Kohler recently held a roundtable discussion at its at its headquarters in the US with its own key industry figures focusing on issues surrounding product design. Devina Divecha reports
With the economic recession not sparing any part of the world, where does it leave consumers in terms of technology and sustainability, and the market for luxury goods?
Mary Reid, vice president – industrial design, Kohler, said sustainable design is a complex area, which includes a social, environmental and business/profitability aspect.
“It’s important for all three of those ideas to work together in order for sustainable design to be successful. Firms, including ours, need to really comprehend the impact we’re having on those elements and how to bring the right combination together in order to be successful.”
Touching on the topic of recycling, Reid said it is the lowest common denominator within the whole concept of sustainability. She added it was important to pick the right materials, understand the impact they have and find out how they can be re-used.
Mark Bickerstaffe, director – new product development kitchen & bath, Europe and Asia Pacific, Kohler, said in Europe, there are government legislations about returning goods at end-of-life back to the manufacturer.
“The implication of that to the manufacturer is that initially it’s about managing disposal, but it then goes towards the cradle-to-cradle responsibility for designing products so parts can be reused. Designers should be looking at the whole cost of a product including its end-of-life cycle cost,” said Bickerstaffe.
John Hart, chief creative officer – interiors, Kohler, said the choices made upfront about what materials are designed into the product have as much of an impact as anything.
Tristan Butterfield, creative director, Kohler, said sustainability affects the look of the products as well.
“Cradle-to-cradle means thinking in 360-degrees. It’s not just the object itself – it’s the travel, the packaging and the way it’s marketed. For example, rather than creating a brochure for something, why not use an iPad app? Recently, Kohler worked on a show in Toronto called Green Build and we decided to have a low impact on the environment. We took a reclaimed barn in Wisconsin and reconditioned that timber and made a trade booth out of the material and used fabric from a local theatre.”
He said the other aspect which isn’t talked about too much is the idea of longevity. “Rather than looking at fashion and things that date, it’s about looking at objects that stand the test of time and can be passed down from generation to generation,” he added.
The concept of sustainability is absolutely global, according to Bickerstaffe. “One of the great things about Kohler’s presence worldwide is that we have the opportunity to understand how water is used and experienced in different cultures. There is a real understanding in China, for instance, of the threat to the country on natural resources, so there’s a passion there for how to respond to that.”
He said within the European mature markets, there used to be a huge amount of scepticism, but that is starting to change. This change, according to him, is partly driven by the need to make sensible and long term choices.
However, consumers don’t always want to pay more for sustainable designs. Reid said generally, people will not accept a lower level of performance even if the design of the product is sustainable. In addition, it’s a two-way street.
“We need the pressure to improve our products and people need to put pressure on the industry and show that they are serious about purchasing. Technology is important to do things that are more sustainable. But currently it’s like the chicken and the egg – you need technology to make a product more important but technology costs money, so until we have the masses participating in that investment we can’t deliver,” added Reid.
Materials are extremely important, where designers spend time looking at how to bring appropriate materials and technology together for a great product.
She said consumers who could afford $6,400 toilets like the recently launched Numi, for example, should buy them because that helps firms bring technology down to the lower price points. “We need to invest in the future but we also need the consumers to buy it,” said Reid.
Hart agreed and said currently there’s a very small portion of clientele that would pay a premium for anything sustainable.
“People expect us, as experts in the industry, to solve the problem through innovation. That’s a challenge laid down to the industry to go and innovate and give consumers the same or better experience whilst conserving resources,” said Bickerstaffe.
Another new development in product design in recent years is regional design vs designing for types of people. “Currently we’re looking at types of consumers and international tribes. We don’t look at whether something is appropriate for Middle East or for China. It’s more about the customers who are interrelated. Through the internet they’re all influenced by similar things,” said Butterfield.
At the same time, he said it’s necessary to learn about and cater to cultural nuances. “You have to recategorise across different types of people and add a local dimension to it,” he added.
While Hart agreed with Butterfield, he said designers have to be sensitive to how people use the products from a functional, aesthetic and cultural standpoint. Generationally there seems to be a difference as well. Under 45 years, there’s a greater desire for cosmopolitan design, but with the older generation, more traditional designs are in higher demand.
Bickerstaffe said designers cannot put all consumers in the same basket because different consumers have different reasons for purchasing products. “We need to find consistent underlying themes and invest time and money to develop innovative solutions for them. 80% of our product today is common in terms of design and position, appealing to the same sort of consumer. The other 20% has cultural relevance locally.”
A designer’s essence is to understand the best from all over the world and bring that back to a local level, said Reid. “This applies not only from a design point-of-view, but also from a technology and manufacturing capability level,” she added.
Speaking about using technology in new products, Bickerstaffe said it has a very deep association with modernity and there is a great demand in emerging markets to consume what’s new. “There’s a perception among consumers that technology is modern. Consumers demand that products work better and better. It’s not just enough to have style, it should have value,” he added.
“We have many arguments about what is modern and cutting edge and it depends on where you are in the world on what these terms mean,” said Reid.
The economy has affected the demand for luxury goods. According to Hart, the market is starting to take a barbell or hourglass shape. The high end of the spectrum is doing well, with the middle section shrinking, with the mass directed towards the high end or lower end of the scale. At the entry level of the market, it’s become more competitive so firms are forced to react.
“There’s been a concerted effort by us when we’ve got a great product. It’s got to look better than the competition and we have to give consumers a reason to buy our product over others in the market. It’s forced us to up our game and do business,” added Hart.
“The market polarised – the luxurious customer became more luxurious and value-for-money became more important. Companies brought out value driven products very quickly,” said Butterfield.
Reid said the economic situation has made it interesting for manufacturers. “There’s a great opportunity to bring two ideas together – the unfortunate situation with the economy and sustainability. Firms have to bring things back to local in terms of where they make the product and get materials and how to produce goods in a local way. It’s an interesting time to be thinking where we want to be in the long haul vs conditions in the world today.”
Bickerstaffe said the demand for luxury at a lower price point is self evident and the quality of design being made available to the people at a lower price point is getting better. “Though there’s a lot of rubbish around, this is due to the unoriginal, copying the nature of our business. One of the great things we’re seeing is that markets like China and India are starting to innovate for their particular cultural needs.
“This is what the real role of industrial design is. It’s not just about style. Designers are in the business to understand people’s behaviour and then translate that experience into a great product. That’s what industrial design is for us. It’s about really learning and listening,” he added.