Human interaction crucial to product success

Tom Shelley discovers how psychological design factors in a design are crucial to success in the marketplace

Tom Shelley discovers how psychological design factors in a design are crucial to success in the marketplace

Many people establish a relationship with their car (or other products) similar to the way they form relationships with each other – and it is essential for designers to remember this, according to Gert Volker Hildebrand, head of the Mini Design team in Munich.
Hildebrand describes his approach as multi-sensory design where the principle is that to ‘see’ comes first, regardless of whether this refers to a human being or product. Then come ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ – which, with a human, means shaking hands or, in the case of a car, taking hold of the door handle. Then comes ‘talk’, which, in terms of a car, he sees as being how the buttons operate, as well as the sound of the door closing and the engine starting. This is followed by “smell’ which he depicts as, “the most remembered of all”. And finally there is ‘taste’, on which he comments: “If you drive the car, it is the taste of the road.”
The occasion for all of this was the latest Stir (Stimulate, Teach, Incubate, Research) lecture held at London’s Imperial College, part of a series of events organised by Design London.
It was here that Hildebrand made it clear how he regarded a car as an emotional sculpture, revealing that he deliberately incorporated aspects of the human body archetype – “man, woman and child” – into his designing. A particular challenge of redesigning the Mini was, he said, the need to “inspire both male and female desire”, adding that the car includes a “cascading male outline” to appeal to women, as well as a slight wedge shape, to show it moves forward, and a certain amount of, as he put it, “chrome and Britishness”. But what was most important, he said, was its facial expression, stressing how dangerous it would be if you messed up at that point!
Interestingly, he showed some iterations of CAD sketches where he had clearly pushed and pulled curved lines in the appearance of the front of the car, until its facial expression – formed by the line of the bonnet, radiator grille and front headlamps – looked just right. He also mentioned the psychological impact of shapes, citing as examples the Alfa Romeo grille as implying ‘stimulance’, the Rolls Royce grille ‘dominance’ and the shape of the New Beetle ‘balance’. He also referred to the work of US artist Andrea Zittel, whose ideas include various snug and compact interiors for living spaces, inspired by mobile homes.
Whatever one thinks of these ideas, the bottom line is this: while the Mini started life in 1956 as a petrol-saving car, inspired by concerns about possible future oil shortages in light of the Suez crisis, it went from being an essentially cheap, low-profit margin car into versions that were sporty and chic – and is still selling.
Market research, he said, showed that design is the number one reason cited for buying a Mini by 80% of customers, all of who have forked out their own money to purchase one, since Minis are not sold for fleets. Engineers tend to cite function and performance as important. However, if the design is 80% of the reason to buy it, but accounts for just 0.01% of the cost – by Hildebrand’s reckoning – it is clearly something that should be given maximum attention.
And he went on to says: “If a car lives twice as long, because it is nicer, it halves the load on environment, halves the waste and gets away from the throwaway culture.”
While he was clearly thinking of Minis, it is worth pointing out that more than two thirds of all Porsche cars ever built are still in running condition – because their owners cherish them. Perhaps the environmental lobby shouldn’t hate them quite so much.


* Human beings establish a relationship with a car or product, in much the same way as they do with each other

* A key to successful products can be the incorporation of shapes inspired by the human body and human face

* In the case of the new Mini, 0.01% of the cost went into the design, but design was cited as the main reason for buying by 80% of customers

Tom Shelley

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