A Sea of Banal Ugly Objects

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illustration: Craig Robinson

words Mark Delaney

"If you go into any high-street retailer and look at the consumer electronics, you are confronted by a sea of banal, ugly products which relate to nothing in the world except the other products next to them on the shelf," says Mark Delaney, design manager at Samsung Design Europe. Here, he sets out his vision for better-looking domestic electronic goods...

"Look at the interior of your home: your chairs, the flooring you have chosen, the lighting you use. Then look at your TV, hi-fi or DVD player, and ask yourself whether these black or silver boxes with their flashing lights and mega-bass buttons really fit in with the interior you have created, or whether you put up with them because you want to have access to the services they provide.

Most consumer electronics brands are so focused on studying their competitors' products (benchmarking) that they forget about where their products are going to end up; as part of the customer's life, part of their homes. This is changing. The customer is fighting back and demanding products that are better designed and more in tune with the way they want to live. The iMac is such a startlingly simple idea - a computer designed for the home rather than the office - it now seems shocking that no one had done it before. Before the iMac, computers were not thought of in terms of design; their success was measured in intangible computer terms; gigabytes, RAM, MHz - most of which meant nothing to the customer. The iMac redefined a whole category of products and introduced a level of visual sophistication where previously there had been none.

In 2001, Muji launched an Ideo-designed CD player that broke all the traditional rules of audio-visual (AV) design. This wall-mounted product, with no display, hidden speakers and subtle controls, looked more like a fan and was unique within its product category. In the first eight months after launch, it sold 50,000 units - 0.6 per cent of the Japanese CD player market.

Other brands are following these examples: Sony and Philips have both launched AV equipment with furniture-like aesthetics, the latter in collaboration with luxury furniture maker Cappellini. The Loewe Mimo range of cathode-ray TV screens draws heavily on contemporary furniture in its styling to create a product that looks at home in the domestic environment.

At Samsung design Europe, we work hard to understand the contextual issues surrounding our products. Not everyone lives in open-plan loft apartments; power points are not always in the right place. We believe that there is a rising demand for truly differentiated products that respond to the customer's need to integrate technology with their lifestyle, rather than having to put up with it.

Over 70 per cent of our work consists of strategic design projects. These projects are not destined for production, they are essentially highly developed concepts giving our ideas a physical form so we can clearly communicate our thinking to the business to help future product development.

Designers' intuition and gut feeling play a big role in predicting the future, but we try to be a little smarter than just that. We make sure that a process of thorough research provides our designers with an understanding of real consumers; their lives and their needs.

When we talk about the customer, we do not mean the kind of mythical, techno-savvy businessman who surfs on the crest of the very latest technology trends, wirelessly in touch 24-7 anywhere in the world. We mean ordinary people, going about their ordinary business, using ordinary products.

Working with the design research agency Seymour Powell Foresight, we try to understand the customer not by asking a bunch of inane questions like, "what colour do you like?" or, "which of these 17 design concepts do you like the best?". Instead, we spend time with the customer, in their homes, in their place of work, watching them go about their day-to-day business, seeing how they use products, what they do, and how they do it. We find out what our customers actually do, rather than what they say they do - the two are often quite different.

There are far too many products that suffer from a bad case of "creeping featuritis" - where engineers and designers spend so long struggling with technology to find out if they can, they don't find time to consider whether they should. We all own products like this. We all use the basic functions; the stuff we can get working straight out of the box without reading the instructions. Then there are layers and layers of extra functions that we don't need, that don't work very well, or which we simply can't be bothered to work out.

There is far too much technology out there in search of a problem. The research and development departments spend too much time working on cutting-edge technology that interests them, and far too little time thinking about the technology that already exists and ensuring that it is meeting the requirements of customers.

Of course new technology can create the potential for improving the lives of our customers, but we need to think a little harder about the value of the technology we launch on the unsuspecting public.

This is the problem currently facing the mobile telecoms industry. In most cases, people are happy to use their mobile handset simply as a telephone. According to a recent advertising campaign, 90 per cent of people use only 20 per cent of the functionality of their handsets. But now, with the roll-out of the 3G network, service providers are trying to convince their customers that their phones are, in fact, multi-media communication tools that will revolutionise the way they live. They want their customers to upgrade to new feature-packed handsets and subscribe to new (expensive) tariffs.

It looks like it's going to be an uphill struggle.

This is a version of a talk Mark Delaney gave at 100% Design in September

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