By, Stephen M. Samuel
When opportunity meets preparation there is the potential for great success. For great success in the consumer products arena, human need is the opportunity. The preparation is thousands of hours studying mechanical and electrical engineering as well as the human needs themselves. On the engineering side, school is not nearly enough. One must have spent years playing with mechanical stuff, taking things apart, breaking things, all to develop a keen sense of how things work. On the human side, one must be self-aware, as well as keenly aware of others.
Years ago, a friend of mine had the pleasure of watching the great Wayne Gretski warm up for a hockey game. My friend watched as Wayne practiced some kind of crazy round the back, without looking impossible shot. As some point during the game, everything was just how Wayne envisioned it. He worked his crazy move, and achieved a goal. I think most super athletes are to some degree freaks of nature, but their preparation is years in the making. I think good engineering is the same way. A good design engineer has a heightened sense of the physical world, a mechanical ability, which was probably apparent when they were just 2 or 3 years old. For the fortunate ones, that sense is nurtured and augmented with and years of practice, and then engineering school. When an opportunity comes in the form of some new need for a product, all that aptitude springs into action and a product is created.
I was reading a book one day by Stephen King, an author known for horror/suspense novels but this was different in that it was an auto biographical work. Some of it gave clues into his writing technique which directly relate to good product design. In the book Stephen King wrote that he keeps a notebook with him where ever he goes. When he sees something, some interesting portion of human nature, he writes it down. Later when he’s writing a book and he wants to add realism and depth to a character he will include the detailed behavior that he witnessed. In the book The Shinning, one that Stephen is most famous for and later became a movie, I remember a scene where one of the characters, an old guy, blew his nose into a handkerchief, then looked inside to see if there was anything interesting. Although I read the book almost 2 decades ago, I still remember that detail because it’s interesting. I feel that in order to realize a detail like that Stephen must have been very aware. I cannot speak for the author but is seems to me that such a small detail would not have struck him as interesting unless he himself like most of us had this nutty little fascination with what comes out of one place or another on our bodies.
I believe that good design comes from constantly noticing what people do so you can give them more of what they want. A Kindle e-reader is a great example. It speaks to the way people read. Reading is special because when we read we create much more of the story with our own imagination and notions then when we watch TV or go to a movie. If you spend a lot of time reading books or watch people who do you may gain a sense of the minimalism of it all. It’s just you and the pages. It’s the smell of them and the sound as you turn them and hold the book in one hand as you prop yourself up in some comfortable position. You want to be comfortable, perhaps even recline so you are not distracted from doing the creative work. People talk about curling up with a good book. The e-readers that have the e-ink don’t light up, and they don’t weigh much. The black letters on the light grey back ground offer an experience that is more book like then their app running, back lit, handle with care, counterparts. Even though when you turn the page on an iPad™ you can see a little graphic that simulates a page being turned, you still don’t necessarily get as much of the book feel as you get when using the Kindle.
Another example is the latest ice cream scoop from Tupperware. Even this simple device is made great by an attention to detailed human behavior and feelings. The fact is, the way ice cream is consumed has changed over the last little while along with the actual ice cream itself. The new ice cream may have chunks of frozen Heath bar in it or heaven knows what else. It’s probably much more dense than ice cream used to be and it creates much more resistance to the scoop. People who eat gourmet ice cream are likely to grab the pint right out of the freezer and have at it. Designers at Tupperware noticed all this when they innovated their new ice cream scoop. It has a bit of a point on the end, and a handle that feels like it came off of a construction tool. You can grip it tight and strong, but effortlessly put a great deal of force onto the scoop tip. Simultaneously they gave it an elegant look using stainless steel inlays. They really did a great job.
At its best a good design is a caring and accommodating conversation between the designer, the manufacturer and the user. The language is the shape and features that are predicated on the common experiences and belief system that they share. A personal story illustrates this perfectly. I had the pleasure of biking through France once. I was riding through a park in Paris and I saw some elephants. I stopped because I’ve always been fascinated by these intelligent and gentle beings. As I approached I was amazed to find that these two elephants were out in the open with no attendant. Even more astonishing was the only thing that kept them from wandering off was a thin nylon tape that was stretched around four trees to make a makeshift pen. Perhaps it was foolish, but I moved right up to the tape and stood there with the bike between my legs. One of the elephants came right over. He raised his trunk, gently put it on my helmet, and took a huge elephant inhale. This was followed by a delightfully stinky elephant breath ex-hail that cascaded through the breather holes of my helmet and down the back of my neck. Next our eyes met and I reached out to pet the trunk. His hair was course, like wire, and as I pet it he backed away ever so slightly. I backed off and then he got comfortable again. He took his trunk and started to play with the break handle of my bike. I sensed what could only have been curiosity and intelligence of this magnificent creature. When it was time to go, I reflected on how impossible the entire experience would have been in the United States due to our litigious protect you from yourself nature. As much as I love the design of American cars, particularly cars like the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Camaro, I don’t like a certain aspect of them. I don’t like an automatically locking door, or a seat belt beeper that won’t shut up if you don’t have your seat belt on. I prefer what I see as the European “don’t be an idiot or it’s your own fault” attitude. When you drive a BMW, you lock your doors if you want, or not. You wear your seat belt because it’s a smart thing to do, not because it’s the only way to get the car to shut up. The social contract of Europe, which is not as litigious as the US, had a direct effect on the design. The perception that here in the US you can sue any one, for anything, at any time has a negative impact on the design.
The best designs are the ones that are derived from the highest and best human sentiments. The designs that are a result of the ethic of service and community are the ones that really please customers in the end.