Whirlpool design chief Chuck Jones stands behind a two-way mirror in a dimly lit observation room at the company’s headquarters in Benton Harbor, Michigan. On the other side of the glass are a twentysomething volunteer and a shiny, black refrigerator. Jones and a small team of designers, engineers, and usability specialists watch as the woman loads groceries into the fridge. Her movements are mind-numbingly mundane, but the Whirlpool folks are rapt. “This is a very complex interaction between a user, a product, and her goals,” whispers a human-factors expert. The design team isn’t just observing; it’s grading each task. How long did it take? How many of the fridge’s features did she use?
That level of detail is pure Jones. He believes that extensive, even obsessive, research and performance measurements take the fuzziness out of design abstractions. The best way to win credibility from skeptics–and to improve the design itself–is to marshal reams of quantifiable data. At Whirlpool, the usability study is the moment of truth. The new product’s aesthetic might be achingly brilliant. No matter. If the customer doesn’t realize intuitively that the soda cans fit–no, belong–on the refrigerator door’s short shelf, the design needs a do-over.
The woman picks up a six-pack of soda and turns to the Kenmore Elite, a popular Sears model Whirlpool makes and wants to improve. Without a moment’s hesitation, she goes right for the can shelf as though she’s following directions. That, Jones believes, is how smart design works.
Not so long ago, North America’s largest appliance maker (No. 2 in the world) was content to churn out millions of refrigerators, ovens, and other household staples that were virtually indistinguishable from one another as well as from the competition. Not anymore. Under Jones’s guidance, Whirlpool is cultivating a distinctive look and feel that better differentiates its product lineup from GE and Maytag appliances.
Along the way, Jones, 47, has helped 94-year-old Whirlpool discover its cool. The Duet, a matching washer and dryer introduced in 2001, is a must-have appliance. With its stylish lines, portholelike door, and eye-catching colors, the Duet, says Jones, “is like a Ferrari in your laundry room.” That same year, Paris’s Louvre Museum displayed Whirlpool’s next-generation concept products, and in 2002, the Smithsonian Institution named Whirlpool the winner of its annual National Design Award in corporate achievement.
Besides raising Whirlpool’s profile to new heights, Jones is demonstrating design’s potential to boost the bottom line. As rising steel prices push materials costs to the stratosphere, it’s one way to justify a higher price tag for finished products. At $2,000, the Duet is Whirlpool’s most expensive washer-dryer set, yet it sells like an iPod: In the premium front-loading washer category, Whirlpool has gone from a market share of zero to more than 20% in three years. “The industry has been waiting for someone like Chuck,” says Jonathan Cagan, professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and coauthor of The Design of Things to Come (Wharton School Publishing, June 2005). “He has transformed the brand.”
Jones began making his case for design in 1997, when he pitched a presentation dubbed “Leading by Design” to Whirlpool’s senior management. With charts and figures, he showed how a similar strategy goosed market share and revenue for design-centric outfits such as Apple, Chrysler, Dyson, and Volkswagen. Jones took an unromantic view of design. For him, it’s a branding tool whose purpose is to increase sales. That sensibility won him the senior-level backing he needed.
King of the Hill
Jones’s efforts are part of a broader transformation at Whirlpool. Then-CEO Dave Whitwam was troubled by research showing a lack of loyalty to his brand. As manufacturers drove down prices, major appliances became a commodity. He knew that Whirlpool needed to champion innovation–generate thousands of ideas to create a sustainable stream of hits. Twenty-five of those ideas became products. It was Whirlpool’s biggest burst of creativity in 20 years.
Starting in 1999, Whitwam’s insight pushed Whirlpool to weave innovation into the very fabric of its culture, with innovation mentors, an idea pipeline, and internal investments to accelerate the best prospects. He understood that innovation and design go hand in hand, and he designated Jones to create a global consumer-design division. At the time, design was more or less an afterthought. “Products would get thrown over the wall to design, and they’d have a week to make it look good,” Jones recalls.
