Raymond Lowey, known as “the father of industrial design”, wasn’t just influenced by what was around him, he also designed it. His creative genius brought us the Studebaker Avanti, S-1 locomotive, Coldspot refrigerator and red and yellow Shell logo. He understood the importance of design as a selling tool. He was quoted as saying “between two products equal in price, function and quality, the better looking will outsell the other.”
But what is the secret to making something “better looking”? That’s the question that plagues automotive designers every day. Constantly pressured to bring new and creative vision to the market, they often turn to the things around them for influence.
Before pencil ever meets paper, the designer will pick our brain — take a tour through our psyche, in the hopes that knowing what kind of chair we sit in as we drink our favorite coffee will uncover clues to what kind of car we will want to drive.
“Designers are natually inquisitve,” says Trevor Creed, senior vice president of Design for Daimler Chrysler.
Their designs can be influenced by just about anything from architecture to furniture design, bicycles to clothing to graphic arts. They subscribe to many magazines and attend such events as the color marketing seminar (held each year in California) and the High Point furniture show.
All of these inspirations go into designing automobiles that will appeal to a certain customer segment, build some kind of emotional attachment that makes them desire that particular vehicle.
But what inspires those who design the things that inspire auto designers? We asked a few of them and found that, in many ways, they mirror their auto designing counterparts.
Spend an afternoon with Judd Law and Howard Montgomery and you might see your kitchen and bathroom faucets in a different light. Law manages the faucet design department for the Delta Faucet Co; Montgomery is the lead for faucets in Kohler’s industrial design department.
|Designer Judd Law takes us through the design stages for creating a Delta faucet: an initial idea sketch, a basic CAD model, a compreshensive 3-D computer rendering, and the finished piece.|
Law says that the exciting aspect about being a designer in this industry is that you’re designing a product that people interact with on a daily basis. “We’re concerned with even the emotional side of it,” Law says, “striving more and more to appeal to the senses — how these products are going to feel and work and sound. Tactile is extremely important, whether you’re physically touching a handle or moving a spout, or how the water feels as it’s coming out of the spout.”
Relying heavily on Delta’s marketing department to find niches in the marketplace, Law also partners with research groups and tracks trends independently through things like furniture shows and international gift fairs.
“There’s a product manager that I work with here,” Law says, “and he and I make a trip to a lot of the exotic car dealerships. We’ll sit in the Audi TTs when they first come out and take a look at what the auto industry has that’s really making a buzz. The automotive industry always offers a lot of passion.”
Montgomery says process drives much of the final product at Kohler.
“Take the silhouette of a Christmas tree on its side,” he says, “with the wide end on your left. You start wide and move it in, then there are discussions and debates, the scope slightly changes and it goes out a bit. You come back in again as you start to make some decisions and you’re honing down on the process and design. All those concurrent issues with manufacturing, price points, etc. come into play and sometimes there’s some vacillation and it steps out again. Then you’ve got to pull it back in and eventually you’re going to get to the tip.”
Montgomery says that at Kohler his group will often define certain design influences by looking within their own product portfolio, as well as industry trade shows.
“We attend the two major plumbing shows, the Kitchen and Bath International Show in Chicago, Ill., and the ISH in Frankfurt, Germany.” Montgomery says. “Those two are very key in the industry design field.
“There are a lot of traditional elements that we look to, but we’re not going to do a Thunderbird,” he laughs. “That’s a little different — pure retro. But we would definitely take certain ingenious elements, whether it be water delivery or plumbing vernacular, and hark back to that kind of period. We would definitely do that.”
Not unlike the automakers, Kohler also does a fairly good amount of consumer research to really understand what the consumers want from their products. Montgomery says that a bathroom faucet is an integral part of the overall design of the bathroom and designers need to look at the entire bathroom as a whole. Designers also need to realize that in markets where the consumers are directly choosing the products, there’s a need to have an emotional connectivity.
The initial design phase at both companies starts with brainstorming sessions and thumbnail sketches.
