Design is about selling you an idea.
Longtime readers may stop me here right now and ask Haven’t you been telling us that design is fulfilling the constumers’ needs and want, and how they need to be utilitarian? Yes, I have, and almost unwittingly so.
Let’s consider something we all should more or less understand from design perspective; cars. The faster and the smoother the car is, the more expensive and the more time on its design has been spent. The ungodly amount of options modern cars aside, we recognize a car that has been designed to be used in every possible place on Earth and a car that’s only for Sunday drives.
For simplicity and to make my point a bit clearer, I will be using two cars from the yesteryears; the one I learned to drive in, and the one that I still think is absolutely fantastic in its design; Ford Escort MkIV and the Lamborghini Countach.
The Escort looks what you’d expect from an everyman’s car. It’s simple, easy to take care of and didn’t break all that easily. Nowadays it’s horribly difficult to find spare parts if something breaks down. It’s a bit boxy and drove like a tractor, but that’s what I liked the Escort about. I could feel every single inch of the car underneath me and could control its heavy steering properly. No power steering in this baby.
It’s design sells you simplicity with no bells and whistles. It’s unsurprising design made it a good car to drive and you knew exactly what it would do in what situation. The Escort was like a lovable next door girl; safe and she’d love you as long as you kept your shit straight.
The Countach on the other is everything but simple. It’s aggressive wedge shaped design makes it sleek and modern. The panel lining breaks its surfaces extremely well and the intakes in the back look like they were taken from a jet fighter. It looks expensive and fast, which it was. It was something people wanted to own and drive.
However, the Countach was rather awful experience overall terms. It didn’t turn too well, steering was iffy at best, the seats were uncomfortable even if they looked good, the instruments panel was a mess, it ate gasoline like cheap whores and its suspension was fully made of steel and would need to be replaced incredibly often. A trip from a town to another might end up in a visit to the garage shop. The Countach was like having a one night stand with a busty blond from the pub; it was fun, but most likely something went wrong and you need to spend a lot of money to get it fixed.
Answer me this; Which one of these have better design?
I could drive the Escort in -30°C without any troubles, and it could go through rather thick layers of snow without much worrying. I doubt the Countach could even start in that coldness and its low profile and wedge shape doesn’t really suit the weather here. It’s a car you’d rather drive in California, and that sort of car it was.
The design the Countach has is to sell you an idea. It was a car to those who could afford it and showcase their status in the society. It’s design that is expensive to make and produce and it caters straights to the ideology of high calibre car. It’s something the common people yearn for, something that you strive for and dream of. It wasn’t a car you’d see commercials of, because it wasn’t exactly a car that was specifically meant to be sold to everybody. The reason why supercars and other luxury items are not advertised on the telly is because people who sit down and watch television simply are not wealthy enough to purchase them. It was luxury design to those who could afford it. Just give a look at this Turtlewax commercial.
The Countach had an established position in the minds of the consumer, and using it to showcase how strong Turtlewax was a no-brainer. If Turtlewax is enough to protect Countach from the elements, it’s more than good enough for your car. Both this commercial and the Countach fights with an image.
The Escort on the other was a car made for mass consumption, and its TV ads reflect this.
Escort’s commercials hit where it counts, going over why sort of new elements the MkIV had, and the commercial after the first one just lays out data alongside footage that shows how the car handles on what looks like your normal Finnish forest road.
To make it short; the Escort and Countach represent two design philosophies. One that is made to be effective and easily available for everybody, and the other is luxury design for limited group of people.
Nevertheless, there is third kind of design that is both of them. It has one exceptionally well made example that still stands as something many would be willing to dub as an example on perfect design;
The Kikkoman soy bottle by Kenji Ekuan has not changed during the last fifty four years. The bottle is easy to produce, does not spill soy sauce, does not drop one drip if you hold your thumb on the other nozzle and fits universally on any hand on Earth. The nozzle is based on an inverted teapot’s design, and there has been nothing like it ever since. It has no moving parts or the like, it’s just pure physics.
This is a product that can be found around the world in almost any restaurant, from street level vendors to the highest level of gourmet salons. It’s not just utilitarian beauty in its simplicity, but also sells us an idea of perfect luxury design that we could never dream to get our hands of, yet when you step in your groceries store you can find one sitting royally on the shelf among others, cruder designs.
The best thing about Ekuan’s bottle design that it is ultimately something you don’t notice until you stop and think about it. The Countach in comparison screams straight up how expensive piece of equipment is and shoves its ideology on you. The Escort does the exact same thing, but hits different beats. Much like with engineering, the best design is something that comes out naturally, unnoticed and still appreciated.