For the first time in the company’s history, Jones brought industrial designers, usability researchers, graphic artists, and engineers together under the same roof. Cross-functional teams meet regularly for brainstorming and product-review sessions. “I’m not a believer in putting designers off in an ivory tower,” Jones says. “They need to have a voice at the table so they can identify where and why design can make a difference.” But with that voice comes responsibility, he adds. “We also need to understand the business issues. If we don’t make our numbers this quarter, we don’t earn the right to do something [cool] the next time.”
Along with creating cross-functional teams, Jones took a cue from the car industry and reorganized his group by brand rather than by product. Much like different lines of cars, he wants Whirlpool’s 16 major brands–from Sears’s Kenmore to Latin America’s Brastemp–to be distinctive. Each has its own “visual brand language”–signature elements that give refrigerators and washers a consistent and complementary look and feel.
The Duet, a front-loading washer for North America, was the first real test for Jones’s group. Jones and other execs wanted a matching dryer so they could sell the machines as a duo (hence the name). But the idea ran up against Whirlpool’s research, which indicated that about 80% of its washers and dryers were purchased separately. Designing, manufacturing, and shipping the dryer would require a high level of coordination, too, since the washer was made in Germany and the dryer factory was in the United States. Worse yet, one-third of a focus group rejected the design. “In the past, that would have been the kiss of death,” Jones says. “This was one of those watershed moments that tested the company’s fiber. You can’t expect consumers to articulate that leap to the next breakthrough idea. It’s our job to lead them there.”
And so Jones stood firm. During a senior-level review, he said he felt so strongly about the concept that he would quit if the company didn’t follow through on it. “As a leader, you have to pick a hill and be willing to die on it,” he says. Jones became king of that hill: The Duet was a hit, and 80% of the machines were bought in tandem. The breakthrough demonstrated that design could alter buyer behavior and drive sales.
Customer as Collaborator
Jones is an inveterate engineer and gadget nut. He grew up on an Indiana farm, which “taught me how to be quick-thinking and how to fix things,” he says. When he was 5, the story goes, he took apart the family lawn mower and repaired it. At Whirlpool, he goes on service calls once a quarter to see how products are holding up. After one visit, he devised an apparatus that made it easier for service technicians to remove a microwave-hood combination unit that had been recalled. By eliminating the need for a second technician and halving the repair time, he saved the company $11 million.
If Whirlpool is an unlikely design leader, Jones is a quintessential industrial designer. His office looks like a cross between a racetrack garage and a toy store. In all, there are 17 model cars on display, along with racing posters and photos, including one of Mario Andretti with Jones in his twenties. He started racing professionally at 15 and worked on race cars after graduating from Purdue with degrees in industrial design and human-factors engineering. Jones has a race-car driver’s looks–a compact build and restless, almost mischievous energy.
More than once, he turned down the headhunter who pitched him on Whirlpool back in 1995. Jones, who had designed office furniture at Herman Miller and copiers at Xerox, changed his mind after learning about Whirlpool’s global reach (currently, 50 international locations and 68,000 employees) and its plans to become more consumer focused. Design, he knew, could play a big role. It’s all about understanding consumers. Jones considers them his chief collaborators in the creative process.
Still, since customers can’t articulate the problem that needs solving, he and his team must study them–in Whirlpool labs and at times in their own kitchens. In the refrigerator usability session, three cameras capture the action and a designer jots down the woman’s every move. One of the trickier tests is replacing the water filter. “This ought to be good,” Jones cracks.
The volunteer searches repeatedly but can’t find the filter. When she locates the gizmo on her second try by consulting the owner’s manual, Jones offers a little play-by-play: “The crowd goes wild!” Her trouble finding the item and removing it raises a flag, though. “We need to look at that again,” he says.
Jones isn’t disappointed. If anything, he’s relieved: Because of customers like her, the fridge will only get better.
Chuck Salter is a Fast Company senior writer based in Chicago.