“Guys bring stuff in on cocktail napkins or toilet paper,” Law says, “wherever an idea strikes you. You’ll just throw down a few lines that nobody else will be able to interpret but it’ll be enough to jog your memory.”
Montgomery also believes in paper and pencil.
“Inevitably,” he says, “we as individuals need to draw things to understand what they are — that’s the most fundamental manor in which we design. We try and not bring the CAD tool in too fast. I’m really not for putting designers in front of tubes and then cranking out designs,” he adds. “We don’t want the tool to drive the design, we want the designer to drive the actual design of the object.”
The finalized sketches are transferred to Pro/Engineer, which Law says has been “pushed” to do non-geometric forms. He notes that while it has been used for years to do gears and engine blocks, faucets involve more biomorphic forms and challenging shapes. Finally, the CAD data is used to make models, which is a critical part of the process for both companies.
Montgomery notes that once a surface is chrome plated, the proportions and the elements of the surface changing drastically. And it’s only after looking at it and appreciating that aspect that it can be ascertained how the design is developing.
Manufacturing techniques have also changed the way faucets look. “Things as simple as hydro-forming have changed our industry,” Law says. “There’s a large portion of product now, spouts in particular, that are hydro-formed. And a lot of interesting materials are starting to show up in faucets that haven’t been seen before.”
Even electronics drive faucet design. Law says that we are now seeing the first really decent home/residential hands-free faucet. And that it is one of the major product plan focuses in the future, to integrate electronics into the home environment.
Tools of the Trade
Guys who drive pickup trucks are more than likely the same guys who use chain saws. So those who design trucks will more than likely take a look at the design of the saws they use. “Unfortunately, we can’t bring a truck in for inspiration,” laughs Wolfgang Zahn, senior vice president, product research and development at Stihl, “because our design studios are a little bit smaller than truck studios.”
Coincidentally, Zahn understands both trucks and chain saws. Before coming to Stihl he spent 16 years with DaimlerChrysler Corp. and also worked for a Tier One supplier to General Motors and Ford Motor Co.
Zahn says Stihl is customer driven and doesn’t use consulting firms. It goes right to the customer and when there is a special need it tries to fulfill it. Stihl’s designers are often challenged by the marketplace to create new and unusual tools, like an unusual looking power tool designed for picking coffee, tea and olives.
|Every Stihl chain saw is a completely different design, because all of the components bolt on to the engine. All designs are done in Pro/Engineer and the CAD drawings are used for testing as well as design development.|
|Zahn says that the process for designing a new chain saw starts with some idea of what worked well with the preceding design. They also look at what the competition is doing and what may be the state of the art in a particular category.|
The most important thing to remember when designing a chain saw, according to Zahn, is integration. A chain saw is looked at as one part and designed as one integrated unit. He offers that a 40cc powered saw and a 60cc powered saw are really completely different because all of the parts are linked directly to the engine, which in turn is determined by the saw’s intended use. Saws used in trees need to be light but powerful, whereas a logger can have a heavier saw.
The final designs are signed-off by the five board members together with Hans Peter Stihl, chairman of the supervisory board, who is an expert in all of the company’s products.
“He’s out with the customers every other week,” Zahn says. “He really knows the market well and is helpful with the design process.”
Because Stihl manufactures all of their products in-house, they have the flexibility to make rapid changes as the design process progresses. They work closely with their manufacturing people because, as Zahn says, “in the end we have to be able to manufacture the product.”
When the first prototype is done, endurance testing begins. A typical program takes several years with testing taking up more than half of that time. Prototypes in the first design stage are also given to elite customers along with competitor’s products for evaluation.
|Sometimes the market demand unique designs like the coffee picker.|
Redefining Focus Groups
Christian Landry has looked at design from past, present and future. Landry, Hewlett Packard’s design center manager for strategic design and innovation, started his career designing exhibits for the Smithsonian Institute. As the head of the personal systems group he focuses on the design of desk top computers. Anyone who’s visited a Best Buy store lately has noticed that the gray or beige boxes have given way to some unusually designed home systems.
