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Dr. Robert BlaichDr. Robert Ian Blaich was born in 1930 in New York. He studied architecture at Syracuse University. Author of “Product Design and Corporate Strategy“? and “New and notable Product Design“?, Robert Blaich was awarded a Doctor of Fine Arts (Honoris Causa) in 1990 by Syracuse University. In 1991 he received a knighthood in the Order of Orange Nassau, from Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands. As from 1999 he also holds a position as member (and past Chairman) of the Board of Teague Design. Dr. Blaich is President of Blaich Associates in Aspen, Colorado.

Before establishing Blaich Associates in 1992, Blaich served as the Senior Managing Director of Design for Royal Philips Electronics in the Netherlands, responsible for product design, packaging design, and corporate identity on a global basis, directing 350 designers in 28 international locations. He introduced design management as a strategic tool for integrating design into the production and marketing process and is credited with enhancing the design profession’s effectiveness and position within the company. During this period Philips design won over 500 international design awards. Before joining Philips, Blaich served for 15 years as the vice president of Design and Corporate Communications for Herman Miller, Inc., the internationally famous manufacturer of furniture and office systems.

Bob, thanks so much for taking time for this interview. To start with, could you explain a bit about your background and long career in design?

Thanks Marco. Well, I was a lad of 9 when I attended the 1939 New York Worlds Fair which was designed by some of the early pioneers of Industrial Design. Walter Dorwin Teague as Master Planner, Raymond Lowey, Norman Bel Geddes and others. The “Futuristic Designs” made a great impression on me and probably led to my becoming a designer. I graduated from Syracuse University in 1952 with a dual degree in Architecture and Allied Arts which included industrial Design. My first job was as a designer for the famous furniture manufacturer “Thonet” I was given the task to design the seating for the General Assembly and Security Council in the United Nations building. The seating is still in daily use and there are a lot of “Emotional” debates from these seats.

I joined Herman Miller Inc. in 1953 and from then till 1979 I held several positions in Marketing and Product Development. I was appointed the Vice President of corporate Design and Communications in 1964 responsible for all Product. Graphic, Communications and Facilities design. During this time I worked closely with our consultant designers Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and Alexander Girard. I also recruited new designers to the company including Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick, Designers of the very successful Aeron Chair, Bruce Burdick, Vernor Panton, Poul Kjaerholm, Fritz Haller and others. I led major design projects including the original “Action Office” the father of all cubicle systems, Many Eames seating projects, Nelson office projects and Girard Textiles and furniture designs.

quote11.gifIn 1980 I was recruited by Philips to replace the Norwegian Knut Yran who was retiring as head of design at Philips As at Herman Miler I was responsible for all Product, Packaging, Graphic and Corporate Identity Design with studios in 28 international locations During this period we received over 500 International design Awards. I retired from Philips at the end of 1991 and proposed Stefano Marzano as my replacement. Stefano was a young designer at Philips when I came there and was part of my management team with responsibility for major Domestic Appliances.

Currently, I am a President of Blaich Associates, a design management consultancy in Aspen, Colorado, a member and chairman of Teague Design in Seattle Washington, and a member of Boards at The Institute of Design -IIT in Chicago,The College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University and The Beal Institute at theOntario College of Art & Design in Toronto Canada.

An interesting factoid is that I was impressed by Walter Dorwin Teague’s N.Y. Worlds Fair designs in 1939 and 60 years later (1999) I joined the Teague Board, so it went full circle!

That is a pretty impressive list of achievements and positions! For now, I would like to focus on the theme of this blog ‘designing for emotion’. What would your definition be of what the concept ‘designing for emotion’ refers to?

The encyclopedia definition of Emotion are ” To move out, to stir up, to agitate. It can be physical or psychical, for example: to love, to hate etc.” Therefore I believe it refers to what people respond to in a visceral non rational manner. This includes designs that trigger strong emotional responses.

I get this question occasionally from people and I wanted to ask you the same: Why should we try to ‘design for emotion’? Isn’t that a marketing-thing?

I have three basic criteria for the design of successful “user friendly” products.

  1. Ease of use: Is this product physically comfortable? Can its operation be easily understood? does it expand the power and reach of the user by improving performance or increasing knowledge?
  2. Emotional and Cultural content: Is the product approachable and unintimidating? Does the design recall comfortable, pleasant associations with other experiences? Does it evoke traditional cultural memories and meanings?
  3. Environmental Consciousness: Is the product environmentally benign? Can it be easily recycled? Will its use have a negligible impact on the environment?

Number two deals with emotion. It also includes responses that FIT. So it’s not just about “emotion” but also rightness. These would be designs that interpret the user’s values so clearly that they feel comfortable, applicable and usable. It should be a basic concern of the designers…however Marketeers have recently co-opted this and popularized the concept.

