11 March 2019

Product Design X Minimalism


I'm aspiring to study product design, also called industrial design. It's a related field to furniture design, textile design or interior design and can also span into the digital world. It's about creating products and objects that serve you in some purpose. Whether it's to simplify a task, to enable you to do things not possible without, to decorate or to bring joy. I'd like to make the design of such objects my profession.

In my personal life I'm fascinated by minimalism and similar lifestyles. It's a way of living that brings the focus back to the things that really matter and gets rid of things that only hinder you. It requires being very conscious about what things you want to bring into your life and encourages to buy durable and sustainable quality products. I think if more humans would follow this attitude it would lessen many modern problems we as a population are facing.

I'm passionate about new products and also try to live by a minimalist lifestyle. Yet these two motivations contradict each other quite a bit. This article is my way of exploring in which areas they disagree and whether it's possible to bring them into harmony.

Specificity vs Multifunctionality

If you intend to keep your belongings to a minimum or at least on the smaller side of the spectrum, you look for products that you can use in different ways and situations, which are very versatile. Yet as a product designer I imagine it to be very interesting trying to solve specific problems and to help people who are hindered by such. The simple solution could be to target the product only at those people who really profit from it and not those which also come by without it. And sometimes it's simply better to solve one purpose well instead of multiples not so well. I for example prefer not to eat my daily meals with a spork.

Profit vs Durability

As a user you want products that withstand their use and at best also their abuse for as long as possible. It gives you confidence to achieve your goals and exudes an air of quality. So durability should definitely be on the checklist when designing. Now, the longer a product lives the fewer times it needs replacing. This means that a customer who's owning your super durable product will not buy a new one for a long time. A solution would be to just decrease the durability by using cheaper materials. But this could make the customer look for a better alternative. A better solution would be to broaden your market in order to reach more people. Or another option is to offer different products that serve different purposes. This way a customer owns a long-lasting product of high quality but can buy other products you offer for his other needs. This option could be more difficult for small companies.

Sustainability vs Functionality

Nowadays there are many high-tech materials available that are more functional, more durable and lighter than more traditional ones. Which is great for the customer. In the short term. They are often, but don't have to be, harmful to the nature. So it can be worth it to relinquish advanced materials in favor of sustainable ones. And with the right communication potential customers can easier understand the reasoning behind and even see it as an advantage.

Need vs Ethics

You as a product designer see an opportunity for a new product, for something that the market still lacks. Apart from asking if people need the product and would buy it, you should also ask yourself or your team the question: Is this market need something we want to support? Just because people want something doesn't mean it's a good motivation. Is it good to source wood from endangered rainforests like the amazon just because people seem to like its appearance?

Catalog Longevity vs Satisfaction

It's great to improve products incrementally from a design and development perspective. For a customer on the other hand it can be frustrating when his still very new product gets replaced very quickly. This makes the older but still great product feel outdated. This can be helped by taking enough time to test your products, by making sure it checks all the basics and by thinking not only about the current requirements but also those that could come up a few years down the line. Of course that's difficult and not always possible. But still sooner or later you probably want to make a few changes. Instead of updating the product you could establish a new one with all the accumulated update ideas and make sure it differentiates clearly from the original.

Selling vs Need

It's a noble gesture to develop a product that helps people with their tasks. And it's important that they hear about it, otherwise they won't even know that there's an easier way than what they're used to. This is where marketing comes into play. Marketing is often used as a tool to sell more products, which is fine, but sometimes it also teases people who don't really have a use for the product. Information is important but trying to provoke questionable needs not so much. The problems that arise from marketing are certainly more pronounced for consumer products than for those targeted at professional companies. Yet the fundamental questions you should pose yourself are similar.

Wrap Up

As with everything there are no fixed rules, it's about finding a balance that works and with which you feel comfortable. For me as an aspiring designer myself it was really interesting to ask myself these questions and to set my motivations for the future. I think if you're willing to depart from the norm and go the extra mile it's certainly possible to create products that support minimalist attitudes to life and maybe even make the world a little bit of a better place.