Saturday, August 8, 2009

Style is Substance: Management of Product Design and Manufacture

One of the fallacies of popular thinking is that consumers are conned into repetitive purchases based on mere stylistic changes in products which do not offer any material differences in product functionality. This paper argues that stylistic changes, on the other hand, are the key drivers for innovation in product design and manufacture.

Style demands substance

Style is a distinctive and differentiated presentation of a literary piece, an art form or a product. Style is visual and appeals to the senses. It also creates a craving in the beholder for ownership and usage of a stylistically elegant device. This, by itself, does not mean that styling is mere superficial embodiment. A well-styled product is also fundamentally a well-endowed product. A stylistically elegant product has a creative form which not only has visual appeal but also offers handling ease.

A novel form factor that is smaller in size but packs greater performance and versatility is an essential component of any stylistic approach. Yet, styling does not end with appeal and handling either. Style sets ownership and usage expectations higher, driving fundamental innovations on how products are designed for wider and stronger performance. Style is also not merely physical; a digital experience adds a significant additional dimension to style. Sony Walkman, Apple iPod and iPhone are the best examples to date of style revolutionizing product profiles and creating new businesses, if not industries. Modern day automobiles which integrate new stylistic designs with greater safety, comfort and digital controls are another example.

Style often influences, if not enables, new paradigms of convergence. Bringing a variety of functions such as music, camera, maps, organizer and radio into a telephone is a styling challenge as well as opportunity. Emotional harmonization and functional alignment are helping laptops to be distinctively styled and repositioned as net books. Each stylistically distinctive product is thus integrated with differentiated performance to provide sustainable, and nor superficial, value for the consumer.

Style boosts efficiency

Style brings in its wake efficiency as well. Examples such as a well-styled car which has a low coefficient of drag, an ergonomically designed chair which enables healthy sitting posture, a high definition lap top screen that provides visual clarity, a thin flat panel screen which conserves materials in manufacture and space in usage, and a green building which is not only contemporary in design but also harmonious with nature
illustrate the efficiency side of style.

A few design factors drive the efficiency trigger in stylistic design. Style demands miniaturization on one hand and multi-functionality on the other. Style requires materials and components that enable better visual feel and physical handling. These factors are at the base of a relentless drive for advances in design and manufacturing technologies that offer better style with greater performance.

A favorable input-output ratio (lower input and higher output) is the hallmark of a well-styled product. Contrary to the perception that frequent stylistic changes promote repetitive and conspicuous consumption, style puts pressure on companies to design and manufacture products more efficiently. This, coupled with the greater emphasis on material recycling and environmental waste ensure that style leads to efficiency.

Style encourages creativity

Modern styling is not merely an art of shaping a product. It is a science of creating a hybrid substance that withstands the rigors of usage and environmental damage. A floor tile should not only be marble-like but also be skid-proof. A new cement blend has to not only create an elegant feel but also retain its appeal for a longer period of time. A new touch screen should not only click and display well but also has to be scratch proof. A speaker system in a flat panel TV has to be ingenuously designed to be invisible yet powerful. A medicinal tablet must be more potent to cure but smaller to swallow. Often, therefore, designers have to merge contradictory requirements to develop novel harmonized products. Conceptualization of such hybrid designs requires creativity in design of a higher order.

New technologies are often required to enable hybridization of designs. Polymer technologies helped design of better pharmaceuticals. From plasma to liquid crystal to light emitting designs, new signal conversion technologies helped newer flat panel displays. Wireless technologies unwired and uncluttered computer devices with better and non-intrusive connectivity. Nanotechnology promises to usher in a revolution in surface preparation, material efficacy and functional usage.

Style is also not necessarily limited to consumer interface. Industrial goods also benefit from style driven design. Introduction of “semi-forward cab” truck design, wherein the cab was partially mounted over the engine to provide a stylistic superiority over the conventional “engine outside the cab” designs is a case in point. This design catered to the driver’s preference for a hooded design (ostensibly for safety) while enabling maximum usable chassis space. Similarly, all components have to shrink in form but expand in performance as an automobile aims to become lighter, sleeker and yet more powerful and fuel-efficient.

Style promotes flexibility

Style can integrate or diversify product design. It can simplify or complicate need fulfillment. A single activity such as display of time can be accomplished by timepieces of myriad designs, shapes and colors. A wristwatch can also be converted into a diagnostic marvel by converting into a measure of relevant body parameters such as temperature, blood pressure, pulse rate and so on. The twin platforms of integrative design and diversified applications mirror the fusion of style and substance in product design.