This is very interesting I think. Emotions are often seen as something very intangible, but they are actually pretty tangible. The only problem is, they are hard to capture. You talk about a certain ‘fit’ with the product. Can you think of an example of a product that was designed based on user research (trying to capture emotions etc. to see what it is that users needed/ wanted) and was very successful in interpreting the user’s values, needs and feelings?

An example of “FIT” was a product called the “Roller Radio” and it’s subsequent extension into the ” Moving Sound” range of products. It’s a rather long story so bear with me.

In the mid 1980’s a Philips Consumer Electronics marketing survey revealed that by the age of 20 brand loyalties are already well established. The study also had some bad news for Philips. It documented that young people in Europe considered Philips Consumer Electronics products as stodgy and uninteresting to young people and that they preferred Japanese products. A Youth Task Force was established to study the problem and set the course for action.
As a member of the Task Force I proposed that we concentrate on the “Life Style” of the Youth” (A new term at the time) and we put forth a new design of a radio-cassette recorder called the “Roller”

Moving Sound: Philips Roller RadioThe design was based on a concept by a young English Designer Graham Hinde (who’s in practice called GRO Design in Eindhoven, The Netherlands). Together with designers Murray Camens and Bob Vranken the idea was developed and Philips launched it with much fanfare. It caught the fancy of young people in Europe and was very successful. The “Roller” has been celebrated in design award competitions and was featured in articles about product design trends. It became a “Design Icon”. The “Roller” was also the spark for a full scale program called “Moving Sound” The program was designed to capture the hearts and minds and lifelong loyalty of young people worldwide. “Moving Sound” was also a breakthrough for Philips in introducing a coordinated program of promotional materials . Design was the key element in driving the highly directed marketing and communications effort; Product Graphics, and Packaging design were the basis on which all subsequent sales displays, advertising and promotional material were developed. The term “Moving Sound” indicated that the radios were portable ( moveable) and that they Moved You (Emotionally)

From the “Moving Sound” program was conceived as a long term strategy in which successive generations of products, promotion and advertising would be launched. Each year a new “Moving Sound” series would be introduced, just as sportswear and other fashion products present new looks to the fashion conscious youth. The “Moving Sound” program had benefits not only to Electronics but to Philips image in general. ” Moving Sound” was in it’s fifth generation by 1991 and had sold millions of radios. The “Roller and Moving Sound” programs are excellent examples of a Design Led program. We did the basic research, designed the products, packaging and display materials and strongly influenced the advertising design. The designers themselves were young and multi-national ( English, Australian. American and Dutch)


While more advanced technologies and designs such as the Apple I-Pod have replaced such products these were trend setters for Philips at the time. I still use my “Roller” and it draws comments of admiration from people even today.

In your third criteria for user friendly products, you referred to sustainability as an important factor. My impression is that these issues become more and more important in new designs. My impression is also that it is very much related to emotional experiences, the feeling to do the right thing and get a lot of gratification out of it. What is your view on these developments and in which way do you think we could link ‘sustainable design’ to ’emotional design’?

The question of linking sustainability to emotional design is interesting. The Roller and Moving Sound were designed to meet the global Consumer Electronics trend of a new product every year. Hardly an example of designing for sustainability.

quote21.gifI prefer to go back to my Herman Miller days (1953-1979) when some products that were highly functional also had an element of “Emotion ” in their designs. Most designs of Charles Eames had this quality. The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman was designed in 1956 and has been continually in production for 50 years. Part of its success is that users become emotionally attached to the chair and often it a family treasure. It is recognized as a Modern Classic by Museums worldwide.

Originally produced in a Rosewood veneer it was changed to Walnut when Herman Miller found that Rosewood was an endangered material. So the chair is also considered environmentally sustainable. Many other Eames designs fit the same patterns, The Eames Plywood Chairs (1945), Eames Plastic Arm and Side Chairs1950) Wire Mesh Chairs (1951) Aluminum Group (1958) and Eames Tandem Seating originally designed for the Chicago O’Hare and Dulles International Airports are all still in production today. All of these products resonate with their users.

You claimed that emotion was a major factor in many designs that were created during your time at Herman Miller, but at Philips you found it lacking, at the time that you joined them in 1980. How do you look back at your efforts to incorporate emotion in the designs at Philips?

When I became head of Design at Philips in 1980 I found a very professional, dedicated design organization. It basically responded to engineering and marketing briefs and emotion was not a consideration. I determined to bring the emotion factor into the “Product Creation” process. One tool for this was the “Design Workshop” concept that I introduced early in my tenure. One such workshop dealt with “Product Semantics” and we brought in outside consultants such as Michael and Katherine McCoy then head of Cranbrook’s Design department. They were pioneers in this field and with others helped institute meaning and emotion into Philips products. The”Product Semantics” was an emotional response because the resulting products “resonated with it’s users. That intuitive response could be called emotional or visceral. Subsequent “Design Workshops” incorporated design emotion and resulted in a long list off successful products and systems.

