By Alex Baker - Principal Industrial Designer


It’s incredibly rare that we ever think of products and services around us as being designed. Most people wander through the aisles of their favourite supermarket and never really consider that every product on every shelf was, at one point or another, designed, engineered and (usually) manufactured by a human.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that every product you own has at least one really clever feature that’s under appreciated. Perhaps that camera just feels right in your hand, perhaps your favourite pair of jeans just fits nicely and makes you look great. Perhaps it’s the way that your car indicator feels when you click it down. Whatever it is, it didn’t happen by accident.

But if so much design and innovation around us often goes unnoticed, why is product design and development more important than ever? Well I believe customers do notice design. Certainly, if nothing else, they really notice bad design.

Customers notice bad design

Perhaps I’m biased from having spent a decade in the design industry. Perhaps I’m just fussy. But customers really do notice bad design and they have a sixth sense for value. Let’s go back to that supermarket and the shopping trolley with the wheel that just will not go in a straight line. People get annoyed with it, but they don’t (as they probably should) blame bad design.

If you want to be sure whether people notice things like this, dare to browse the one star reviews of just about any product online. If the product has a weak point then I can guarantee that people are going to notice it, and write about it. And the reviews that they write really do matter to your bottom line, to your reputation and to your industry.

You see, it’s all too easy in a dog-eat-dog world to skimp on design: to squeeze a little and rush things out in the name of progress and profit. And, if you’re unfortunate enough to be around a team that doesn’t value research, testing and development then, I’m afraid, you ignore at your peril. The proof will show in the reviews and bad reviews have a habit of travelling faster than good reviews. Just ask any journalist.


Returns are insanely expensive

As a designer at Raymont-Osman Product Design, I do sometimes come across companies that devalue design. The stack it high, sell it cheap approach that almost always leads to a price war. But this reckless cost cutting all too often results in a race-to-the-bottom. Nobody wins in a situation like this.

Why do companies do cut corners on design? Perhaps because design is really hard, perhaps because if brands slice that budget then they can throw more money into advertising and all things shiny. Perhaps you’ve met people who think like this. People who think that design is just all fuzzy blue sky, conceptual nonsense. Post-it notes and bean bags are all good fun but it never really results in anything.

I don’t blame them for thinking like this, like everything in business, results matter. Efficiency matters and there is no room for waste. But consider this, bad design can lead to waste. Lots and Lots of it.

We had an excellent success story recently (sadly I can’t go into too much detail online) where the product returns for a product line were incredibly high. People were sending back enormous quantities of defective product and I was completely shocked when I learned how much this was costing the company, yet somehow it was fine because it had just always been that way.

Luckily this particular company did see the gains to be made in good design and with some sensible, grounded engineering and a touch of innovation the problems were easily fixed. I’m now pleased to say that the cost for the project has paid for itself several times over in un-returned product and brand loyalty is restored. Returns are expensive, and avoidable. +1 for the fuzzy ‘felt tip fairies’.


Brands are built on good design

If you’ve spent time around industry leading brands though, you’ll know that they get it. Good design improves reviews and reduces returns. But does it go the whole hog. Does it boost sales? Do people pay extra for good design.

This is usually where a full scale punch up happens between the people who believe you can give any old piece of junk to a celebrity and they will endorse it. And the rest of us.

I want to argue that good design does not have to be expensive if done correctly. And it does not have to add to the retail price, even though the perceived value is higher. The best piece of design I have ever seen took the part count of the previous product from 24 parts to just 13. It made the product x10 cheaper to make, it was also easier to use and it looked better too. What’s not to like? That’s the power of design. In this case it opened up entirely new markets to the company and was an all round success.

But good design (this design) was bold, it carried risk. That risk took persuasion. Luckily, the world’s best companies realise that risk is part of business. They value reputation over cost-cutting, they move with the future and they do the right thing not because it is easy, or cheap, but because it’s best for their customer and best of the their brand. Brands are built on good design.


Conclusion

Good design can often be overlooked. But, in a world where reputation and trust is so slow to build and so easy to lose through bad reviews and product returns, product design and development is more important than ever.

Design does not have to be expensive, far from it when compared with advertising and legal costs. But the little details really do matter, and if you embrace design thinking in your production process I hope you will find it to be the secret success sauce that boosts your company, builds trust in your brand and makes your products unique in the market.