Much of the industrial design work we do at WMP is related to helping our clients develop a coordinated design language. We like to think of it as creating a company’s design DNA. A common thread that links everything together.
So, why do companies aspire to a consistent design language?
What are the benefits?
1. To be “Design Led”
Designing your own products is not easy. It requires focus, specialist skills and usually a lot of money! This might be prohibitive for smaller companies that are just starting out. The investment required to cover R&D, tooling and mass production runs are often forbidding. Many have no option other than to buy and brand off-the-shelf products.
Yet the leap to creating a distinctive, instantly recognisable design identity is what creates value and unique positioning for many companies.
WMP has been trusted as the industrial design agency to guide many companies to their design DNA.
It started with a design collaboration with British grooming company Bolin Webb over a decade ago. People aspire to buy Bolin Webb products because they fall in love with the strong automotive design aesthetic that is so prevalent in all of the products in the range.
To stand out from the crowd, companies have to find ways to be distinctive and appealing to their target market. It’s important to understand the target customer first. Then design the products in such a way that customers can intuitively infer that the product is right for them.
Is this product premium or playful? Is it simple, intuitive and easy to use? Is it designed to be robust?
Having a coordinated visual story and common messaging simplifies the marketing message for both your team and your customers.
2. What makes a good design identity?
Creating a successful design language is not achieved by cloning products to all look the same. That would be unimaginative, dull and very constraining. We prefer our ranges to resemble a group of cousins than a direct family.
A successful design DNA allows each product in the range to be what it needs to be to do its job well.
To achieve this, you need to start your thinking in basic terms. What overall form factor would suit each product use case? Can this be achieved by altering the component package? What materials are most appropriate? Once you have answered the basic questions, you can start to explore the thoughtful design details that unify the products.
3. Design efficiency.
Designing a full range of products is an upfront investment that pays off down the line. The range rollout is very efficient, once you have found the design identity that works effectively in embodying the design attributes that need to be portrayed by your brand.
We were lucky enough to design the OCLU action camera with US entrepreneur Firas Kittaneh. It was a very exciting project because we were given the creative freedom to explore and design every part of the physical and digital user experience.
Most action cameras at the time closely followed the design of market leader GoPro. These in turn borrowed the design of conventional point and shoot cameras. (With a screen on the back, the lens on the left and the shutter button on the top right).
We wanted to move away from this traditional form factor. We wanted to create a design that was optimised for action sports. In a lot of the use cases, it is beneficial to have a low profile. For example, this allows the user to position the camera discreetly under the visor of their helmet. It is also much less likely to be knocked out of position by powerful waves when mounted to a surfboard.
We had reconfigured the camera internal electronics package to fit our low profile form. Then we found that a lozenge shape was a neat, compact and durable form for the housing.
We decided that it would be time-efficient to take the camera to a high level of detail before focusing on the mounts and accessories.
The next decision was materials. It was important that the materials also fitted the use case. The camera had to be tactile and grippy, as well as waterproof and extremely robust. By using a soft but extremely tough duel-shot TPU, we were able to integrate the side buttons into the chassis part. This made them intrinsically water and dust-proof. The front and top screen gave the opportunity for strong texture breaks. This added to the sophistication of the product’s appearance.
By the time we started on the mounts and accessories, we had a pretty clear idea of how they should look. The lozenge shape could easily and economically be extruded in aluminium. It could then be wrapped in a layer of grippy silicon to create the grippy, floating selfie sticks.
The adhesive mounts followed the same rounded rectangle form of the camera’s screen. They were also made from the same flexible TPU as the camera housing. This meant that they could curve to perfectly fit any mounting surface. In brief, doing the detailed design on the camera made the decision-making process on the accessory design super easy!
4. The power of a range
Although we designed the camera to be compatible with 3rd party accessories, it was important that we designed the full range of mounts and accessories. The profit margin on accessory products is usually higher than the hero product of a range. Customers can very easily be upsold accessories products. The consistent range strengthens the overall proposition. It gives the customer confidence in the brand. It also gives confidence that the products would work seamlessly together.
5. The efficiencies of a range design.
The production cost is vitally important for many consumer products. We worked with the team at Doro to create a range of smart and feature phones. The aim was to create a design language that would unify their range of products with physical design attributes suited to the senior market.
Doro manufacture phones at a fair price in order to be accessible to their market. Their customers may not be able to afford or need the technical performance offered by high-end mass-market brands like Apple.
In creating a consistent design DNA for the range, we were able to use common components across multiple devices. This allowed for tool sharing of moulded parts. The result was far better economies of scale. We also reduced the cost and environmental impact by using raw moulded texture finishes for many of the products rather than sprayed finishes.
6. Brand loyalty.
Brands that create products that people connect with earn customer loyalty. Doro understood that users need change over time. Customers that have previously loved using their feature phones may feel comfortable switching to a smartphone if they have enough similarities to make the transition less intimidating.
The aim was to use design to connect the 2 ranges with a common design language. We wanted to keep as many things as possible the same across devices. Overall shape and form, key position and detailing, and colour material and finish all help to create a sense of design cohesion.
The process has been a very positive collaboration and we have formed a very close, ongoing design partnership.
7. The Hero effect.
It is very common for automotive and technology brands to utilise the power of the hero effect that radiates from their flagship products. People who love the styling of the Audi R8 can see certain elements in the styling in the mass-market A3 that meets their budget. Because they are connected visually, there is the assumption that they are both engineered to high standards.
A hero product adds value to the whole family of products through association.
Design language system Vs Collaborative delivery.
Over the years, we have helped companies to create product design language in several different ways. The way we structure the process usually depends on the scale of the internal team.
For companies that have a vast product portfolio and a large internal design engineering resource, it makes sense to go down the path of a DLS. This gives the internal team the opportunity to develop products themselves, using the design language tool kit we create. In this case, the DLS needs to be clear but also flexible enough to give the internal designers/engineers the right amount of creative freedom.
Striking a balance.
As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that having a holistically consistent design language is not always the answer to success. There is often a balance to be had.
It’s important to understand that appropriate design language is very situational. For example, the use case and style of a product that is appropriate for your kitchen may be very different to that of your bedroom or your place of work.
You must carefully consider the strategy when working across multiple categories.
The ID team at Canyon have been very successful in striking this balance. The bikes they sell vary significantly in use-case. They range from sturdy “gravity” bikes designed for extreme downhill terrain to lightweight “road” bikes.
Within each linear range, there is a very strong and unique design language to suit their intended market. They have even been successful in transferring some of their design details between the carbon and aluminium frames. This is something that is not easily achieved as the manufacturing processes are so different.
Across the vertical categories, Canyon have carried across some of the physical design elements, as well as their very strong graphical branding to achieve consistency. This is even though the geometry of the frames is very varied. Kudos to the team there, they have done a fantastic job!