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Great Design?

Sorry if this post turns out to be a load of garbled rubbish. I am thinking as I type and I am such a bad typist that half of my mental effort is taken up looking at the keyboard and correcting typos. Luckily I am also a horribly slow typist, which gives me plenty of time to think. Even so, I already know that this post is going to end in a totally unsatisfactory way for anyone who reads it, like a mystery movie with no loose-ends-tying-up denouement at the end.

I was musing about classic product design in a previous blog post. Now a couple of recent events have got me musing about “good” design, or even what product design itself is for.

Event one is designer Takashi Okamoto constantly getting on my case about the change in the necessity and even meaning of design in today’s world. We are a design business, so the easy answer is that good design by us helps our clients beat their competitors and sell more stuff. But even I have to admit, after a few minutes in a huge Japanese electrical store or a visit to the Gift Show, the thought of designing yet another product to add to all those available already does set me wondering whether it is all worth it.

Enough choice for you?

Enough choice for you?


From the Gift Show press release

From the Gift Show press release


Event two is Sam Whitcomb joining us and starting his 3D-printing project. Many people see the convergence of easily accessible CAD software, low-cost digital scanning and localized tool-less manufacturing as the beginning of the end for large chunks of the consumer product development and supply chain.

If product design has ever had any meaning at all, it should be “life changing” design for the ages and “great” design must be a showcase for it. Next stop, Google, and deepening confusion about the meaning of design.

When I googled great product design eight of the nine results on the first page were lists – always handy for a quick round-up of other people’s thoughts. The two that looked the most relevant were the first, “25 inspiring examples of industrial design – Creative Bloq” and the fourth, “The 22 Best Product Designs of the Year – Gizmodo”.

Unfortunately, they both left me more dazed and confused than before I opened them.

The Creative Bloq list starts out understandably enough with the BMC Mini, a car that forever changed the small family car genre and sold in its original form for over 40 years, from 1959 until the dawn of the 21st Century. In at number 2, the classic Coke bottle; number 3, the Vespa scooter (although the photo they use might be considered a bit flaky by Vespa devotees). All well and good so far.

Number 4 is the Hasselblad camera, beloved of professional photographers and NASA astronauts. But, given its limited impact on the cameras used by most people, is it the best example of its type or are the list-makers trying to say something about themselves rather than about product design?

At number 5, the Juicy Salif designed by Philippe Starck for Alessi: nice sculpture but rubbish at squeezing lemons. If function is left out of the equation, is the result still design?
After that the list becomes very confusing. A selection of The Usual Suspects (Eames chair, Anglepoise lamp, Apple products, Maglite) are mixed in with some worthy stuff which I have never heard of before and stuff which, frankly, I will probably never see anywhere else again. I know it is not supposed to be a “classic design” list but I fear some of the entries stretch the meaning of “inspiring”.




The Gizmodo list is more limited in its scope (products new in 2013) but grander in its ambition: the “Best Product Designs of the Year”. Some of the products are genuinely life-changing and deserve recognition just for that: the Colalife Anti-Diarrhoea Kit; the E-Source cable recycling system for developing countries; the Little Sun off-grid lighting system; the Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton orthopaedic support robot for children with muscle weakness.

The Olympic Cauldron by Heatherwick Studio surprised and entertained hundreds of millions of people, including nearly half the UK population and the two 3D-printing projects push forward that technology. After that, things start getting a bit flaky – “nice” stuff but, really, the “Best”?




The answers to what product design is and what is its role in society are not 100% subjective but very far from 100% objective. If someone had asked me to curate those two lists I would, after losing even more hair thinking about it, have come up with quite different results.

Suffice to say – and here comes the frustrating non-denouement – at Envision we still have to create designs that satisfy the needs of our clients here and now but, given the sheer quantity of industrial products flooding the world, we should always be looking for a way to redefine what we design and the way we design it. Otherwise Envision will belie its name and continue as a design machine: brief in here, another product out there.

How do we do that? There is an answer, I’m sure, but I still haven’t figured it out for myself. Like Deep Thought in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… “I’ll have to think about it.”


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