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A Design Parable: The Toaster and the Toast

A few years ago, we were working on the design for new toaster. The client was looking for something that would make a statement on the countertop landscape. Aesthetics were important, but we also spent considerable time discussing the size of the toaster slots and how wide or narrow to make them for the variety of items that someone might want to toast.

Think about it. White bread, English muffins, waffles, Pop Tarts, rye bread, hot dog rolls, bagels, hand sliced homemade bread, pastries, hamburger buns...the list goes on. Should we design it with two slots side by side, or one long slot in case the toasting target was a baguette? The client sent us its standard specification for the size of toaster slots. When we asked them why they should be that size, they replied that it was the "standard" size and the size that they had always made them. They added, "We don't talk to the people who make the bread".

A few years later, we landed a project with a food company. Their specialty was breakfast foods and cereals. Our project was to reinvent cool is that?

We got started right away. We conducted consumer research on how and where people ate breakfast. We held numerous brainstorm sessions. We tirelessly sketched ideas. We identified multiple areas of opportunity. We figured out how to build food prototypes—and, in the end, we delivered a broad range of innovative new product concepts.

There were so many concepts that we had to separate them by category: cereal concepts, breakfast bar concepts, and the things you could put in a toaster concepts. And then there were all the concepts that didn't actually fit into a category concepts.

During the presentation the client seemed quite pleased (money well spent!) and thanked us for all the creative thinking and hard work. We thought that the designs for the "things you put in a toaster" category had enormous potential, but the client seemed lukewarm about many of the ideas. We asked why. The client said that they thought the ideas were innovative, but they weren't sure they'd fit in a toaster, adding, "We don't talk to the people who make the toasters".

When we use products, we don't often think about all the necessary dependencies that have to be in place for that product to perform its function. We just want them to work. What would PCs do without software, what would the cell phones do without telecoms, and what would toasters do without bread? Most businesses are narrowly and vertically focused—in other words, they pretty much make or provide just one thing. This makes sense. It allows them to get very good at what they do without being distracted, but it also puts them in a position of risk. The risk is that the changing world around them can have a huge impact on their business, and there is not much they can do about it. What if toasted bread went out of fashion or was determined to be unhealthy? Bye, bye toaster!

The toaster client and food client above could have benefited from a more holistic view of their businesses. This is where a strategic design program could have helped them. Savvy design strategists, design researchers, and designers not only seek to deeply understand the client's business and the end user's needs of the product, but they also try to deeply understand the connected (and not so connected) interrelationships that factor into the success or failure of the potential offering.

Design principles and design planning can be applied across a broad range of products and services to make the connections. Designers begin the design process with an understanding of the current state of affairs, the big picture, the potential opportunities, and then, as the details begin to fall into place, we devise a solution that has anticipated a variety of possible outcomes and charted the path with the highest likelihood of success.

This allows not only success in the marketplace, but equally important, success in leveraging the direct and indirect interrelationships with other products and services, ensuring that, for at least the near future, toasters and toast will enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship.

toast and toaster

Wow—design is important!

Hey, people—what do you think? Can design save us? Did you toast anything today? Let me know.

Read more of Tom Dair's SmartDesign blog

Tom Dair, co-founder and president of Smart Design, runs the company's San Francisco office. He directs the firm's Insights and Strategy discipline, where he has pioneered techniques for achieving better design through an understanding of user behavior, business factors, and technology trends.

Dair holds 19 patents for products ranging from complex medical devices to children's toothbrushes. His designs have won a variety of awards and are featured in a number of museum collections.