a retrospective on the role of design in technology/electronics companies | alexandros stasinopoulos | strategic+product design | ...................
  a retrospective on the role of design in technology/electronics companies

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recently i have been looking information for a project (in progress) related to electronics, on the use of design as a strategic tool by companies active on this field. the research is not focusing only on modern companies, but instead is trying to trace examples from older enterprises that excelled on the way they managed design. despite the fact that some of these companies do not exist any more or their brands lost their glory, yet, they will always be some of the pioneers that combined vision – technology – design.

the companies I will talk about are : aeg, braun, olivetti, brionvega and apple.

here, i will pinpoint some repeating characteristics and patterns i located amongst these companies as well as i will present some data for each one of them. what is important to stress is the fact that these characteristics are domain and time independent as these companies were/are active during different periods of time as well as their expertise and focus was/is in different product categories – but always related to technology.

a) first of all the owners / entrepreneurs had a very strong vision related to their business and products that was not limited within their business/market domain but instead they considered the wider social context by taking under consideration the evolution of their societies. in a sense, they were not just manufacturers but in a sense they regarded their products (but also businesses in a broader scale in general) as mediums to suggest new social values and to propose new interactions between people and products.
The way that these entrepreneurs were “doing business” is similar to the way enzo mari stated ( in reference to the italian designers of the ’50s and ’60s ) that “the designers were not designing for the people as they were but for the people as they should be”. in other words, the designers back then had the role of social reformers and the medium to do so was the material world (products) they were proposing to their societies (aka today as “markets”).

b) the incorporation of design as a key element in the practices of each company was decided and was supported from the owner or the top management of each company. design was not an afterthought, a tool to use in a mainstream mode but instead, for each case, it played a key role to the activities of the enterprises. It is necessary also to mention here the personal involvement/interaction of the owners/top-managers with the design departments ( or consultants ).

c) the principles of design were not applied solely in product level but they were integral elements of the corporate architecture (factories or retail stores) and communication (logo, brand identity, commercials, brochures etc.). design was a multidimensional tool for various activities of these and was exploited to the utmost.

d) because the owners/managers/designers of these companies had strong and aligned visions of what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do, they did not use market product research. yet, they had the intuition and sensitivity to “read” the transformations of the societies, the evolution of technology and imagine the needs (practical or emotional) of the people.

some more information about each one enterprise:

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aeg (1883)

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aeg was founded by 12 architects and 12 business firms as a german state-sponsored effort within a business unit to integrate the traditional crafts and mass-industrial-production in order to compete with great britain and united states that had pioneered into the shift from arts & crafts to mass-production.
given the above, aeg, in 1907 hired peter behren (trained as an artist) as its artistic director. behren was responsible for the creation and overview of aeg‘s overall visual corporate identity (logos, products, publicity, architecture) and for that he is considered as the first design manager in history. influenced by the ideas and manifestos of the late 19th early 20th centuries, his education and experiences, behren, beyond the impact he had to AEG’s identity, he was also a mentor for later leading figures of the modernist movement such as walter gropius (later founder of the famous bauhaus school), le corbusier and ludwig mies van der rohe.
besides products, behren designed for aeg the buidling for its new turbine factory, which until today is regarded as a fine example of industrial architecture, as it introduces technological and material innovations like the big glass & metal surfaces that were the predecessors of glass curtain facades used extensively today.

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olivetti (1908)

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olivetti was originally founded as a typewriter manufacturer by camilo olivetti in the city of ivrea, a relatively small city in the northwest of italy ut it was for his son, andiano olivetti that actually developed it.
andriano olivetti remains famous for the holistic vision and a particular philosophy he had ranging from the way a business as a micro-society should function until the attention to design details such as the colour of the space-bar key in his machines. he believed that the factory could be the focus for a new ideal community (una utopia – la comunità) and envisioned a harmonic co-existence between the environment and the factory, as well as between the time spent inside (for work) and outside of it (he created an enormous library, schools, summer retreats for children; he even proposed urban-city planning projects). the role of architecture in this vision was great and for this reason olivetti corroborated with renowned architects of that time like le corbusier and louis kahn amongst others to design his factory buildings. the combination of olivetti‘s social + design vision, in a smaller scale, can also be reflected also to the office furniture line he commissioned ettore sottsas to design with the idea that an employee should also be sitting on a comfortable and aesthetically beautiful chair.
olivetti believed that the design is the soul of a product (“ il design è l’anima di un prodotto”) and for this reason he collaborated with designers, artists, architects like ettore sottsass, marco zanusso, carlo scarpa etc. the company managed to establish a groundbreaking approach towards product design and visual communication and was part of this group of aziende that helped to establish italy as the metropolis of design. the company innovated also in the promotion of its products and possibly was the first “technology” company to sell directly its products through its own branded store ,designed by carlo scarpa, located in the piazza di san marco in the center of venice (does this ring a bell to apple fans?).
“design is a question of substance, not just form, it’s a tool a company uses through its products, graphics, and architecture to convey an image that is not just simply appearance but a tangible reflection of a way of being and operating.”
andriano olivetti

