I have lived and worked as a designer on 4 continents and I have been exposed to a very different way of thinking on each one, due in part to its particular stage of economic development.
Living in Asia and Europe I wondered what was so different about Americans’ attitudes towards design versus Europeans or Asians. Then I came to live in the USA. My experience happened in a very controlled manner. I had been working for Philips Design in Hong Kong and was transferred to the USA. As part of the deal, they ensured that my disposable income in the USA would be the same as I had in Hong Kong. That meant that I had the unique opportunity to compare what I spent my money on in the USA versus Hong Kong as the spending power was exactly the same.
My home in Hong Kong was a little less than half the square footage of my home in the USA – probably a fairly typical difference for most people living in Asia versus the USA, and I am sure there are good statistics to back this up.
Most of my life, I have focused on buying the best and waiting for what I cannot yet afford. In the USA I found I needed more stuff. There were extra rooms that needed filling and decorating, my closet was enormous and looked very empty! By changing locations and therefore parameters, I landed up focusing somewhat more on quantity than on quality. Looking around me I observed that I was not alone.
This observation has really become interesting to me as a driver of people’s decisions. I am not saying that Americans don’t appreciate well designed well made items as much as any other culture, I am simply observing that the need for quantity is greater here than the need for quality and that as America has become richer over the past 50 years it has been the expansion of “more” that has lead people’s decision-making above the desire for “better”. This is especially true considering that it is not just space that has been expanding. Due to the explosion of innovation over the past 20-50 years, the number and variety of devices available have become staggering. Remember how your grandparents used to tell you that all they had for entertainment was the TV, a pack of cards and a few ball games! people’s salaries have not risen in the same proportion to the explosion of new products and services, and so the only way to afford more stuff has been to buy cheaper versions of everything.
The expansion of manufacturing to Asia fueled the possibility to produce for less. That is rapidly coming to an end, though, as all companies are producing there and the cost of living is rising in Asia. It is a game of diminishing returns.
The challenge that faces all designers is how we can make “more appealing” better than “more affordable”?
There are a few companies who are attempting to sell on the merits of emotional purchasing. More appealing at the same price will definitely outsell less appealing as Target, IKEA and others are so successfully proving.
In the world of business, dominated as it is by salaried managers working for shareholders, the short-term profit mentality dominates. Due to this mentality, business has developed all sorts of rational, performance driven metrics to measure and determine which virtues of a product will have more or less appeal and risk associated with them. The managers of these projects then proceed to make their decisions based on creating new products with acceptable (meaning low to no) levels of risk.
There is little place for emotions in such a discussion.
But as the marketplace becomes more crowded and low price and distribution reach everyone, differentiation will become the name of the game. We already know there are too many features in most products, so it is my guess that emotional differentiation will soon start to become more important in the decision-making process for consumers.
I have always believed that emotion is a crucial part of design. It is what separates us from the discipline of engineering. Designers place the user at the center of their process, considering their needs and emotions as the primary driver for change, whereas other professions often tend to place more rational business issues above those of the user.
We are still in the ascending cycle of the age of mass production and mass distribution. However there are many signs that we are approaching the peak. As we crest this enormous wave and start the shift to mass customization, I believe that the opportunities for emotional design will proliferate. If you already have a 5,000 square foot house, there are few who really aspire to own a 10,000 square foot one. It just gets unreasonable. So it is with products. If you already own 7 TV’s (the average in the USA I believe) it gets unreasonable to want to own 14! For many living in the developed world, the past 50 years have been about abundance. I would hazard a guess, that the next 50 will be far more about enjoyment and discernment in our choices.
Whatever happens next, one thing is certain. There will always be a place for emotional design. Meeting the needs of people in a sensitive and appropriate manner will always appeal to a segment willing to pay for that quality, hopefully in growing numbers. And they lead the change for the general market. Perhaps that is the ultimate and very important function of emotional products, to always be pushing the paradigm, rather than going on to become the best seller.
If you want to change the world for the better, you will need to create more emotionally sensitive products! The trick is to gradually wind up the wick as the paradigm slowly shifts from mainly economic considerations to more self actualizing, emotional considerations.
About the author:
Clive Roux has spent the last 15 years as a senior member of the Philips Design organization, working in Europe, Africa, Asia and the USA. During his time as Global Design Director for Philips Audio, Clive was able to help the group t become one of the most successful business units within Philips by introducing a more emotionally interesting design thinking for the Audio products. He is now the CEO and Chief Designer for Green LLC a design consultancy focusing on creating innovation in the design of products and services. In addition Green, as the name suggests, is using sustainability as a filter to help companies become better competitors and differentiate themselves in ways that are not yet common place in the market. This produces strong differentiated positions for companies. To learn more visit www.mygreenbrand.com