Jim Sacherman, CEO of Palo Alto Design Group (PADG), has never forgotten a warning he got from an old colleague: "Boring people design boring things." That's why PADG's tough-minded professionals deliberately spend time and money on designs that have virtually no hope of generating revenue. They call this practice "design for design's sake."
PADG's flights of fancy - which have ranged from a newspaper vending machine to a manual breast pump for nursing mothers - offer some real-world take-aways:
Struggling with an unfamiliar product is "how you really stretch," says Malcolm Smith, vice president for design and engineering. The breast pump is a case in point. "It was a great opportunity to design a product that didn't have a printed circuit board inside and that raised lots of sensitive issues on lots of different fronts."
Design for design's sake stimulates new conversations. "An engineer will see an industrial designer at work on a newspaper rack and start to ask questions: How does it work? What if you made it out of X, Y, or Z?" says Smith. "All of a sudden, you get people excited and thinking collectively."
The breast pump was PADG's first foray into designing handheld consumer objects. "It wasn't too many steps from the breast pump to another very intimate product, one that people touch all the time," recalls Smith. "The foam models, the ergonomic studies, the conversations with users about which shapes feel right in their hands and how they would use this product - these were all directly applicable to the Pilot work."
A version of this article appeared in the August 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.