Archive for the 'Design' Category

Whirligigs in Wilson

Vollis Simpson has become famous for his amazing whirligigs – whimsical constructions with myriad figures, shapes, and colors, all mechanically wind-powered.  Now in his 90s, Mr. Simpson still actively builds and maintains his creations.  But even for a man of his considerable capability, keeping up with 30+ large and aging clockwork machines/artworks is a bigger task.  So the city of Wilson, NC has set out to create a whirligig park, to preserve and display these terrific creations, and celebrate in an enduring way Mr. Simpson’s accomplishments.  Work has already begun, and I was privileged to see it in process.

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Last week I visited Wilson, NC at the invitation of the Economic Development Office and Janet Kagan of Public Art Collaborative.  Not only is Wilson conserving and restoring the whirligigs, they are creating an “industrial artisan” community in the center of town, right around the whirligig park-to-be.  They will foster the development of creative skills, and projects/companies which are creatively focused (and make sizable stuff).  So, we’re talking about whether Spotlight can contribute.

I think it would be fairly mind-expanding to design and fabricate Spotlight Solar prototypes right across the street from this…

Vollis Simpson whirligigs night

Here is a lovely video as well (8 min., so I didn’t embed).

The benefits of technology battles

Gizmodo produced this helpful map of the battlefronts between Microsoft, Google, and Apple.  One could expand this endlessly, but a couple of other fronts to note might be Amazon’s commerce/content/cloud platform, and mobile/internet carriers fighting to keep from being commodity pipes.  Notice none of the device-centric players are on the map – a bummer for one who appreciates devices and design.

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As a person with a strategic bent, I find the dynamics of the tech market scintillating.  This is why I left the food business for the personal technology market.  In food, with all of its marketing know-how, if unit sales were growing faster than the population growth, you had a winner, and then almost always at someone else’s expense.  In tech, the internet happens, Google search happens, and iPhone happens.  Competing tenaciously, companies with a lot of smart, creative people try to out-awesome each other.  Things change as a result — change which impacts and (mostly) enables the way billions of people do things.

As a matter of belief, I refuse to trust technology to fundamentally improve the state of the world.  For every boon (e.g., the ubiquity of communication counters ignorance and exposes badness), there is a bane (e.g., people consume and create as much unhealthy content as conscience allows).  The root of the world’s trouble is not a gap in the  sufficiency of wizzy tech.  But at least tech causes movement, and in movement comes opportunity — opportunities for profit, sure, but also for other goodness.

Despite conspiracy theories, I believe Larry and Sergey are sincere when they pledge Google to avoid “evil.”  Many might argue that their moral compass is out of alignment, but they do put forth efforts on clean energy and employ civil disobedience in the name of freedom.  And their search tool lets me find information and people instantly.  Microsoft’s success has funded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  And their Office apps are my favorite tool kit.  Apple has done many….hmmm.  Well, at least my wife finally can access my calendar via her iPhone (and Google).

One of the things I appreciate most about tech is that it creates new markets.  Instead of spending my (whole) day trying to ruin competitors by taking share, profit, bonuses, jobs, and livelihoods from them, I can add new value and new capability to customers.  Hopefully, they do good things with that capability, and hopefully, I’ll set a good example.

I get the value of competition in providing economic benefit and do my part in combat, but I advocate a balance of intent (I love the B Corp concept).  Let me work on the innovative front, climbing new mountains, rather than focusing exclusively on knocking people off the old ones.  And cheers for our God-given capability to invent things that create those opportunities.

Apparently, branding still works

Mac volume was up 17% last quarter, while other PCs were up around 2%.  Total Apple profits up 47%.

There you go about Apple again, Craig.  Acer is also up strongly.

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Acer did take over the #2 worldwide unit share position, at 14%.   But Acer’s average selling price is low, and  prices are falling — laptop prices down 20% across the industry – so Acer’s margins are tight at 2%.  Volume gains are driving marked profit growth (percent increase in net income), but the law of small numbers applies.

C’mon, it’s bad all over, so of course margins are low;  Acer’s share capture puts them in the driver’s seat when things get better.

Acer’s 2% net income yields about 6% share of industry profit.  By my calculations, the average Acer PC generates $10 in net income, while Macs deliver around $120.  So Apple’s paltry 3.8% unit share captures 20%+ share of personal computer profits (iTunes, iPhone, etc. excluded).  Their shareholders like riding that bus.

Well, those same drooling sycophants Apple has tapped for decades must be propping them up.