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braun (1921)

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braun was found in 1921 in frankfurt by max braun (a mechanical engineer) and its focus until ww2 was the production of radios and phonographs.
it was not until max braun‘s sons took over the management of the company (1955) that braun expanded and became an icon until today in the domain of technology and home appliances. arthur braun was an engineer, whose role was to keep the company in the forefront of technological advancements, and erwin braun was a businessman with a strong interest in design. the two brothers radically changed the approach of the company towards its industry. it was not long time ago that germany was defeated in ww2 and the society was still living within a post-war context and thus the need for change (in political, social even lifestyle levels) was strong.
similarly to alberto olivetti, they created a more “social” working environment for their employees by providing generous pensions and free healthcare (via the braun health center) as well as by offering meals of high nutritious quality in modern canteens.
in product level, the braun brothers wanted to deviate from the forms and styles of pre-war sound systems and for this reason they established partnerships with the lecturers from the renowned “hochschule fuer gestaltung” design academy in ulm, hans gugelot and otl aicher. alongside with the in-house young design dieter rams (later on he played an extremely important role as the chief designer of the company) they created a completely new character for the braun products in order to fit the, back then, contemporary lifestyles by using new forms, new materials new colour schemes. they believed that products should “contain as little design as possible”,  should be simple to use and that there should be no need for instructional manuals but it should be for the forms and colours of the objects that should communicate to the user intuitively how to use them ( does this philosophy sound familiar for the most talked company today ? :-) i will get to there a bit later… ).
dieter rams progressively became the nucleus of braun’s design team and the distinctive approach describe before was applied, in a consistent way, throughout the entire product range,to all communications instruments – from stationery and use instructions all the way to advertising and gave to braun a corporate identity that made it recognizable back then and a myth today.

i find the olivetti’s and braun‘s approach to design quite similar in the essence and the reason why these 2 companies incorporated design within their organizations, but i noticed a distinctive difference amongst them as for the visual strategy they followed (from design forms to graphics etc.). olivetti tried to retain a brand style through variety in the forms and colours it used whereas braun retained a brand style in a very strict and absolutely cohesive design language it used across the whole range of products and other visuals. as both points of views (i will avoid to call them strategies) were successful i assume that the direction a company decides to follow is primarily based on its culture and character, although the prevailing “methodology” taught/suggested and implemented is usually the strict “design guidelines” similar to braun‘s approach. this method is more favorable i guess because it is most likely easier to control a cohesive brand image, especially in multidimensional enterprises where many departments are involved and affect the brand’s looks. olivetti’s approach allows more room in ambiguity, personal expression and interpretation of a brand’s character/ image and therefore it is less favorable approach for managers, at least, and it may be more suitable to small, boutique companies that have a smaller product/service range, a design team that can be easier controlled and of course people within the company that can maintain this constant reinterpretation and re-invention of the company’s product and visual identity.

