Simplicity and Honesty in Innovative Product Design

Everyone wants innovative product design, but what does innovative even mean? Design can make a product appear new and fresh, but in what ways?

Rather than write a long, dull treatise on the history of the word "innovative," let's work backwards and look at individual things that make design innovative.

Today we'll talk about two key factors in design innovation: simplicity and honesty. It sounds as if they might mean the same thing, but as always, details are important and make the difference.

Simplicity

Simplicity means eliminating all the bells and whistles, and beyond that, stripping away even the structural aspects that aren't necessary to a product's function. If you're undergoing extensive home renovations in your kitchen you strip away all old cupboards and start the scratch, the same principle applies to innovative product design.

Consider what Charles Harrison, the famous industrial product designer who worked for Sears Roebuck and Co. for over three decades, said about simplicity in design:

“If it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do or look like what it does, then I frown on it. I don’t think a nutcracker needs to look like an elephant."

Simplification is innovative when it causes consumers to say "Of course -- why didn't I think of that?" For example, hanging fruit juice containers from a plastic "vine," as if they were growing on the packaging, is simple and yet so unexpected that it's innovative.

Honesty

Obviously products don't lie to people, but they may conceal their function to some consumers, and the designer's job is to innovate a better appearance that communicates function better than previous designs.

Dieter Rams, another famous industrial designer, had this to say about a product's appearance:

"It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory."

If you don't know what something is the first moment you see it -- whether it's a table or a computer program -- then it may not be honest. For example many innovative commercial security systems now use biometrics such as facial recognition to allow access. If you're a first time user and have never account a system like this will you know how to use it? It's difficult to strip a product down to pure function, which is why designing something that has a more "obvious" form is an act of innovation.

In general, you can assess the simplicity and honesty of your product's design by asking the following questions:

  • Does absolutely everything need to be there?
  • What could we subtract?
  • Is this product's function obvious?

These questions are a great starting point for innovating new forms of product design.

Feel free to contact us if you want to talk more about design. It's what we do.

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