Style enables a sharper focus on a latent user need and a greater alignment between the customer and developer. A paint development technology that enables a house-owner choose a novel combination by fusion of base colors ensures that the style reflects individuality. Dell’s marketing and supply chain innovation that enables users choose and assemble a computer configuration which meets their needs is an innovative anti-thesis of mass production of standard functional devices. Apart from functionality, style defines the personality of a user too. Ranges of products can be stylized to cater to generations of users.

Today’s consumer has a singular need but multiple desires. This need-desire matrix can be fulfilled by a combination of core and collateral functionalities that can be stylistically integrated. A dual time zone watch or radio controlled watch would provide greater satisfaction to a global traveler than a traditional watch would. A shock-proof and water-proof chronograph integrated watch would serve a sportsman better. Yet, styling innovations which integrate shades of peripheral time functionalities with core needs provide even greater flexibility to the user.

Style drives growth

The economic ramifications of stylistic changes in product design are rarely understood in perspective. At best, styling is seen as a demand generator, segmenting the market as it does in terms of multiple likes and preferences of customers. While the impact of customer segmentation, product diversification and market expansion are easy to see, not so visible is the underlying impact in industrial transformation.

At one level, style has driven the conception and growth of whole new streams of industries in personal effects and fast moving consumer goods space, from textiles, fashion apparel and personal accessories to soaps, cosmetics and daily care products. Styling and packaging have given a new life to the food processing industry and entire food value chain. Industries such as cellular phone industry which had no more than a single offering at the start today signify a style-driven litany of products.

Style not only creates new industries; it helps the established and mature industries to reinvent themselves and stay competitive. It renews the value chain and creates the need for new skills and new jobs. As an automobile, or for that matter any product, gets redesigned it triggers a cascade of new developmental and manufacturing activities across the value chain. From hundreds of designers who play with computer and clay models to thousands of engineers and technicians who create new tools, dies, materials, components, processes, assemblies, finishes, packages and deliveries in each firm, restyling stirs up a beehive of activities. The positive cascading impact on the host of economic, industrial, business and social activities is indeed the driver of growth.

Style needs management

Style drives not only economic growth but also enhances management complexity. The need to design, manufacture, supply and manage multiple SKUs, the need to service products of diverse generations and designs and the need to balance the cost push of product variety with the cost-attractiveness of manufacturing simplicity pose new challenges for managers. Many of these challenges can be met by enhanced process automation and use of information technology. Yet, each firm has to dynamically set its tipping points in determining the rate and pace of stylistic innovation.

Style is an amalgamation of the art of human behavior and science of product design. Successful designers are those who read consumer mind as perceptively as they understand the challenges of concurrent engineering of a new design, manufacturing and supply chain. They should have a 360 degree of the firm as a provider, with a competitive value chain, of innovative and differentiated products that meet human needs in an increasingly satisfactory fashion. Stretching the horizons of innovation with the practicality of utilitarian inventions, the stylist almost always accomplishes the seemingly impossible of giving to the consumer more for less. Nothing reflects the success of the amalgam of style and substance as Tata’s Nano micro-car does.

Designers, manufacturers and managers involved in the process have to view style and substance as an inseparable duo, representing the two sides of an innovation coin. Courses in industrial and product design and value chain management must treat styling as more than a cosmetic or emotive exercise, with a marketing endpoint. Styling is the essence of the progress of the society and economy, for tomorrow can, and should, never be the same as today in a developmental perspective. The quest for greater elegance, differentiation and efficiency as embodied by a constantly evolving fusion of style and substance defines the mankind’s progress.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on August 8, 2009.


Unknown said...

Excellent article.Banking also needs new product designs to enhance customer satisfaction.

Narayanan said...

Thought provoking article, fully agree and something that ancient Chinese appreciated as well. There is an interesting story of a Chinese ruler Wuling who in 307 BC took the radical step of ordering trousers for his horsemen ! Turns out this was considered "barbaric" and hence an anathema. Using horsemen (mounter archery) and cavalry, he managed to protect the Zhao kingdom from its northern intruders. Got this snippet from a book I've been reading by Arthur Cotterell et al called Leadership - lessons from the ancient world, check it out !