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Guest DCrux

Why You Shouldn't Do "concept Designs"

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Guest DCrux

Why Apple doesn’t do “Concept Products” criticizes concept designs which never ship. From cars to cell phone concepts, all kinds of good arguments for not doing concept designs.

 

Concepts are abused by companies of all sorts. They get the reputation of being cutting edge, including publicity, without actually putting up money or solving thorny problems. Rather than raise the level of materials and technical silos, who could use concepts to spur innovation, concepts become a design dungeon.

 

In any event, a good conversation starter for design discussion.

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Guest csven

Thanks for the link. But I think your headline misses the mark. From the entry:

Apple is likely generating more concept products and visions than any other technology company for internal use.
and
Commercial entities have no advantage in releasing concept products the likes of which they hope to subsequently sell.

Your headline would be more accurate, imo, if it said: Why Companies Shouldn't Publicize "Concept Designs". Individuals, on the other hand, are finding concept designs to be an effective method for promoting their work, especially when there are so many ad-supported tech blogs looking for eye candy.

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Guest lufbrasketch

Maybe it mentions this in the article but concepts have their place and you will find companies like Nokia will most likley make use of their concepts to aid future product developments.

 

They have a vision of what the future will show (i.e. the concept) and then use that vision to inspire future product lines. So, while the actual concept artefact might not be manufactured and released, it will impact what future products will or can be. Having a vision and a direction is quite important, but it is true that some companies can get carried away with them.

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Guest Jay08

Whats to be noted here is that there is a difference with contextual design where an idea has been encapsulated into product form, which may be used for marketing or development work (Electrolux design lab is a great example of this) and commercial and current design, and commercial, where its very business and purpose based.

 

All products start out at concept stage!

 

I with csven on this one, im not sure you titled the post correctly.

 

Check http://images.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=h...l%3Den%26sa%3DN

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Guest DCrux

Concept designs ...which never ship.

 

True, all products start out as concepts. However, when you can get publicity for the concept -- why build it?

 

They were largely “concepts” detached from reality or economics. It’s even debatable if they have advanced the art and science of producing cars in ways measurable by subsequent sales.

 

The subheading, which accompanies the headline, makes this clear. There are companies who use concepts as part of the development process (Apple) and companies which use the concepts as marketing props, never intending to learn from or develop product advances.

 

Rather than use design concepts to inspire technical and perhaps even business innovations, the designs rot on the shelf. You're too caught up on defending the idea of concept designs, good or bad.

 

Take this excerpt used as an example, "Apple is likely generating more concept products and visions than any other technology company for internal use." This sentence might be better worded, but using it missed the very next part.

 

In iPhone: The bet Steve Jobs didn’t decline, I explained just what a huge bet the iPhone project was to Apple in 2005. It was a bet-the-company kind of bet. One that Nokia, which has sold hundreds of millions of phones over many years, never took. Neither did Microsoft. They would just as well release annual concept products to the public in order not to go through the pain of taking a bet.

 

There's a difference between using a concept design as part of the development process ...and never intending to develop a concept into a functional product in the first place. In the example, Apple did design a concept store -- but it was a fully functional prototype. The article then explicitly states had Microsoft done something similar, you'd never see a resulting store chain.

 

And so few companies actually use the concepts in any large degree, the basic premise is how Apple uses concept designs is the exception rather than the rule. Agree or disagree, that's the basic gist. Although the article might have made the distinction between concept design and working prototype.

 

In iPhone: The bet Steve Jobs didn’t decline, I explained just what a huge bet the iPhone project was to Apple in 2005. It was a bet-the-company kind of bet. One that Nokia, which has sold hundreds of millions of phones over many years, never took. Neither did Microsoft. They would just as well release annual concept products to the public in order not to go through the pain of taking a bet.

 

Far too many companies use concept designs as extravagant publicity stunts. With very little (or nothing) of the concept ever seeing production. In other words, there is a concept-to-production gap.

 

Here's what what the artile says, "At the end of the day, we have to confront the question of why companies like Nokia can sell hundreds of millions of phones and produce many concept products, but it takes Apple — a company that doesn’t do concept pieces — to shatter the market with a single product introduction."

 

Had Nokia been using even a modest number of concept insights, Apple should be at a small fraction of the market share they currently enjoy. In fact, we should be discussing a fitting obituary for the iPhone right now. That Apple can enter a firmly entrenched market and have the kind of results it does is a stinging indictment against the concept design process as widely practiced by the vast majority.