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brionvega (1945)

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the company was founded in milan in 1945 by giuseppe brion and it focused on the production of radios in the beginning and later started producing televisions as well.
quite soon, and even more when ennio brion (the son of giusspepe brion) was actively involved with the company, brionvega addressed for the design of its products to designers such as richard sapper, marco zanuso, castiglioni brothers and ettore sottsass. through brionvega‘s products, ennio brion wished to propose products of high aesthetic value beyond trends and fashions, that would set new relations between object and user and that would be timeless carriers of “good design”. besides, according to ennio brion, design should not be available only to a limited group of people but to be available through objects that people would use in daily basis.
in the ’60s, brionvega was synonymous to technological and aesthetic innovation and its products of that time are parts of moma‘s permanent collection.

in a larger scale now, as for the design of their factory, the brion family showed particular attention to detail as not only did they commissioned a reputable architect such as marco zanuso to design the building but also they hired pietro porcinai, one of the few italian landscape architects back then, to design the surrounding area. again, the harmonious coexistence of the production plant with the natural surrounding of veneto was a prerequisite as well as was the adaptation of the building to the climatic conditions of the area so the life within it would be comfortable in any season.

nevertheless, personally, the example that shows the passion of brion family in general for design, aesthetics and the meanings/messages they carry, is not related to their business at all. it is something more personal. it is the brion family tomb designed by carlo scarpa (design/construction from 1969 until 1978). it is difficult to describe the detail, the work and semiotics embodied in this “installation” that involves buildings, landscape, light and water that until now, they constitute brion tomb as one of the greatest examples of european architecture.

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apple (1976)

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not many things to write for steve jobs and apple. so many things have been written, so many myths have been created. undoubtedly he was a gifted aesthetics-sensitive entrepreneur-manager who revolutionized several industries through his distinctive vision of how electronic devices should be and how people should interact with them. together with many people and of course jonathan ives, apple’s design director, they created a unique mix of personal characters, experiences, past practices-success stories (it is not a secret that braun model highly influenced their design direction and philosophy), contemporary technological advancements and marketing activities, that they adjusted in an ingenious way inside the contemporary social, financial and cultural context.
steve jobs embraced design and applied it in every aspect of his company, not because marketing trends were indicating to do so but because he was believing in it and had a great personal interest. this is the reason of course that he was one of the first modern entrepreneurs to place a designer in the executive board of his company.
apple managed to engage people through design and the experiences it was offering and messages it was communicating through its products, packaging, communication, environment in its dedicated retail stores (and in the future through the futuristic plans for their new headquarters) and of course software in a consistent and an absolutely harmonious way. apple though, someone could say that engaged people and in another way beyond the aesthetics, functions and interactions of its products. this was the fact that, in a controlled way, it opened its products to almost anyone to develop applications and consequently to be in a sense part of apple’s family and of course profit.

currently, apple is as strong as it has ever been. nevertheless, from the previous examples of the other companies mentioned before, that as well all had as their leaders individuals with very strong characters and visions, when these leaders died or left, the companies lost track and either became indifferent or even stopped their activities. we will see, time will tell as always.

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some may argue about the selection of the companies presented in such a post and possibly companies such as sony, nokia, samsung, lg and even nintendo for example should also be part of such list. possibly, but I believe that although these companies use design successfully and strategically, yet design for them is mostly serving brand identity purposes and it is seen as a marketing tool and I can not feel (personally at least) the real, honest, personal interest of the owner/manager to incorporate design within their companies in the multi-dimensional and innovative way that aeg, braun, olivetti, brionvega and apple did. ibm is a “in-between” case as with its ThinkPad laptop line  (designed by richard sapper) , the work eams did for it, really suggested something different to the industry but that was just a small part of ibm‘s product range for a relativerly short period of time and i do not consider this example as an indication of a design-driven tech company overall.
these enterprises i focused on and presented, did not produce simply modern/trendy, branded products but materialized visions that even if created 100, 50, 10 years ago, still are perceived as timeless fine examples of our material civilization that will narrate stories in the future of how people used to think, live and interact.

if any reader has any suggestion about an older or new company in electronics that he/she thinks it is relevant to the issues discussed here please feel free to contact me. thnx.

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interesting readings:

P., Betts, “The authority of everyday objects: a cultural history of West German industrial design”, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004.

B. E.,Burdek, Design: History, Theory And Practice Of Product Design, Basel, Birkhauser, 2006.

T., Stefan, B., Feinberg, (2009), “Design Thinking and Innovation at Apple,”. Harvard Business School Case No. 609-066.

and

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/06/arts/design/how-dieter-rams-made-braun-an-it-brand.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.illywords.com/archive-magazine/4-passion/when-society-is-the-product-the-olivetti-case/

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