Wednesday 19 February 2014

Objects of desire

Managing risks and opportunities in product innovation

Professor Adrian Forty's book Objects of Desire examines the relationship between design and society.  It was written in 1986 before several major shifts in the mechanics of society, including personal computers, the internet, smart phones, social media and even blogging.  Despite this I believe the arguments it puts forward to account for the introduction, acceptance and evolution of products in society has much relevance today and can be used as a model to help understand how contemporary design (including our current design projects) can fit in to the surrounding world.

The radio changed the world but its introduction to society did not come with automatic acceptance.  Adrian describes (in chapter 1) how the product was styled with 'design imagery' to overcome any perceived resistance to change:
  • First the radio was made to look like a piece of antique furniture, to hide the innovation, and make it blend in to the home.
  • As the product became more commonplace, it had to refresh to sustain sales.  Ways of making the furniture housing more functional or smaller were examined.
  • Then the styling became more contemporary and futuristic, aiming to establish a stylistic identity of its own, now that the product and innovation had become accepted.   

This was all before transistors allowed radio to become small and portable and it seems the evolution of the radio was played out a second time with the introduction of its digital counterpart.

Two  requirements which seem constant are that:
  • Successful products need to refresh to sustain sales.  This is enabled with design imagery, especially where the underlying innovative technologies mature and offer less to the market.  This happens until it is replaced by the next product innovation.
  • The consumer requires variety of choice. Choosing the one you like gives personal attachment to the product.  Choosing the best of a bunch to keep up with the Jones's is still a sale.

The need to refresh a successful product is very clearly demonstrated with the iphone.

The iphone 5C was introduced to maintain consumer interest where maturing technologies are offering less novelty, and give more choice for the same product.

By contrast, did the lack of stylistic design given to the video player contribute to its swift succession by DVD?  The DVD was superior because of its quality and mobility, especially teamed with a small LCD screen, but it left a gap in the market for recording our favourite TV shows.

There was not much in the way of stylist evolution with the VHS machine.  The technology matured rapidly without further development.  There might be hundreds of tapes in our attics but we seem to have parted with the machinery to play them on.

This balance between innovation vs resistance to change often means the new is hidden or suppressed, within a stylistic envelope, used to carry its public acceptability.  This perceived resistance to chance (combined with the professional structure of the building industry) are often noted as the main barriers to introducing new materials in to architectural design.

In chapter 2 Adrian describes how this relationship of innovation vs resistance to change was addressed with industrial development at Wedgwood.  For the first time design roles were established as separate from manufacturing in an industrialised process.  Labour was divided into separate and specific tasks.  There was also a significant amount of technology transfer from other industries to make best use of peoples' skills from production line assembly, making best use of materials, to ensuring the base pattern was transferred to each item exactly.  Previous to this, the industry had relied on one artisan producing each item from start to finish.  The result was, in the late eighteenth century, a mass produced dining set dressed with a contemporary but up-market Neo-classical design.

The significance of this in relation to the building industry today is that the innovation was undertaken by a single organisation with a clear direction and clear lines of communication.  The innovation was hidden behind an understandable and engaging contemporary design.  Within the building industry it might be argued that the separation of professional roles has become too fragmented.  We can look to opportunities for technology transfer but this often requires a single organisation to pull everything together to implement innovations.  Architects can do this but don't always have the important economic control.  Some large contractor / consultants are doing just that and can, in time, significantly alter the structure of the building industry.  

Chapter 4 talks about differentiation in design.  Adrian describes consumer choice as being offered from diversity by design.  Demand drives the requirement for choice and stems from the target criteria for innovative developers (in the little diagram above) of:

  • Class
  • Gender
  • Social position (& social aspirations), and
  • Variety
Diversity is restrained by industrial ability.  With evolving technologies at our disposal such as 3D modelling, digital and CNC production and 3D printing, there are some very significant opportunities for the building industry to innovate with diversity and use this as a means of economically creating more choice, and in turn revitalising demand in building.  

Differentiation by design

This is reinforced in chapter 7 which looks at how technology and innovation can be used to support changes in society, and control the demands placed on products, to the benefit of the producers or the industrial sector.  Manipulating changes in societies' needs allows easier access for innovation.  Common trends along these lines tend to involve:
  • Hygiene
  • IT
  • Communication and transport
  • Entertainment, and
  • Working and social advances
There are lots of opportunities to innovate in the building industry.  Adrian Forty's account in Objects of Desire can offer a model with which we can look at how innovation might become more common place in this industrial sector.

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