From function to fashion – ascension of design

The dynamic of fashion and function in product development is one that I touched on in some of the earliest posts. In those early example the argument was an evolutionary one where we see that sometimes fashion (display to attract the opposite sex) can undercut functionality (likely hood of survival) of a living organism. The principle example being the peacock. Revisiting this tension now, the examples will be based more on product design.

we’ll start with the hypothesis: in the modern economy with a proliferation of products and decreasing costs of production, the basic functionality of our products is becoming less of a differentiating factor between competing products. Design, user interface are becoming more important deciding factors. Perhaps this has always been the case, or perhaps we are in the midst of a resurgence, but it seems like the important skills in the modern economy are a mix of engineering to understand what can work, and design to understand that regardless of the function – form  and customer interaction determine success.

Let’s take a simple example. BMW builds cars. These are intensely engineered systems at all levels. For many years the BMW slogan has been “the ultimate driving machine”. While this slogan continues to be used, another one seems to have crept into the company’s advertisements: “the ultimate driving experience”. Now the former gets 1.18 million hits on a google search and the latter gets 1.25. What does this say if anything? Well the ultimate driving machine alludes strongly to a differentiation based on engineering excellence and mechanical metrics such as 0-60 time torque, redline RPMand mean-time-between-failure (MBTF) or reliability. Now when we think about the ultimate driving experience it is much more heavily weighted to the user interface. It’s the sleek exterior styling, cushy seats and the navigation screen- the dual zone climate control. Sure the engineering metrics still factor in, but acceleration is measured by the way it presses the seat against your back rather than the track time.

Particularly with cars, nobody can say that early automobiles of the 50 didn’t have a strong design component, so I have no argument there. But look at the interior of an old car. There just isn’t much going on there. You could say that there was less technology available to make manufacturing easier, but I would venture that there was actually less attention paid to the interior design of the car. But this is a guess.

Apple is another example of the ascendency of design, and in particular user interface (UI). Now nobody will say that apple doesn’t have brilliant engineers, and certainly it takes good engineers to design a good user interface. But take a look at the different specifications between an apple computer and similar PC. There is no huge advantage in performance across categories. Apple continues to have higher prices, but has exceptional styling and pays great attention to user interface. Now, with the iphone there was a great leap forward in functionality with the touch screen. Yet, even with the proliferation of touch screens on other devices, the user interface helped apple maintain market share.

Imagine a triangle within a circle. At each point intersection we have engineering, design, and user interface. Where are we shifting in your industry, in your profession in the products that you buy? These days – what are you paying for? And what does that mean for the modern economy?



About livingthememe

engineer and armchair philosopher
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