Whirlpool's design chief Chuck Jones talks to Fast Company about the business case for smart design, the benefits of making customers squirm, and bringing emotion to an emotionless product — a washing machine.
By Chuck Salter
Fast Company: You've designed office furniture at Herman Miller and copiers at Xerox. How did you wind up at Whirlpool?
Chuck Jones: I probably turned this job down three times before I took it. My perception was that Whirlpool was a classic Rust Belt old-school manufacturer that made what looked like white boxes. Is that something I want to get involved in? I could not have been more wrong. When I visited, I got an Introduction to Appliances 101. I didn't understand Whirlpool's global reach. Here was a very forward-thinking company that wanted to harness the power of its 14 brands around the globe, but it was at the beginning of this journey to become more brand focused and consumer focused. I decided to come that first day.
FC: So there was interest in design. How did you convince senior management that it should be a top priority?
Jones: When we were first talking about forming this group [global consumer design] back in 1997, I put together a presentation called Leading by Design. The premise was to put this in a benchmark context. Forget about appliances for a minute. Look at companies in other industries: Apple, Dyson, Swatch, Volkswagen, Chrysler, and some others. I was able to show that there was a distinct point in time when they chose to leverage design as part of the business model and look at the positive effect it had on profitability and market share and stock price. I showed the business rationale for doing this. That opened a lot of eyes.
FC: A lot of designers can't pull that off, translating design into the language of business. How did you become conversant in the financials?
Jones: I came from Xerox, where I had gone from running a global design group to running a business strategy office. I'm a big believer that design leaders have to understand the business pressures and issues facing the company if they're going to be a voice at the table. It's how you make the case for design as an enabler for brand consistency and enhanced speed to market. The analogy I use is a three-legged stool. Sales and marketing is one leg. Engineering and manufacturing is another. Then there's design. Those three give you a foundation for a consumer-facing and brand-driven organization.
FC: Where did design rank at Whirlpool when you arrived in 1995?
Jones: Design tended to be the suffering artists over in one pocket of the company — and frankly at the whim and mercy of the organization. You basically had marketing defining the thing and engineering developing it and then bringing in design at the 11th hour. That behavior needed to be killed very quickly. It undermines the impact that design can have. We had to hardwire design into the business architecture.
FC: How did you do it?
Jones: The first challenge was to get everyone under one umbrella. Get these groups co-located. Get usability and human factors sitting shoulder to shoulder with industrial design. It was like the Brady Bunch. You have Carol and her kids, and Mike and his kids, and you want them to operate as one big happy family. We had to move everyone beyond past experiences, where things hadn't gone as well as they could have. You're getting folks to create a new future with new roles and responsibilities and come together as collaborators.
FC: Whirlpool's most successful new product in recent years is Duet, the front-loading washer and dryer set. What's so special about it?
Jones: There's an appropriate balance between compelling technology combined with a great design proposition. It's an amazing machine. It sets a new standard with capacity. I want to say the amount of clothing you can wash is 15-20% more. It also spins faster, so the clothes are dryer at the end of the cycle. They're not as heavy, and they take less time to dry. There's a fairly dramatic reduction in water and energy, which makes it much more efficient. One of the big innovations we uncovered was around raising the product up off the floor, on a pedestal, so the consumer wouldn't have to bend over as much to load and unload. That was one of the main complaints about front-loading machines before. People would get sore backs from reaching in to get these wet heavy clothes.
FC: Where did that idea come from?
Jones: From a usability study. From listening to consumers talk about stooping over. I'm telling you, our best ideas, the biggest aha's, tend to come from consumers themselves whether they know it or not. The trick, of course, is taking that consumer insight and translating into product benefits.
FC: Duet comes in different colors. Why are most washers and dryers white, and how tough was it to break with tradition?
Jones: I have my own theory about the sea of white. We have tended in this industry to use archaic research techniques to understand consumer wants and needs. Bob Lutz, the vice chairman at GM, wrote a book with a great line that ought to be tattooed on the forehead of everyone in product development. It says, in essence, that you can't focus-group your way to product leadership. This industry, I think, has tended to say if x number of consumers vote for white appliances, then that's what they want. We'll give them white. I'm sorry, but my dog could make that decision. We get paid to make tough decisions and take reasonable risks.
I'm not saying you should ignore consumers or go so far out on a limb that they reject what you do, but you have to strike a balance. There's a sweet spot. As an industry we're groping to find it. If you play it safe all the time, all your products look the same. Duet was a fairly radical design expression.
