose better alternatives to costly manufacturing processes. So, as we ask clients to invest in educating their customers about exciting new products, we are taking some responsibility in controlling costs on the manufacturing end.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to be creative and daring, quite the contrary, we need to help the consumer -- and the client -- adjust to new ideas. If you have come up with a radically different shape, for example, include elements of familiar form. This will help the consumer better appreciate your innovation without an extensive promotional budget to educate him.
While it is obvious to say that design is in the details, it's frustrating that so many designs lack good details. And, as the product gets smaller, (as in a writing instrument for example); the need for quality details goes up exponentially. On a pen you can feel a .010 diameter change. Details are often lacking when the designer has been left out of the final process and the product is completed overseas or by toolmakers. The answer then is for designers to stay involved to the end, anyway they can.
I believe the purest vocabulary of the designer is the vocabulary of form. Whether dealing with structure, function or innovation, the best expression of those issues is always through form because that is ultimately what the customer is confronted with. The customer understands only what he sees and interacts with. Don't expect the customer to read the instruction manual. The most comprehensive expression of form, for both the client and designer, is three-dimensional. While drawings and computer solid modeling are often impressive, they really are a shorthand expression for the three-dimensional experience. In both the pursuit of excellence of design, and in helping the client understand what the designer has created, a three-dimensional mock-up of the product must be created early on in the design process. This sometimes forgotten step helps ensure that the client can respond to the designer in a way that they both understand. The goal is a product that has been created from an interactive process between client and designer.
My goal when designing is to create a product that expresses its function and manufacture in a beautiful and clear way. I'd rather design a parting line to be obvious and express visual tension in the form, than try to mask it. I would also rather turn things inside out and try new combinations, because they may work better, and be more exciting than the old. I espouse a kind of surprise industrial aesthetic that lets both my thinking and the integrity of the manufacturing process shine through.
Originality, of thinking and process, it's the watchword for the future.