Showcasing Design and Improving Affordability Through Design

I'm currently reading Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible, edited by Sophie Lovell (Phaidon Press Limited, 2011) and available as an e-book. The book talks about the history of Braun, where Rams was a designer. Braun was founded in 1921. In 1967 Gillette purchased a controlling interest in Braun, and in 1984 Braun became a wholly owned subsidiary of Gillette. In 2005 P&G bought Gillette, effectively taking ownership of Braun. Over the years Braun has made a range of consumer products, including radios, televisions, hi-fi stereos, shaving products, and kitchen appliances. The company has always focused on high-end industrial design, often at the expense of short term profits. The question that came to my mind was, why didn't Braun have greater, more widespread success, allowing it to grow and survive as an independent company? Why didn't its products become more pervasive?

The only answer I could think of was that Braun failed to adequately showcase and market/distribute its products. If a company differentiates its consumer products based on superior industrial design, it has to showcase those products, almost like a functional art gallery. And the best way to showcase, and to let customers directly experience the aesthetic and functional benefits of superior design, is through an all-in commitment to company-branded retail stores (rather than showcasing and distributing product through in-store display stands at independent retailers like Target or Wal-Mart). If you're competing based on high-end industrial design, then you need to control the environment where the design is viewed, similar to how an artist carefully chooses how his art is displayed.

Imagine if Braun had showcased and distributed its products in a fashion similar to Apple's retail store efforts. Braun could have raised consumer awareness/appreciation for high-end industrial design, in addition to increasing distribution. Braun could have started small, adding retail stores as sales and product "buzz" grew.

A company can design the best consumer products in the world, but if it doesn't showcase and distribute them well, expanding distribution as appropriate, then a well-designed product won't have the impact it could. You have to give people the opportunity to try out and experience the functional and aesthetic benefits of a well-designed product.

And use good design to make products more affordable. Dieter Rams famously said that "[g]ood design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it," that good design "does not make a product more powerful, valuable, or innovative than it really is," and that well-designed products "are not burdened with non-essentials." When a product is kept simple, intuitive, and useful, and is stripped of unnecessary, overserving features, it naturally becomes more accessible and affordable. See post titled "Apple's Design Strength Prevents Overserving." Good design enhances accessibility and affordability. Adherence to good design principles keeps products affordable, accessible, and focused on the job-to-be-done, which helps prevent low end and new market disruption. See Concepts page and discussion of Clayton Christensen.

Meaningful product improvements/innovations that solve unmet jobs-to-be-done make sense, but incumbents like Apple must avoid wasting time, money, and resources on overserving, overpriced product extensions/improvements that appear safe in the short term, but that actually leave incumbents vulnerable to low end and new market disruption. See post titled "Rosetta Stones and Strategic Balance." In growing the market for existing products, incumbents must make meaningful product improvements while still keeping products as simple and affordable as possible. In creating profitable new markets, incumbents must create useful, intuitive new products that squarely address important jobs-to-be-done.

The author owns stock shares of Apple.