And, now in 2007, does Philips succeed to hold on to the ‘design for emotion’ philosophy you introduced there?

Philips - Alessi collaborationThere is no doubt that Philips Design has both continued the “Design Workshop�? process with great success. There is also a high degree of “EMOTIONAL” content in both their published concepts and in actual produced products. Perhaps the best example of the combination of “Workshop & Emotion” is the Philips Alessi line of kitchen appliances. In my book ” New and Notable product Design” (1995) I featured this collaboration between designers at Alessi and Philips with Alessandro Mendini as a consultant. I wrote in the text “The Philips-Alessi Line are examples of a bold, new exploration into the emotional content of design. These designs bring a human dimension to a form and function by endowing products with a personality that encourages user involvement.” In the same book cited ” New Tools cooking tools appliances, a project commissioned by Philips with designers Marco Susani and Mario Trimarchi that respected the interest in traditional “cultural ” food preparation. Both of these projects were led by Dr. Stefano Marzano. This interest has continued and is ongoing. The book “Visions of the Future” (1996) gave examples of concepts developed in “Design Workshops”. One worth noting is “Emotion Containers” small, personal multi-media products which offered a more sensory way of giving as personal gifts. In “Television at the Crossroads” (1994 ) brings together the thinking of Mendini, Andrea Branzi and Marzano again utilized a series of “Design Workshops” with consultants and Philips designers to explore new directions in Television. While these were concepts one can see the nucleus of later products”. Mrs. Bovary combined TV with backlighting. This was the ancestor of the Philips Ambi-light TV now in production and also in my living room. One can see the Genesis of other TV products in this book I can only wish more had become realized. And most recently the “Ambient Experience” concept has been implemented in Philips CT scanners and their hospital environments. So the answer is YES, they do succeed to hold on to it.

Even though many designers, user experience experts and researchers are convinced of the power of taking the ‘emotional side’ of design into account, it is often dismissed by management. How do you think we can capitalize the concept of ‘designing for emotion’, what is it that we can use to sell it to corporations and say: this will definitely give you ROI!

There was a very interesting report “The Science of Desire” in Business Week online (June 5, 2006) It dealt with the growing importance of ethnography with corporations. Quote” Companies have been harnessing the social sciences, including ethnography, since the 1930s. But since the 1960s, when management gurus crowned the consumer king, companies have been tapping ethnographers to get a better handle on their customers. Now, as more and more businesses re-orient themselves to serve the consumer, ethnography has entered prime time”
Business Week further pointed out that companies like IBM, GE, Intel, AMD, Marriott and Steelcase are using either staff or design consult ethnographers to help focus on the real wants and needs of consumers. There is no doubt in my mind that these studies include the EMOTIONAL factor. By closely observing people allows companies to zero in on their customers’ unarticulated desires.

Major consultancies such as IDEO, Jump Associates and The Doblin Group, were cited as leaders in this area by Business Week. We at Teague have also recognized this important factor and have incorporated it into our Design Research department.

One further quote by Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business, “Ethnography could become a core competence” in the executive tool kit.

Between heaving the right tools and methods to research and measure emotional experience, and creating a design based on those measurements, is a pretty large gap. Does it again depend on the designer’s intuition and talents or would you say that we can come up with some pretty solid guidelines/ methodology that helps designers translate ’emotion knowledge’ into ’emotional experiences’ through their design decisions.

I feel that the Designers intuition and training give them insights into the “Emotional experience”. The dictionary definition of Intuition- “regarding, looking at, to consider, instantaneous apprehension” are all things that designers do or should do.
Designers can create the object ( product) as the experience , and the consumer experiences the object ( product). But today there are very sophisticated tools of measurement for the designer.

quote3.gifThen, to conclude, a big one: how do you think the future of design looks like? How will the field (have to) change in relation to the changes that are happening in consumer behaviour and needs?

The field has already experienced tremendous changes. From being stylists in the 30’s to the 50’s, to offering a wide variety of skills and experience that include the social sciences. Design has grown from an aesthetic contributor to a “core competency” in the “Product Creation Process”. I have participated in this change as the Vice President of Design at Herman Miller I led teams of consultant and internal designers in re-shaping the Institutional and Office Environments. At Philips we re-designed the design process and grew it from a respected professional service to a corporate “Core Competency” and at Teague we took a company that 80 years ago helped found the Industrial Design profession to one that in recent years has re-designed itself.

This process has been a very emotional one for me and I see that the skills required to better understand the wants and needs of the ultimate consumer will continue to grow. And for the Design Profession it is a case of “Grow or Die”.

Thanks for a great conversation Bob, it is very much appreciated!

[tags]robert blaich, designing emotions, emotional design, philips design,  teague, herman miller[/tags]

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