Five Things Hollywood Teaches Us About Product Design

Just as scriptwriters and directors construct narratives that hook audiences, designers should develop products that tap into people’s primal emotions.

I live and work in Los Angeles, the land of celebrities and special effects, where I’ve witnessed the battle for big box-office draws and learned something from it. As product innovators, we also strive to create standout products that catch people’s attention. In our efforts to differentiate our designs from all the other stuff on the market, we might learn a lesson or two from Hollywood and the writers, actors, and directors who manage to hook their audiences by crafting narratives that tap into people’s primal emotions.


Grabbing consumers’ attention is getting harder. Johanna Blakley, a researcher at USC Annenberg School’s Norman Lear Center, theorizes that as we’re inundated with exponentially increasing amounts of information, the competition for eyeballs intensifies. In what she calls the “attention economy,” consumers access an abundance of information in the form of media, games, and advertisements. In fact, five exabytes of data are created and collected every two days! Product manufacturers have to compete with all of these other forms of entertainment, and it’s their job to make their products visible.

Working like Hollywood entertainers, Karten Design has investigated how to tap into raw, primeval emotions — fear, sex, humor, surprise, and desire — to garner attention. Here’s just a snapshot of where the strategy has succeeded in entertainment and design.


As propagators of beauty, designers often shy away from “ugly.”


Designers often underestimate the appeal of fear. Why else would we flock to disaster films? On the big screen this year alone, the foundations of society have been threatened by serial killers, mutants, robot aliens, vampires, and evil wizards. In its opening weekend, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, which paints a world of dark magic and deadly duels, enjoyed a record-breaking domestic box-office gross of almost $170 million. As propagators of beauty, designers often shy away from “ugly.” But just like a successful movie, interest depends on the tension between good and bad, beauty and ugly. Karten Design flirted with this boundary in designing the Epidermits, a conceptual toy made from human tissue that can be tattooed and pierced. It’s been called terrifying, disgusting, and beautiful — and it never fails to spark a discussion when people visit our studio.



I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard objects like the iPhone referred to as “sexy.” I began to really think about what someone could find erotic about an iPhone. Its staid, linear form takes no inspiration from the human body. But even though it’s not curvy, it is sleek and shiny and minimal. It almost looks…naked. This sexy ultra- minimalism has really taken hold in consumer electronics, where “thin is in,” as television and tablet manufacturers compete to create the sveltest bezels.


The fact that The Hangover Part II is one of the top-grossing movies this year speaks loud and clear. Laughter is integral to entertainment. How can products and brands tickle customers’ funny bone? Karten Design recently completed a brand audit that examined how companies like Old Spice earned 60 million web views (talk about grabbing eyeballs!) and increased body wash sales by 11% by being irreverent. The key: Challenge social norms and standards of propriety. Don’t be constrained by taboos.




People are thrilled by the element of surprise; M. Night Shyamalan has built his career on this premise. Products that have unexpected properties are equally delightful. The Reef Fanning sandal is designed with a bottle opener on the underside, making it easy to crack open a cool brew on a hot day. On the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, check out the surprising pop of color inside this Fendi Contrast Peekaboo tote.


Successful entertainment taps into people’s deeply held dreams and personal ambitions. Good products should do the same, by validating their users’ ambitions and empowering them to achieve more. To do this effectively, you have to understand what your customers’ values and desires really are. Companies in the wireless health industry have been conscious of customers’ needs for usability, comfort, and style as they take traditionally hospital-worn sensors and adapt them for the consumer market. Connected devices, apps, and services now allow people to achieve deep desires related to their health, such as getting a better night’s sleep, managing weight, or even conceiving a child.

The most valuable type of engagement in the attention economy is a deep and lasting attention that provokes thought and triggers a consumer to take independent action. Our role goes beyond just making visible products; we need to make objects that are relevant, meaningful, and empowering. Since we create the objects that people encounter every day, we are in a privileged position to shape popular culture. Let’s use that power wisely, to create stuff that’s deserving of consumers’ attention.


About the author

Stuart Karten is the Founder and President of Los Angeles-based product innovation consultancy [url=]Karten Design[/url]. Since 1984, he has partnered with medical device, digital health, and consumer product manufacturers to build their businesses through design.