If design is not part of your initial development plan, you’re doomed

By Mike Drummond

Shortly after Steve Jobs returned to the Apple thrown, he killed the Newton - a poorly designed, poorly executed handheld computer

Shortly after Steve Jobs returned to the Apple throne, he killed the Newton – a poorly designed, poorly executed handheld computer

In the vast catalog of horribly designed products, one modern electronic consumer good stands out for its clunky ergonomics, poor performance and exorbitant pricing.

We’re talking, of course, about the Newton, a personal digital assistant from none other than trendsetter Apple Inc.

The Newton retailed for upwards of $1,100. For that, you got a device that had a notepad, a calendar, an appointment book, time-zone maps, a word processor, a spreadsheet, a Web browser and e-mail capabilities.

The company dubbed it a handheld. Yet at 7 inches long and 1 inch thick, it didn’t really fit neatly in your hand or your pocket – unless maybe you were sporting cargo pants.

The company spent five years developing and marketing a portable device that, in the end, never really worked as advertised. The Newton couldn’t, for instance, master the much-hyped handwriting recognition feature.

Apple reportedly spent more than $1 billion to produce the Newton, which launched in August 1993 under then-CEO John Sculley.

By the time Steve Jobs, who had been forced out of the company he co-founded, officially returned as Apple’s CEO in 1998, the company had made just $200 million in sales of the Newton. Faced with a money-losing lemon on his hands, Jobs discontinued the product.

Flash forward a dozen years.

Apple is the maker of the hottest and hippest electronic gadgets on the planet. Much like Braun did for consumer appliances starting in the 60s, and famed French-born American designer Raymond Loewy did for planes, trains, automobiles and countless other products before that, Apple is today’s torchbearer for design.

Despite lacking USB ports, an ability to play Flash and other standard accoutrements, the iPad is a hit

Despite lacking USB ports, an ability to play Flash and other standard accoutrements, the iPad is a hit

Shortly after its release this year, the iPad, a computer tablet – mmmmm, wasn’t the Newton a tablet computer? – was selling more than 200,000 units a week in the United States, according figures from Premier Investment Bank. In fact, iPads were outselling Mac computers, and sales were just under those of the iPhone.

“Apple,” notes Tom Kubilius, a board member of the Product Development Management Association (PDMA) and founder of business consultancy Bright Innovation, “is good at ignoring its failures as far as the public is concerned.”

“But,” he adds, “I bet they learned a lot from the Newton that went into the iPad.”

The Newton stands as a cautionary tale on a number of levels, starting with “try not to fire your visionary CEO.”

The other lesson is the role design plays in product development. The story of the Newton entails a product that was driven by over-engineering, particularly the ambitious yet misguided effort to include handwriting-recognition technology. Unlike most Apple products before and since, design seemed an afterthought.

For product developers and inventors, design is an essential ingredient that needs to go into the mix early – it’s the flour or the water or the egg in the cake, not the frosting spackled on at the end.

“When I hear ‘dropping in design’ at the tail end (of a new product development project), the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” says Kubilius, an engineer and industrial designer.

“If you’re going to ‘drop in’ design,” he adds, “it should be the 101st Airborne and be the first in.”

Design is “an argument for doing something or not doing something,” Kubilius says, while engineering is an argument for how that something works. Design poses the question: “Is this even the right thing to do? Having design answer that can inform whether you even make a product.”

Kubilius returns to the example of Apple and how, when it came to iPods and all that came after, the company approached the product line as “universal.”

Apple considered the whole lifecycle of the iPod. The player wasn’t only sleek, it was paired with the simple, elegant, easy-to-use iTunes as a way to buy music at a price people were willing to pay. Same thing with the iPhone, which enjoys a harmonic marriage with the AppExchange platform – there’s an app for that!

When it came to the iPod/iPhone/iPad, Apple asked and answered such questions as:

  • “What is this like when I take it out of the box?” (Answer: You don’t need a manual – the design and interface essentially tell you how it works.)
  • “What happens if it breaks?” (Answer: Take it to an Apple store, one of the coolest and helpful retail environments in the world, or get help online through responsive and knowledgeable support personnel.)
  • “Does it play nice with Windows?” (Answer: Yes.)
  • “Can I get things through the air?” (Answer: Yes.)

That’s not to say the iPod or iPhone are perfect.

Critics decry the shackles of digital rights management software on the songs you buy through iTunes, which prevents you from easily transferring music to other computers and players.

Likewise, the iPhone is notorious for dropped calls – although the blame largely rests with AT&T’s overburdened network, a problem created largely by so many people using iPhones.