 

As many competitors and critics like to point out, Apple isn't that good. The rest of the industry is simply that bad.

 

My headline should be "Why Concept Designs are Business Hallucinogens, Which Should be Regulated by the FDA as A Mind Altering Substance" ....but that's a longish headline. Try separating out your fondness for doing fun design concepts from how they get eviscerated on the way to shipping product and maybe you can see my point.

 

Go the extra step of accompanying concepts with some business acumen about bureaucrat-wrangling, making a business case, and influencing stakeholders.

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Guest csven
There are companies who use concepts as part of the development process (Apple) and companies which use the concepts as marketing props, never intending to learn from or develop product advances.
I don't get where all the passion is coming from.

 

Not saying it doesn't happen, but from my own experience I've never personally seen a company spend money on a design concept "never intending to learn from or develop product advances". I've never been asked to design such a product concept, and only ever seen it done once ... and it was generated not to be a marketing prop but a tangible message to investors; a visual representation of what the current research could potentially yield.

 

It was a sales tool for R&D so they could "develop product advances". Was it then used as a marketing publicity tool? Of course, because the company wanted to get as much bang out of that spent buck. But no one outside the company knew the real reason behind making that design concept because no one outside the company knew what was brewing in the labs or that additional funds were necessary to continue research. Outsiders - like the writer complaining about too many worthless concepts - wouldn't have known the real reason for that particular concept and would incorrectly assume it was only for PR.

 

Given the above, can you provide a definitive list of all the corporate product concepts which were never intended to be used for anything other than publicity?

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Guest DCrux

Definitive, as in settling all debate isn't a threshold anyone else holds to, and it sorta defeats the point of a discussion thread.

 

A more suitable standard might be can a case be made?

 

Two-peat! GM wins LA Design Challenge again happens to pop up as a likely candidate. Did this come about, do you suppose, as a rigorous technical exercise? Or could this be a very nice way to do a press release due not to some future direction GM might take, nor a technical prowess the company is building, but to a short term PR window of opportunity?

 

No telling how blasé the premise will be come launch time. However, it's hot in the press right this minute -- isn't it? Why put up with a long, expensive product cycle when you have Solidworks?

 

Nokia's Dream Phones. Nokia has got the idea in grand fashion. Why bother with modeling at all? A phone which emits "peace vibes?" ...You're kidding me -- right? This has publicity stunt written all over it.

 

So what's shipping? From Your Imagination to Your Phone, Nokia Raises Personalization to the Power of One. Now this is what I call advanced personalization. Nokia shouldn't do press releases about anything but crayon based concepts.

 

Apple's first phone -- the STNKR explains the phrase used in the original article of "big bets." I'd like to see the concept version compared to what shipped here. Again, hardly definitive, but few things are.

 

Steve Jobs explains what likely happened.

 

Ask Apple CEO Steve Jobs about it, and he'll tell you an instructive little story. Call it the Parable of the Concept Car. "Here's what you find at a lot of companies," he says, kicking back in a conference room at Apple's gleaming white Silicon Valley headquarters, which looks something like a cross between an Ivy League university and an iPod. "You know how you see a show car, and it's really cool, and then four years later you see the production car, and it sucks? And you go, What happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! They grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory!

 

"What happened was, the designers came up with this really great idea. Then they take it to the engineers, and the engineers go, 'Nah, we can't do that. That's impossible.' And so it gets a lot worse. Then they take it to the manufacturing people, and they go, 'We can't build that!' And it gets a lot worse."

-- How Apple Does It

 

And so little of the concept gets into the status quo product that, were the concept put side by side with many a shipping product, many test participants couldn't even tell the shipping product was based on the concept.

 

Point being, it's not just the one article author's opinion that there's a concept to production gap. Again, the concept could be used to transcend the status quo rather than being dragged down by it. But that's not how concept designs are used in much of industry. Quite to the contrary of their intended purpose, concepts are used instead of innovation rather than a spur to push technology and build the future of the business.

 

GM isn't a basket case because of all the bold bets and far out concepts that didn't pay off.

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Guest csven
Definitive, as in settling all debate isn't a threshold anyone else holds to, and it sorta defeats the point of a discussion thread.
Nor should the Industrial Design community's consistently narrow focus on cell phones, shoes and cars be a (legitimate) threshold, yet it seems so many sweeping generalizations depend on those three areas for their justification. An outsider would be excused in believing that 99% of the work was in those three areas. If people want a real discussion, let's start with a more accurate survey of the design landscape.

