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Radical Innovation Requires Radical Materials

Designers have to start getting serious about the power of materials to transform the creative process.

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Business as usual isn’t enough to survive in this tough economy. ‘Reinvention’ is the word on the street and, as designers, we need to understand that this extends beyond business strategy to the creative work we do day in, day out. Reinvention means no more status quo. It means we have to question everything — from what we design to how we design it. And it means we have to start getting serious about the power of materials to transform the creative process.

Materials allow for a sculpted reconceptualization of the sofa

Although color, material and finish design (CMF) has been growing in popularity over the last decade, many companies still place the emphasis on color. And why not? Color is personal, emotional, and expressive. Color is fun! It’s a relatively quick and inexpensive way to refresh a product, and in a marketplace that values creativity it demonstrates a design-centric approach and an awareness of the latest color trends. But while color plays an important role, it’s not a magic wand. For companies seeking real innovation, color comes into play much too late in the design process; it’s too far downstream. The future of design — and the future of CMF — is upstream, where materials innovation can drive design and change the way products are made.

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If there’s a secret to true materials innovation, it’s this: you’ve gotta have timing. Start too late and it doesn’t matter what other resources you throw at your project; you will have missed the window of opportunity. Here’s how it typically works: The majority of CMF design happens downstream, after the product has been designed. At this end of the spectrum designs are (mostly) finalized, materials have been specified (“it has to be ABS”), tooling is well underway, and the design team is now looking for a way to differentiate through color and materials. Although this is when many companies start thinking about CMF, the ship has essentially sailed at this point. Color is still on the table, but the opportunities for new textures, finishes and materials are extremely limited.

Form, materials and finish work in harmony to create a unique design statement

Sometimes, if we’re lucky, the design team will start thinking about CMF somewhere in the concept development stage, which means there is still an opportunity to address textures and finishes, and to consider processes such as in-mold decoration that can enhance the design of the product. But even this is too late for real innovation. The minute pen meets paper (or stylus meets Wacom tablet) designers are already making assumptions about form, part break-up and manufacturing issues that take new material ideas out of the running, thereby limiting new design possibilities.

If we’re serious about innovating, we have to get a little radical when it comes to thinking about materials. This means a commitment to materials exploration before the project kick-off, at the birth of the idea. Only then can materials truly be designed-in from the beginning. Only then can the properties and characteristics of new materials inspire us to reinvent the way we approach design.

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The Slingbox 700U manages heat issues and escapes the “desktop box” format with an innovative, minimalist approach to materials.

A great example of this kind of thinking can be seen in Apple’s recent licensing of Liquidmetal. This material innovation (the ability to mold complex metal parts) promises giant leaps forward in manufacturing and a brand new way to approach design and engineering. This is a perfect example of how the commitment to materials exploration has the potential to radically change a product, with implications that reach all the way from design to manufacturing to the consumer. Imagine trying to achieve something like this by calling a CMF consultant after tooling is complete! It’s just never going to happen.

In the end, companies that cannot see beyond color to the possibilities that new materials can bring will forever be fast followers. In order to truly differentiate, we must promote materials innovation in its pure, unadulterated form. It’s a reinvention at the level of ideas — a new way of thinking about what CMF is and how it can help to drive the design process, inspire designers, and open up new avenues for design.

Sue Magnusson also contributed reporting.

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About the author

Candice-Leigh Baumgardner is a founding partner and Principal Strategist of o2studio, a company she launched with Sue Magnusson in 2000. Together, Candice-Leigh and Sue created something entirely new in o2studio -- a design firm dedicated to world-class innovation strategy and color & material design built on deep cultural and consumer insights, and a relentless pursuit of "what’s next." With diverse backgrounds in Research & Strategy and Color & Materials, Candice-Leigh and Sue have created a seamless connection between the strategic and creative aspects of design

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