(Note to anarchists – there are ways to disable DRM and “jailbreak” your iPod, iPhone and iPad from code only authorized by Apple.)

Yet because the iPod and iPhone experiences are so well designed – from the devices to the clean interfaces where you download the content – consumers by and large forgive Apple of certain transgressions.

“Having great technology does not buy you a pass with your customer,” Kubilius says. “Having a great experience does.”

That goes a long way to explaining the enduring popularity of Nintendo’s Wii game console. Its graphics lag far behind Sony’s Playstation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360. Yet the Wii controllers more closely mimic human actions – rolling a bowling ball, swinging a baseball bat, throwing a punch – so we tend to forgive the shortcomings of Wii’s two-dimensional cartoon avatars.

Ah, but Nintendo and Apple are huge, deep-pocket companies, you say. Moreover, Apple has the incomparable Steve Jobs. Apple has world-class industrial designer Jonathan Paul Ive on the payroll. And Apple has the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, all of which are high-end, high-tech consumer electronics. What’s an independent product developer to do?

Oxo designed kitchen gadgets with an eye on style as well as ease-of-use

Oxo designed kitchen gadgets with an eye on style as well as ease-of-use

Behold the potato peeler from Oxo.

What started as a way to make a more user-friendly grip, extended into a line of kitchen utensils and products to enrich the kitchen experience, both functionally and aesthetically.

Oxo’s peelers have oversize, rubberized black grips and were initially designed with the arthritic housewife in mind. They also were a visual departure from the all-metal models that had gone unchanged for decades. Because Oxo’s peelers are easier to use and look cooler than traditional peelers, so they attracted a broader customer base.

Indeed, Oxo embraces what it calls a “Universal Design” philosophy and makes products that are simple to use for the widest possible spectrum of users – young, old, male, female, left- and right- handed and those with special needs.

“They looked at the peeler from an experience point of view rather than the old-school metal one,” Kubilius says. “A lot of thought went into that. So there are some parallels to the Apple music story.”

To that end, Deepa Prahalad believes one of the keys to a product’s success has more to do with how it makes folks feel about themselves, rather than how it works – a philosophy that likely would raise eyebrows among engineers.

Prahalad is the co-author of Predictable Magic: Unleash the Power of Design Strategy to Transform Your Business (July 2010, Wharton School Publishing).

“The argument we’re putting forward is that companies need to think consciously about emotional drivers,” she says, “because that’s really a marker for success. Your product need not necessarily be the most beautiful aesthetically, but it’s something you may want to tell your friends about.”

Mundane Gets a Makeover

Design has been a part of product development for nearly as long as humans have been making things. Take 16th century muzzle loaders, for instance. They used to engrave flowers on them, a decoration that had no appreciable effect on the gun’s ability to kill something.

The modern notion of design being integral to a product’s function owes a large nod to French-born American industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

Some say he’s arguably the most influential industrial designer of the 20th century. There’s no argument – he was.

He lived and worked by the philosophy “beauty through function and simplification.”

His career spanned some seven decades. He consulted for more than 200 companies. And he worked on streamlining everything from postage stamps to spacecrafts.

Loewy's influence is felt today - a master of form and function

Loewy’s influence is felt today – a master of form and function

He made pencil sharpeners that looked like jet engines and trains that looked like torpedoes.

International Harvester – now Navistar International Corp. – commissioned him to design sleek tractors in 1939. Electrolux hired him to design a line of refrigerators in 1940 – he used aluminum, a material that was cheaper and lighter, and made the appliance easier to use.

Loewy had a huge influence on – if uneasy relationship with – the U.S. auto industry.

With his work on the Studebaker, he introduced slanted windshields, built-in headlights and wheel covers. He also advocated lower, leaner and more fuel-efficient automobiles long before fuel economy became a concern.

In 1961, while designing the Studebaker Avanti, Loewy posted a sign that said, “Weight is the enemy.” The Avanti design eliminated the grill, which he argued, “In this age of fuel shortages you must eliminate weight. Who needs grills? Grills I always associate with sewers.”

One wonders what he would have thought of GM’s Hummer, which the company discontinued this year.

Among his other accomplishments, Loewy redesigned the Coca-Cola bottle. The U.S. government tasked him with designing a commemorative stamp following President John Kennedy’s assassination. He designed the Coast Guard’s “racing stripe” logo. Greyhound Lines – that’s his logo, too. He also designed the interiors of NASA’s Skylab and Air France’s Concorde jet.

Loewy lived by his own famous MAYA principle – Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.

According to the official Loewy Web site, he believed “the adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”

He died in 1986 at the age of 92.

But his legacy of a simple yet functional aesthetic is alive and well.