FC: And how did Duet fare in focus groups?
Jones: Thirty percent of consumers rejected the design. There was a lot of hand wringing around whether this was the right thing. The right color. The right shape. Most people are genetically wired or culturally conditioned to be wary of new things. As a design leader, you're out there trying to lead consumers, rather than follow them. If you're not making anybody squirm, you're designing for the lowest common denominator. You're putting out porridge.
FC: When did you sense that you had a hit on your hands?
Jones: We got letters from consumers after the launch saying they were thrilled by it and how it made them feel. They were taking guests into the laundry room to see it. People were talking about it like it was a Ferrari. You take a step back and think that's nuts. Consumers never do that. But we worked hard to bring emotion to what had been an emotionless product, and the feedback told us it was making that emotional connection with consumers. That's what design does singularly well. People buy something and think, This is a statement of my style and my good sense.
Even my friend Frank Nuovo, the head of design for Nokia, called and said, "Chuck, what is this cool washer and dryer I keep hearing about? And how can I get one?" When you have your design peers in other industries calling up, it's a good sign.
FC: What sort of impact did Duet's success have on your group and the company's design strategy?
Jones: Nothing breeds success like success. The fact that the product was a home run gave us confidence within global consumer design. And the fact that it went from concept to execution without getting what I call nibbled to death by ducks was important. Typically within most companies, a great idea leaves the design department and by the time it goes through the development cycle, it has been compromised little bit by little bit.
Duet also validated within the organization that design matters. It showed that if the design of a washer and dryer is strong enough, you could drive sales of these two as a suite. That was a new idea. And design could move the price point higher. I think the average sales price for a washing machine in the U.S. was around $499, and when we went to market with Duet our price was $1,399. Yet we sold every one we could build.
One way to measure how design has become more important at Whirlpool is to look at our resources. My staff and budget have increased 30 percent each year for the five years.
FC: How does Whirlpool encourage innovation?
Jones: As part of our company-wide innovation initiative, we have roughly 20% of our time devoted to innovation projects. Anybody in the company — it could be me or my admin — can contribute an idea. If it makes it through the screening process, the business evaluation toll gate, you get seed funding to pursue the idea. Rather than placing bets of millions of dollars on a few ideas, we place a lot of smaller bets on a bunch of great ideas to get one or two home runs.
FC: How do you evaluate new ideas?
Jones: We tend to do studio critiques in groups of eight to 10 early in the process. We'll do cross-studio critiques, so we'll have KitchenAid people critique a Kenmore presentation. The more folks you get involved in the process, the more objective it becomes. We're trying to train everyone in the art of critique and input. It's like painting or riding a bike. You have to do it and do it.
You can be constructive or destructive. I've seen other companies where at the end the designer is de-motivated, because they're not given tools to improve the design. That's not productive. I may say, this form is poorly resolved, but here's something you might think of. That skill is an important part of critiquing. I want to make sure that at the end of the day we're giving honest feedback but in a positive way. Throughout the process, I respect their dignity. Maybe they put in an all-nighter to get it in front of me and here I am ripping it apart. The minute I forget that I'm lost.
FC: How do you learn from products that come up short?
Jones: Usually, if a project doesn't go well at a company, it's buried in an unmarked grave. It's forgotten. We don't do that. We have an honest dialogue about what worked, what didn't, what we learned, and how quickly we can apply that. Look at Pla, which stands for Personal Lifestyle Appliance. It's a fridge for Generation X, people leaving college and going to their first job. At that age, you eat out a lot, and pizza is a staple. But you couldn't shove a pizza box into the fridge, so we designed Pla around the pizza box. We thought we had a home run, but we couldn't find a home for it. Maybe it's an idea ahead of its time. But there are always lessons. I've yet to see any project that's 100% bad. We took a lot of the design cues from Pla and leveraged them into the orange and silver look of Gladiator, a new garage organizing system that's done well for us.
FC: What distinguishes great design from a fad?
Jones: It's about longevity, designs that become icons. I go back to our DNA, the KitchenAid stand mixer. There is a simple elegance, a purity of line in that design. There's not a bad intersection on that product. The aesthetic communicates the product's capability. When you look at it, it communicates that it's robust and heavy and serious, in many ways what I think Duet does as well. That's a hallmark of great design. It's the old saying, form follows function.