Last quarter saw the highest number of Mac sales ever, with about half to new customers.  Mac average prices are UP (2-3X the average for a Windows PC), so they aren’t buying new Macophiles with low low price or free printers.

All this during the Great Recession.

They are only a player in the US…they control the OS…if not for iPod…

It is about the brand.

Much has been written on how this is done.  I can offer no new insight;  I’ll simply point out that branding is showing its worth under pressure.  While others cut, go low, and promote deals to survive the downturn, Apple widens the gap from competition with brand touchpoints –  beautifully simple design, cool but approachable personality, great buying and ownership experience.

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I spoke to a solar entrepreneur this week about the commoditization of that industry.  He said “I want my company to be the Apple of solar.”  Good idea.

* Data quoted or extrapolated from public IDC and NPD sources.  I suggest calculating for yourself if you intend to rely on the figures.

Good looking clean energy

I ran across this cool product.  It is an LED street light, with a wind turbine and solar module, mounted on the same pole, over the light.

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This product, sized to fit in a residential neighborhood,  is sold by a company called Urban Green Energy.  It generates electricity when the sun is shining and/or wind is blowing, and stores it in a battery to power the light.

As designers strive to create a more sustainable future, we’re thrilled to see designs that integrate a variety of renewable energy technologies into objects we encounter in everyday life. This innovative hybrid wind and solar powered street lamp is just such a solution – not only does it use renewable energy to provide light, it’s a stylish update to an everyday object that is capable of operating completely off-grid.

I imagine it could also be configured to supply power to the grid in its neighborhood.  It’s much nicer looking than any off-grid solar powered device I’ve seen installed, but I think it would look better with one less technology.  I also think it’s funny that “green” products are often painted or logoed in green, presumably so we get the environmental point.

Here is another similar concept (which exists in real life), a “tree” with solar cells on top of the round pods, and lights below.

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This activity is encouraging, as aesthetic appeal will help clean energy devices move out of the early adopter phase (the people who want their solar panels or wind turbine to be obvious, like their Prius).  I hope a lot of the best industrial designers will move into this space.

Spray-on computer design

Some people use spray-on hair.  Likely they are worried that their authentic hair is inadequate.  However, the look achieved tends to confirm and reinforce the shortcomings of the underlying thatch.

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I was reminded of this by the new fashionable laptops from Dell.  Here is one of 110 options (the match to the shirt above is pure coincidence…or is it?).

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This is like a Dell competitive strategy presentation in a single image.  Paraphrasing:  “We’ve lost the #1 spot to HP, which is dominating retail.  Note: HP puts graphics on their laptops. Acer is coming up our tailpipe like Speed Racer, with low priced products.  Note:  Acer likes to paint products to look like cars, and so does Asus, not to mention bamboo, etc. So we’re cutting costs at every turn, including through product compromises.  We got into retail at the low end (even Wal-Mart).  But good news: we’re covering those shortcomings with a vast array of low cost graphics options.  Customers can choose.  We’re going to out-personal HP!  Summary: we’re challenging HP on personalization, and we’re holding off Acer on cost.”

This is product differentiation through spray-on design, and I’m afraid it has mesmerized leaders across the PC business, not just at Dell.  How many car themed laptops have we seen?  I’ve counted four.  And HP has a new graphic pattern every month (I will admit, their taste in graphics is better than competition).  Concurrently, average build quality is not improving.

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I question the wisdom of this trend.  Look at other durable goods categories, and electronics categories:  appliances, cars, TVs.  Do they use loud graphical patterns to drive brand choice?  No.  Because most people don’t want it.  [OK, Mini has an angle on this.  Keep reading, please.]

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“But computers are personal!  Look, it’s even in the name.”  Even cell phones, the most personal of products, have gotten away from loud graphics and skins, in favor of materials that reinforce brand choice.  Shiny surfaces and metal = high tech, high quality.   Rubber paint and leather = user focused.  Do people put stickers on their favorite products?  Sure.  But the manufacturers don’t do it for them.

Please refer again to the picture above of the Dell Pastel Carpet Series.  Note the merits:

1)  The Dell brand is completely obscured.  2) The underlying product’s design is incongruous with the top surface.  3) The product is unrecognizable, unless they sell enough such graphics to cement an association with Garish.

PC makers are faced with a very difficult design challenge:  make it really desirable for no money.  Margins are tiny, and prices are falling.  So, I feel for them, and understand why they are trying this stuff.

But frankly, it is further commoditizing the PC space.  There is a lot of cheap plastic stuff in Wal-Mart with loud graphics, since the underlying design has no differentiating merit.  This is what I fear PCs are devolving to.

