Styling is just one small component of design. Think of celebrity stylists who dress celebrities for red carpet events– they shop for their clients, putting together accessories, clothes, and other components to make a whole look. Product styling is not so different, in that it merely deals with combining colors and materials that work well together. There is no design or invention involved, as it does not deal entirely with features that are focused on the users’ primary needs, unlike in product designing. At its core, styling is about achieving a certain look to convey brand image– that is why it is problematic if you only have a stylist designing a product that you are making. The best product designers understand the limits of manufacturing, as well as how to get the most out of design techniques to get the perfect balance between form and function, as well as aesthetic.
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We’re working on refining the definitions of things that we’re going to be talking about over the course of this podcast and we talked about in our memberships groups and in our Q&A sessions and the terms that we use all the time. One of those terms that’s overused is good design. Design is an incredibly overused term. It means different things to different people. That’s what we talk about in this clip that was recorded a few years ago and it makes a lot of sense. You’re going to get our definition of good design and then we are going to do a little introduction to the next segment, which is about style versus design, which is a deeper dive subject.
I just want to set up why this is so important to you and to what we do here, and that is because design is very intentional with everything that we talk about and we do here. Design is a broader definition for us than just drawing a pretty picture. We want to be clear with you about what that means and what it encompasses because very often people say they’re designing something and they’re just putting a slightly different shape on it or a pattern on it or something like that. That is not design by our definition, so we want to be clear here about what we’re talking about. Let’s cut to that definition and then we’ll be back to talk about style versus design.
“Can you define design for retail?
Many people define design in different ways. There’s the definition of order out of chaos. We start to think of it as art is personal. If you’re an artist, you’re creating an object. Even if you’re creating a furniture or art object sculpture, you’re creating an expression of yourself, an individualistic expression or a message that you want to send. It’s not about who’s going to use it or who’s going to buy it or who’s going to make it, it’s about expression. Then of course there’s the other side of just making something. An artist is about craft, how you make it. Design is somewhere in the middle.
There is also style. Style is the other aspect to craft. Style is only one component of design but it’s purely about how something looks without consideration to how it’s made, where it’s retail and how it functions. Design is the perfect balance of the needs of the user, the needs of the factory, manufacturing, the needs of the client or the way that it’s sold, the needs of the retailer, the sale menu. Design has to consider all those aspects and put it together in the right balance. America is such a commerce-driven country. There’s a lot of design that needs to be going on if we’re going to keep our GDP up.
How did you end up designing for companies like Target, Costco and Staples?
I don’t think we set out to design products for mass market retail. In fact, we probably initially set out to do a little higher-end product. We set out and contract furniture, so working for companies like Herman Miller and Steelcase. Definitely mass-market retail is not where we started but it did find us. As we got into it, not only did we find the challenge exciting but we became more interested in bringing good design to a larger group of people; design for the masses. We did evolve into that because we believe that design should be accessible to everyone. There’s no reason why you can’t have a great chair at $99 and you have to spend $600 if you don’t have that money. There’s no reason that those products can’t be designed. Those products don’t just need an engineer because the design part isn’t the expensive part. The expensive part are the materials, the processing and shipping. All of those things add up. It’s just working on a design within a tighter constraint. As we early in our career learned more about the realities of material and manufacturing costs, we said to ourselves, ‘Why does something have to be that expensive?’ Looking at a higher end product, realizing that it doesn’t, then it’s actually more exciting to bring good design to the masses.”
As you can hear from what we talked about there, design has a bigger encompassment. It covers functions and it covers use, so that’s why it’s become such an overused term because people are using it for UX design, which is user interface. You have these definitions that become much more technical about design, and we’re using design to have a broader style, look, feel, function, all of those things together. With that we want to also make a clarity between style versus design. If you are only styling versus adding designing components to it, in other words, altering the functions, the features, what’s driving people to do it, or you’re just making it prettier. Styling or are you just scratching the surface and an oversimplification, slapping a color on something, so that it has a certain style appeal, or are you designing something that it has a lot more integrity on the whole?
There’s a complication of product launching through that. That’s why we want to make sure that you understand it. When you are doing styling things, you have a point of reference. This is where the majority of mass market retail buyers, that’s all that they ever do is style nowadays. They have no designers on staff. They haven’t in at least decades maybe. A lot of them don’t even understand design. They’ve not gone to design school, they have purchasing degrees, so they don’t understand it any better. There are also a lot of guys out there who are eCommerce sellers. You’ve come from this practice where the digital marketing courses and programs have taught you how to style. I want you to be careful and listen to the definition and understand the differences because as you start to do more serious, more comprehensive and more original product, you must do more design and must abandon that you can stop at styling, which is what you’ve done going to Alibaba, then contacting a factory and then asking them to change the color, add a feature and put your logo on it. All of those things are only styling. We want you to hear that and hear the value difference between styling and design that it can have.
“Can you explain the differences between style and design?