“I think it’s a natural evolution,” Landry says. “I think the aesthetic change is due to the fact that people have a higher sense of design awareness. Who would have ever thought that Wal-Mart and Target would be selling designer label products? I think that’s had an impact, and people are looking for that whether they’re buying PCs or cars.” Landry notes that people are putting computers in places that are more of a focal point today than they were a few years ago. Often they’re on the kitchen counter, part of the central nervous system in many homes.
Landry says that the first step in designing a new computer product is to put together an image story board that defines the customer. Designers will reference the kinds of eyeglasses people wear, watches they buy, cameras they use, the kinds of computers that they may already have and the cars they drive. Landry says that furniture is always a good inspiration for the computer designer.
“We probably spend more time looking outside the computer industry for where trends are than we do in our own industry,” Landry says.
Sears hardware is a favorite haunt for HP’s design team.
“Looking at the ways things are made in other areas sometimes inspires you,” he says. “You may be trying to solve a problem for a hinge design and you may see inspiration in a hinge design on something completely different than what you’re working on.”
The designer works with a team of engineers who bring their specific disciplines to address things like componentry, packaging and the overall goals of the project in relation to cost and scheduling.
The designer provides the visual tools, taking the information gathered from the team and crafting it into sketches — the traditional method of generating ideas with pencil and paper.
The next step is to make a low-level mockup out of high-density foam. This gives the team an idea of the physical size of something.
“If it’s necessary,” says Landry, “we might even embed some weights into the unit to suggest how much it might weigh.”
“A lot of people today, with the schedules being compressed on programs, will try and evaluate a form on a screen,” Landry adds. “Basically what they’re looking at is a synthetic representation in cyberspace of what this form looks like but they really don’t know until they hold it or they sit near it or feel it what the form is like.”
Alias, Pro/Engineer and Rhino are the tools used to generate CAD models. As the design is finalized and the data base is turned over to the mechanical engineers, the design intent is locked in to the CAD database. “We can transfer that database anywhere in the world,” Landry says.
The models are not only used to finalize the design but are also valuable for testing.
“If we’re putting a real hot chip set into a notebook,” Landry says, “we may run some early thermal analysis so we can see how hot or how cool an area is and whether or not we need a fan. If we don’t need a fan, does it need three louvers? Will three screw up the appearance? If it does can you work with the thermal engineers to come up with an alternative to maintain the integrity of the design.”
A few years ago, Hewlett Packard also started doing something that was unusual for their industry — they allowed visitors inside the design studio. Quite a few of the company’s bigger customers were visiting the HP campus almost daily. And when Landry found out about it, the design team thought it should take advantage of it. The visit to the design studio soon became the hottest thing. So hot, in fact, that visits had to be limited to three a week.
Visitors must sign a non-disclosure agreement, the only requirement for visiting the design studio.
Landry says that what amazes visitors most is that they get a chance to have a kind of cause and effect, they participate in the activity.
“When you think that designers are actually sitting down face-to-face with these people and there’s no intermediary, just us and them, having casual conversation about how technology was impeding or helping their performance,” he says. Landry says that designers transfer that information into design ideas.
The thought comes to mind of General Motors or Honda allowing visitors into their design studios. They just wouldn’t do it. “We thought the same way,” Landry says, “but things change. There’s tremendous value in it for us. I’m disappointed that we didn’t do it earlier.”
Phyllis Lambert is an internationally known architect and founder of the International Confederation of Architectural Museums, Heritage Montreal and the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the study of American Architecture among others. She has also curated and organized many architectural exhibitions and is currently the Consultant Architect for the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), an independent museum archive and study center devoted to the architecture of the past, present and future. She was drawn to architecture by the need to improve the aesthetic that she saw lacking in the fabric of the North American city.
She feels that the design and creation of architecture involves much more than pencil lines on paper or pixels in a computer.
