A few years back, a company named Hulger gained gadget geek stardom with their line of phone accessories that turned wireless calls or Skyping into a classy, contemporary twist on the traditional telephone experience. After gaining worldwide attention for their sly cultural commentary on our relationships with our mobile phones, founder Nicolas Roope wanted to turn the firm's attention to something more universal that could make a wider impact. You could say a lightbulb went off in his head: The Plumen Project was born.
The phone project had taught Roope a few things about getting consumers buzzing about products in the marketplace. Initially, they had set out to make a kind of tongue-in-cheek critique around the supposedly futuristic nature of mobile phones. "The intention was never to set up a phone company, it was just to make sense of the excitement," remembers Roope. Still, they had grown that excitement into a profitable business, and learned that the best way to find that sweet spot was to ignore the cues of fashion and trends and dig deeper into consumer behavior.
"Designers always look in the same places," says Roope. "They overlook the small things time and time again." They decided to look the one place no one was looking. "The lightbulb is completely barren, so '90s," says Roope. "It's an incredible source of ubiquity. If you can change the form even slightly you can change the whole game." Hulger conceived of a design-driven CFL bulb that would entice consumers with its looks and performance, yet also deliver the best possible sustainability features.
A NEW TWIST
The design process started with a question: "What if we weren't trying to fall in line and could do whatever we wanted with a tube of pure light that we could bend into any shape we fancied?" Redefining the lightbulb meant they had to jerk it completely out of the form that it had inherited over a century ago: a bulb that resembled a candle. While technology had proved the incandescent bulb was no longer environmentally viable, the compact fluorescent bulb, which was easily the most energy efficient, just mimicked the traditional candle-bulb form, molded into poorly-conceived shapes they nicknamed "The Radiator, The Ice Cream Whip and the Tungsten-esque style."
Using sketches and abstract shapes that were more conversational than symbolic, the designers created four different bulb designs that changed the language of the CFL into a striking centerpiece. "There's no way to emulate the way its form and luminosity works with a LED or incandescent systems so the effect is very specific to it being a CFL" says Roope. Turning the lightbulb into a design or art piece transformed the role that a light source can have in a room. "We forget how defining lighting is in most spaces so when you add a dramatic twist, it really grabs your attention."
CFL bulbs use very basic materials, constructed in glass, plastic and electronic components. The main toxic hazard in CFLs is the mercury content, but even that has been greatly reduced with modern techniques which make disposal much less problematic. Many communities now have take-back or recycling programs for CFLs at the end of their lives, but their energy efficiency compared to incandescents mean that most consumers don't need to replace them for a very long time.
But to make sure that Plumen could be made in the most efficient way possible, the designers found a manufacturing partner who made traditional CFL bulbs. Partnering with a larger manufacturer will enable them to make the Plumen more effectively and affordably. "The more seamlessly our design can integrate with existing production lines, the lower the entry costs and of course also therefore also the unit costs, up to a certain volume at least," says Roope. It's also a symbiotic marketing relationship: When Plumen gains attention, it will raise the profile of the manufacturer's core brand.
The Plumen is still attracting investors and is expected to be on shelves in 2010. Yet within a few months of the prototype's release, the Plumen was tapped to be included in MoMA's "Design and the Elastic Mind"exhibition. After that, the product was included in an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. To Roope, that was proof of the game-changing nature of the concept—and the changing role of designers. "The product is also consciously an example of how design can contribute to the process of behavioral change in the marketplace, something designers should have a key role in driving."
In fact, it's more important that the concept gains popularity—the idea that consumers will choose a beautiful object which also happens to be a better choice. "We won't be measuring the design's success on whether it picks up prestigious awards or not, or whether the glossies fall head over heals in love with it," says Roope. "This is about design fixing a problem. Finding beauty in something otherwise boring to inspire adoption on a massive scale."
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