In May 1999, Brett Lovelady, founder and president of Astro Studios, was sequestered in a room at Colorado’s Broadmoor Hotel on a top-secret mission: to formulate a list of product specifications for a PDA that would knock Palm off its perch. The covert team of Palm saboteurs included staffers from Lovelady’s Palo Alto-based design firm as well as representatives from Microsoft, the software supplier for the project, and Compaq, the hardware manufacturer.
Over the course of three caffeine- and sugar-fueled days, the group of 15 fantasized about high-tech features for this dream product. By the end of the last session, their list covered four densely scribbled whiteboards and contained several hundred ideas.
As head of the PDA design team, Lovelady had no choice but to deliver unwelcome news to his fellow conspirators. He told them, “If you really want a category killer, you’ve got to go simple, simple, simple.”
It was not an easy message to convey, especially to Microsoft, a firm famous for larding its products with enough features to create a subindustry in user manuals. But Lovelady and his team prevailed, off-loading some features to separate expansion units and designing a sleek base unit free of unnecessary bells and whistles. In July 2000, the Compaq iPaq was born.
Lovelady’s counsel was quickly validated by the marketplace. In a review of the iPaq, ZDNet called it “the sharpest-looking PDA we’ve seen.” Compaq had projected sales of 50,000 iPaqs during the first year. Instead, demand for the pricey gadget led to long back orders and prompted desperate users to buy iPaqs on eBay for as much as $1500. By the end of 2000, Compaq had sold more than 500,000 units, and the iPaq had established itself as the PDA of choice for design-savvy, status-conscious road warriors. And by June 2001, the product had surpassed Palm in hardware sales.
The old design mantra “Less is more” has never been truer than in the world of technological gadgetry, Lovelady says. As consumers balk at the steep learning curve attached to each software upgrade and “time-saving” appliance, manufacturers and engineers are ceding power to designers who insist on simplicity, elegance, and user friendliness, even if it means sacrificing some technological wizardry.
We spoke to Lovelady at the Industrial Designers Society of America meeting in Boston about the trends driving today’s product design and his own favorite gadgets.
Why are you so keen on product simplicity?
People are looking to simplify all the aspects of our culture. As a result, designers are looking at noncomplex forms and simple materials that are very utilitarian but are also very stylish. This design movement is driven by people’s need to settle and to enjoy restful time. They say, “I don’t want to have to figure out this remote. I want it to be straightforward and intuitive.” That’s where designers can provide the strategic difference in a commodity like technology. When lots of companies are making the same products, design can set competitors apart.
For years, engineers were in ascendancy. Now consumers are at the limit of how much technology they can absorb. How does that change your job?
In many cases, technology has surpassed the end user, so designers must ask themselves how they can bring product features into shape or make new technologies less mysterious.
We try always to focus on the consumer’s mind through research and product testing. For example, before we designed the Nike watch, the members of my design team started running more. We soon discovered a high-performance runner’s basic problem: How do you keep running if you have to put your watch up against your nose to see your time? Then we started to develop a perspective on the problems we could solve.
We’re also blending lifestyle design and technology. Silicon Valley provides us all the technology we could want, so now the question is this: How do you work that technology into a commercialized form that consumers can deal with?
Still, when you’re up against a strong technology company, how do you advocate for design over competing priorities?
We inhabit such a fuzzy spot in the process that it really depends on the power of the people making the decisions. Companies need us to tell them what to do, but we must always keep the business model in mind.
Typically, engineers, managers, and marketing folks concentrate on tangible factors: the cost of components or the time line for construction. They look at a nebulous design concept and say, “That’s really cool, but do I want to pay 50 cents for it? What’s your metric?”
At that point, the person in charge of the product needs to say, “I know that’s a cool feature. Pay what you must to make it happen.”
What gets you jazzed these days?
I’m really excited about bags, shoes, and pockets. If I carry a cell phone and an MP3 player with headphones, how am I going to stow them so that they don’t fall out of my pockets when I sit down?
We work with tech lab guys at Nike who are working on wearable technology. Not too many companies can sit at ground zero for fashion and technology. Nike’s one of them.
You’ve talked about Astro Studios’ culture and the importance of creating a workplace that captures the group’s creative energy. But you also have hired a bunch of very independent employees. How does that work?
We feel that individual perspectives are very valuable in the marketplace. Plus, we really feel that overly democratic design is weak. So the trick is finding a way to empower individuals within a team dynamic. Culture is the key. We encourage people to be open and to share with others but also to develop a strong personal perspective.
When you see a product like Compaq’s iPaq or Nike’s Triax, you think a big company has designed a radical product. But actually, it’s a bunch of skate rats banging around Palo Alto.
Linda Tischler (email@example.com) is the Fast Company managing editor of new media. Contact Brett Lovelady by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sidebar: Five Products Even Fussy Designers Love
We asked Brett Lovelady to name his five favorite products — items that combine elegant design, technological sophistication, and ease of use.
1. Apple: Titanium PowerBook G4 — It’s a modern classic. All I need and nothing I don’t. And the wider screen is more like my personal movie theater than a computer monitor.
3. Bang & Olufsen: BeoSound 1 — Another lusty modern classic. A simple, singular speaker effect made from billet aluminum with a variety of functional surprises around the product.
4. Spalding: Infusion Basketball — Because it works.
5. Technics: 1200 Series turntables — The turntable, in general, is a magical piece of technology. Because it has history and depth, once thought of as obsolete, it has been reinvented to spawn new cultures, heroes, and music styles.