Style is one aspect of design. It’s one small component. Think about it this way. You hear about celebrity stylists, those that are dressing you for the red carpet. What they do is they go out there and they shop. They’re good shoppers. They shop in places that you have no access to, and they put together a combination of clothes and accessories and shoes that no one imagined should go together. That’s what a stylist does, whether they’re styling furniture or styling a computer accessory. What they’re taking together is a bunch of colors, materials, components and things, combining them together and making a product, but there’s no design in that. There’s no invention part of that, so there’s nothing that is user-focused in that. It’s all about creating a certain look, a certain style, a certain message or a certain brand image. It’s not about the user.
It’s independent of everything else. They’re not considering the real needs of the consumer. They’re not considering the needs of manufacturing, the limitations of manufacturing. They’re not considering any psychology of who’s going to buy it, the demographics of who’s going to buy it and at certain levels.
There’s nothing wrong with styling. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a great place for it. There are a lot of stylists out if you go to these design houses that are doing large communities or helping you style the interior of your home. They’re helping you make smart choices with materials and smart choices with flooring and make sure everything coordinates together and looks good, so there is a great service being provided by stylists. If you’ve only got a stylist designing a product that you’re making, that’s a problem.
The best designers understand how things are manufactured. They understand the limitations of manufacturing and they understand how to get the most out of those manufacturing techniques and limitation. The most style out of it as well. The difference between balancing in a holistic way, all the different factors that go into making a product, what it is that is being designed. Function, form and aesthetics.
For designer label brands, who’s behind all those designs?
The big thing is that you need the definition between brand and design. You buy Martha Stewart, Cindy Crawford, Kathy Ireland, Cynthia Rowley, Michael Graves, and they carry a brand identity with them. Some of them have a better design background. Martha Stewart, and arguably her organization and we know that intimately because we’ve worked with her company before, they have designers in that organization, industrial designers who care about how the products are made and how it happens. Martha Stewart is not designing those products. She’s set up quality requirements, style requirement and her people take that out.
They have a quality level, and so you’re getting something special for that brand. If you believe in Martha Stewart and her brand, and we do, there’s a level of expectation of design quality, design style and material quality. You get all of that from that. They are providing a tremendous service, but there are a lot of brands out there that are just names. They are just celebrity names that they slap on a brand of a product they were already buying in China anyway, they figured if they put that known name on there of that celebrity, then what happens is that you’ll just buy it. You recognize it, you feel more comfortable about it, and you will buy it but in reality, it’s costing the consumer more because there is a 3%, 4%, 5% of the cost of that product that is doing nothing but paying for that license brand. What we do differently is we actually design and develop all the products that we’re associated with.
We’re hidden, so you don’t see our designer name on it very often. Sometimes you do, but there are a couple of cool products where our pictures are on there and our name brand is on there, but it’s not as common. What is more common is for us to be behind the scenes doing the actual real design work to make sure that users love it, make sure it’s got the highest quality possible, and make sure you’re packing in as much features as possible that the users care about. What ends up happening is that that gets sold by under some company brand name. The irony is sometimes you’ll have a product that doesn’t have a well-known brand name. It’s actually a better designed product and a better value for the consumer than the ones that have a well-recognized national brand.
A real tip to the consumer is don’t buy the brand unless you absolutely love the product. Just because somebody’s picture is on the box doesn’t mean that it has anything to do with what they have in their home or what they buy. It’s a fee. They’re being paid a fee to do that, so it’s commercial.”
Now that you have this basic understanding of good design, basic understanding of styling versus design and what that means, this is the issue that people see. There’s no good design at mass market retail, there’s no good design on Amazon. This is what the consumer perception is out there, and I don’t think it’s unfounded. It has to do with the fact that there’s so much styling going on and so people don’t see that as innovation and design. Our mission here is to help you create original products that people want. With that, we have to start looking at what is good design at mass market retail, at the club, where do you find it and what does it look like and make sure that we’re designing into that, that were product launching into that and using those good practices. We want to share with you how to find good design at retailer or what defines good design at mass market retail.
“Can I find good design at a club or mass retailer?
Sometimes, rarely. For mass market and club retail, it’s all about providing value. Yes, you can find a good value. In the club stores, we shop there all the time, you can definitely find a good value and decent design, but it’s rare to find good design because it’s not the goal of the process. No one’s being measured on that, so it’s not set up to happen. If you find a product that you connect with emotionally, if consumers find the product they connect with emotionally, that may very well be a good design, but it’s the not the primary goal to provide good design. It is to provide the best feature, function, and value for your money.
It’s also just a venue for a brand, so you can find good brands, you find brands that give you quality or value that you appreciate, and so that’s the goal of it. The retail stores and the mass market club, they’re all a venue for brand, so design is not a significant part of that. Sometimes it is if that brand happens to have good design as a core component of it. Dyson does inarguably very good quality, very high design. You can find them at your Target. I don’t know if you can find them at Walmart. You can find them in the club. That’s one of those items where you’re buying a good design and you’re buying quality and you’re probably buying at the best price possible, so all in all, you get a great package there. It can happen but it’s because that brand believes in good design, just like you buy an Apple product in a Best Buy store.
It can also be depending on the retailer, what the buyer at that retailer, who is actually deciding what products go in the store, believes in. A lot of these buyers don’t understand design, don’t know anything about design and don’t care about design. All they care about is sales performance. If that’s what they care about, design is not consideration. If they do happen to be someone that appreciates design, yes, good design can get in there and again, it’s brand.”