James Dyson’s line of vacuums is a good example of Loewy’s philosophy.

“Good design,” Dyson says, “generated out of the function of the thing, will explain why it is better and why it should be bought.”

Good design explains why consumers bought his $500 bag-less, see-through vacuums when industry experts spurned him.

Dyson hopes to capture that same sort of consumer magic with his recently launched line of bladeless fans, which retail for some $300.

Dyson makes ordinary stuff consumers are comfortable displaying in their homes – appliances as art, almost.

Microsoft recently rolled out its Arc Keyboard, which comes in white and lime. The company hopes it will be something consumers will use anywhere in the home, not just at a desk.

That type of thinking also informed its decision to remake its popular Xbox game console.

Michael Jager of design firm Jager DiPaola Kemp worked with the redesign team.

When it debuted in 2001, the Xbox was bold, boxy, black and emblazoned with an aggressive neon green logo.

“It was muscle and horsepower and designed for the hardcore gamers,” Jager notes.

The current Xbox 360 is curved, comes in white, and its onscreen menu is less threatening and more “invitational,” with a pulsing, spherical logo, replacing the slashed green X on a black background.

The console itself is something cool to display.

When it comes to design, “differentiation is the holy grail,” Jager says.

That was the thinking that drove Samsung to revisit its line of hard drives, heretofore the ugly, if not wholly utilitarian, stepchild of computer peripherals.

Its line of eco-friendly G2 hard drives come in green, blue, silver and black.

“We wanted to make these more appealing and visible to consumers,” says Albert Kim, director of sales for Samsung storage systems.

Evidently, even coffee cups were due for a makeover.

Julie Smith-Clementi, CEO of consumer product design firm notNeutral, got a call from Chicago-based coffee chain Intelligentsia. Conventional espresso cups just weren’t working for them.

“They said, ‘We lose our control of the coffee experience in the vessels we serve our product in. We want to be a part of it as their lips touch the cup, to enhance the coffee experience.”

Smith-Clementi and team set about the task of making new coffee and espresso cups, ones that appeared as if the handles were gently pulled from the cup itself, rather than attached. The insides were redesigned to make the coffee swirl a certain way.

“The cups,” Smith-Clementi says, “weren’t working in concert with the foam pour art.”

Intelligentsia takes its coffee pretty seriously. But its commitment to design paid off. This year the company’s cups won a best product at show award at the 22nd annual Specialty Coffee Association of America exposition.

Industrial Chic

Design is not for consumer goods alone, as Loewy demonstrated with his locomotive.

Industrial machines also have a place at the design banquet, says Mark Adkins, vice president of marketing for the PDMA.

Adkins has appeared on the History Channel’s Modern Marvels episode featuring the history and current status of machine tools. He’s partial to industrial sized things.

“The appearance of your product is as important with your b2b products as your consumer goods,” he says. Although he quickly notes that buying, say, an industrial printing press entails far less of an emotional impulse.

Crown Equipment brought style to its line of industrial machines

Crown Equipment brought style to its line of industrial machines

He holds up Crown Equipment Corp. as an example of good design-meets-workhorse.

“Look what they’ve done with their fork lift line,” he says, “It’s remarkable.”

But his best industrial design anecdote involves a hotdog-packing machine.

He worked with a client that wanted a machine that packed hotdogs faster. All the design options addressed the problem from an engineering perspective – more hotdogs per second.

Yet food safety laws require frequent cleaning of hotdog packing machines. Adkins helped the client find a design that looked at the problem from that angle.

“We didn’t need a faster pumping machine,” he says. “We needed one that could be taken apart faster and designed with fewer food traps.”

They settled on a design that packaged fewer hotdogs per second. But because workers could quickly clean and crank the machine back up, it actually packed more hotdogs in a day than faster machines.

The hotdog packing machine story reveals the practical essence of design. Product developers and companies often are in a constant tug-of-war among design desires, engineering options and financial constraints.

But a lot of that inherent conflict can be resolved – or avoided – if you design for “manufacturability,” in the words of David Clark, business development manager for Malco Design & Deliver Group.

“Our design philosophy is a focus on manufacturability,” Clark says. “To produce products that can be built in volumes and in prices that our customers can make money on.

“You can have the most beautiful design in the world,” he adds, “but if you can’t make it at a cost that’s able to make a profit, then what’s the point.”

He says the most important thing inventors can do is determine how many units they want to or will sell and calculate the profits from there.

“Volume,” Clark says, “drives every design consideration going forward.”

So, when it comes to design, you have to do the math. Otherwise, you may use materials or add features you can’t afford.

And you’ll end up with a Newton.

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Editor’s note: This article appears in the July 2010 print edition.