A few computers get a premium, with appreciable share and loyalty: Apple Macs and Lenovo ThinkPads are good examples (Sony used to be).  Their designs are recognizable, unified (the tops and bottoms look like they came from the same company), and authentic.  Authentic, meaning the materials, colors, shapes, usability elements, sounds, etc. are all based in the brand intent of the product – they are designed to earn an image consistent with the promise of value.

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I hope the PC makers turn from this surface level design and attend to what really drives desire:  user experience.  If they firmly believe customers want expressive graphics, I suggest they turn to Mini for inspiration.  Customization of a Mini is part of a holistic personal experience.  And everything Mini lets you do to the car enhances its Mini-ness, rather than obscuring it.  They are firmly in control of the image of the car, while enabling the buyer’s self expression.  Very different.

How to acquire “an eye:” visit Kyoto

If you want great results in creative efforts, such as product design or advertising, you need three things:

1)  The “A” team within your agency or design group.

2) An insightful brief that gives the creative team an intimate view of the customer and clarifies project goals.

3)  An eye, enabling good judgement of whether the results achieve the objectives in the brief.

About #3…   You might be born with this ability.  You might have access to a good teacher.  Or, you can travel to Kyoto, Japan for an aesthetic infusion.

Kyoto is home to the highest concentration of beautiful gardens that I know of.  Three days of patient absorption in Kyoto will train your eye to see balance, scale, subtlety, refinement, excellence, and restraint.

Nijo Castle, Kyoto

My mom (a fine arts major) remarked after her visit, “you can aim your camera in any direction and get a perfectly composed picture.”  I was inspired by Kyoto to make my own halting attempt at a Japanese garden in my back yard.  I feel like I’m trying to conduct Beethoven after attending the Chicago Symphony a couple of times.  I have even dared to invite a Japanese colleague (a designer!) to my house to see it.  In finest Japanese fashion, he claimed not to know much about garden design, and was cautiously complimentary.

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I will write more about the garden over time, but suffice it for now to say that it is a humbling experience to try to create a worthy Japanese garden.  Maybe I need to return to Kyoto for a refresher.  If you are convinced that you need to go as well, the Journal of Japanese Gardening runs trips with access to private gardens, thought to be the best.

Originality — preview

I’m working on a post about the business value of originality.  But seeing this picture today (at PC World) of the Dell Adamo external optical drive, I felt a preview was in order.

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While imitation may be a high compliment, it disappoints.  Not simply because people are compelled by innovation (novelty is implied), but because there is real business value in it:

The original is authentic.  Authenticity drives loyalty.  Loyalty drives margin and shareholder value.

ThinkPad was an authentic original in 1992, with its black minimalism and thoughtful engineering.  We at Lenovo continue to nurture that authentic position.  And we enjoy a reasonable premium and customer loyalty.  A milled aluminum rectangular prism with generous radii on the corners, and crisp edges on the planes, is an Apple original.

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Dell has (predictably) added some decorative graphics to the surface, but this further solidifies its position as a copy.  Dell has aggressively recruited design talent over the last few years, including from Lenovo, with the promise of investment in differentiating design.  I know at least one person who must be embarrassed today.

The whole PC industry bemoans commoditization; but without originality, it cannot hope to break that cycle.  Plus, isn’t it a whole lot more fun to do things first?

Design and Brand

I believe the first money a company spends on branding should be on product. Especially with the ethos and mechanisms of Web 2.0 meritocracy, wherein the best products are identified and endorsed by influential commentators, a great brand must be grounded in great product. One of my favorite examples is the Mini Cooper.

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Spend five minutes on Mini’s website (you’ll want to spend an hour), and the Mini brand will be etched in your mind: fun, zippy, personal, authentic, original. The website is good, but it is mostly good because it is loyal to the car it presents. The car is distinctive and fresh, but grounded in a historically significant design with a following. Every detail is on-brand. Some true believers in the Mini of the 60s don’t like the modernized version, but they are exceptions. After thoroughly ingesting the Mini Cooper as presented on the Web shortly after its US introduction in 2001, I decided to buy one, even before test driving. I could see from the design that it fit my values perfectly: distinctive without being ostentatious, fun, high quality, affordable, responsible. [I cancelled my order after contemplating the importance of a fifth seatbelt.] Here is the punchline: the great design of this product (and the great design of its marketing campaign and website) enabled Mini to spend about one quarter on first year launch marketing vs. what any reasonable marketing veteran would prescribe. ROI, my friends.

I will go on about this topic in other posts, I hope to your benefit.



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