“You have to find out what the problem is and then walk around it,” she says. “It’s not all of a sudden, Eureka, you get an idea. You have to get to know what the essence of the problem is.”
Though Lambert is not designing these days, she is advancing a lot of contemporary architecture through the CCA.
It seems that technology has also affected architectural design.
“Through the use of computers, things can be done now in architecture that couldn’t have been done several years ago,” Lambert says. “With the computer you don’t have to be concerned with geometry to be able to build these things.”
Lambert recalls that when the opera house in Sydney, Australia, was built back in the ‘60s it was impossible to build it the way it was originally designed, so the architect had to take it back to a regular geometrical form. Now you don’t have to do that. Now you can go straight from the drawing to cutting steel.
Lambert says that a lot of contemporary architects are using computers to unlock the mathematical mysteries of Renaissance architecture.
Though many automotive designers may look at architecture for inspiration, there are few correlations between the two disciplines.
“You certainly have the ergonomic problems in designing a car, how one sits in a car is an extremely huge issue,” Lambert says. “I can’t understand why most American cars never cut off the outside air. You keep on breathing in air and exhaust fumes from the other cars. Now you might say that’s not going to actually show on the outside or the inside as a design but I think there are really non-obvious visual essences that are a part of design and have to be thought of. I don’t think you can take design down to ‘you like red and I like blue.’”
A Champion of Design
Murray Moss is the ‘curator’ of Moss, a unique retail space that he opened in 1994 in the Soho district of New York city. A former actor and clothing manufacturer, Moss is considered by many to be a champion of design and innovation, searching the world for new and interesting designs and ideas and presenting them to the public.
“From my perspective I’m less interested in the objects themselves than I am in the ideas behind these particular objects,” Moss says.
Moss reflects that in the area of fine arts a person can make a work and it’s done. In industrial design there has to be a dialog between designer, manufacturer, retailer and customer.
“I’m looking at the ideas or proposals that are put forward in the form of these particular tangible objects. A person is proposing that this particular object would make a more perfect world. Once this proposal is put on the table it leads to new proposals because there’s a new given — a new starting point.”
Moss says that he will identify products that he believes in and has some connection to. “If I look at objects as sort of ideas,” he says. “If I ask people to buy those objects, what I’m asking them to do is support a certain way of thinking or to support a particular group of proposals. I think things become good or bad design based on us. On how we perceive it based on a certain criteria based on our own lives.”
Moss spends quite a bit of time traveling the world in search of the best in design.
“I look at a lot,” he says, “I go to many markets from Frankfurt to Cologne to Paris to London to Milan. There is a market in Frankfurt that sells everything from toasters to coat hangers to flashlights to coffee pots. It has existed on the Rhine since 1250.”
Moss finds it very interesting that automotive designers reach out to so many other areas for inspiration and to know what the world is thinking and what the ideas are out there.
“That’s not necessarily prevalent in all other areas of design,” he says. “People can be very insular. Industrial design is more of a vertical dialog.”
The auto industry understands that a car is much more than just getting four people from one place to another, Moss opines. In the same way that a chair is much more than just giving someone a horizontal surface that somebody can plop down on.
“In the auto industry there’s no fear of showing what I understand they call concept cars,” Moss says. “What it does in a very confident way is to tell people that there are ideas being worked on that we haven’t resolved yet. We know something can be done we don’t necessarily know how to do it yet but we’re still willing to share that with you. People don’t necessarily do that in other fields.”
Moss says that it’s not just the results, but the process of industrial design that he finds personally interesting.
“Designers apply their thoughts to giving form, shape and concept to tangible objects,” Moss says. “A manufacturer will usually give them a brief, which will basically tell them, ‘I need you to design a car and it has to have four doors, etc.’ The manufacturer will hire this particular designer because they know they’ll address, in a capable way, that set of criteria. But then what?
“But then that is where the designer gets to shine. It’s their passion for design that gives us unique faucets, unique chain saws, unique computers, unique buildings and unique cars,” he says. “And when the designer finds that special emotional connection with us, we both win.”