 

With regard to your Nokia link, I'm unsure what the issue is. From the site:

Nokia's design team set up open studios where members of the local community could sketch their dream phones. Nokia provided the space and the drawing tools, and more than 220 people offered up their vision of the ideal handset.
Sounds like a focus group to me. A pretty interesting one at that.

 

As to your Jobs quote, that's a separate issue since the concepts he's addressing made it - albeit in typically bad form - into production. But that's less an engineering and manufacturing issue, I'd argue, than an ID (and project management) issue. When IDers fight for concepts that ignore business reality (and we know it happens a lot), whose fault is that? Not engineering's.

 

The "Us vs Them" mentality within the ID community blinds it to some larger truths, afaic. One of them is the importance of a truly well-rounded education which includes the sorts of things that other professions get as a matter of course (e.g. math, physics, biology, aso). And rather than worrying about PR-only "product concepts" (especially since winning that argument probably means money being transferred away from design firms and over to ad agencies), I'd say we should clean our own house first ... starting with design education. There are bigger fish to fry, in my opinion, than worrying how a company spends its ad budget. Personally, I'd welcome more "Minority Report" concepts and less spam.

 

p.s. - your link to the GM thing is borked.

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Guest csven
Two-peat! GM wins LA Design Challenge again happens to pop up as a likely candidate. Did this come about, do you suppose, as a rigorous technical exercise? Or could this be a very nice way to do a press release due not to some future direction GM might take, nor a technical prowess the company is building, but to a short term PR window of opportunity?

Thanks for fixing the link.

 

So let's consider this example.

 

First, this was the product of "GM Advanced Design", so I kinda expect to see stuff that's ... well ... not going to show up in showrooms in the typical 3-5yr ROI timeframe. I equate "advanced design studios" to corporate research labs. I wouldn't expect OLED's to show up in products a couple years after they were first developed either. It's been over 50 years since OLED's were first "conceptualized" and they're still not here. Why should I hold ID to a different standard? In 50 years cars might look like this.

 

In 1991, at a BFA portfolio presentation, I overheard the ID chairman at my school essentially tell a graduating student, Chris Lenart (now at lenart studios), that he was dreaming the impossible when he showed what amounted to a small cigarette pack-sized cellphone. That's good enough reason for me to try to keep an open mind.

 

Second, it's clearly a blue sky competition. Unlike too much corporate PR, no one's being misled.

"GM Wins First Place in Blue Sky Concept Design"
If GM's Advanced Design studio got some PR out of entering the competition, is that so wrong? Not as far as I'm concerned.

 

Third, let's examine the bullet points:

 

a & B) "The HUMMER 02 Concept features a revolutionary phototropic body shell that produces pure oxygen throughout the life of the vehicle. ... The sophisticated devices control and monitor the amount of carbon dioxide and source nutrition needed for the algae cultivation while optimizing oxygen production and distribution." - Yep. That's out there. But is it really so far out when research labs are working on commercializing white biotechnology (e.g. bacteria that "eat" styrene and poop medical-grade plastic)? Considering current efforts to "green" building exteriors, it's an interesting approach to removing CO2 even if I don't think I'll see anything like it in my lifetime.

 

c & d) "Four modular and self-contained fuel cells power hydraulic motors built into each wheel. ... Active Tread TM tires provide low resistance on the highway while allowing excellent off-road progress as their shape changes" - This is actually kinda interesting to me. I once helped another student work on a bike that incorporated a hydraulic gear system. Plus, I think I see how they're using additional hydraulic lines to alter the "run flat"-style tire's shape, which is potentially a more viable solution than morphing materials (which, btw, are quickly ramping up in research labs).

 

e) "construction specifies the use of 100-percent post-consumer materials, including an aluminum frame, seats finished with Volatile Organic Components-free (VOC-free) materials and glazing via PETE (similar to everyday consumer packaging, such as soda bottles)." - Y'know, I'd love to have worked on something like this concept. When I first read about this concept I'd not heard the term "Volatile Organic Component", so if I'd worked on this project, I'd at least have learned something. On-the-job training/education is itself a worthwhile activity. How much money is spent annually sending employees to training? That's an industry in and of itself. This is the kind of project that motivates employees to learn on their own, garners a little PR buzz, and potentially yields a patentable idea. Is that so very wrong?

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Guest DCrux
If GM's Advanced Design studio got some PR out of entering the competition, is that so wrong? Not as far as I'm concerned.

 

Again, were GM not so much a basket case it might not really be that wrong. Should (arguable point) a company use this not so much as external PR but to fool itself, then it is quite bad.

 

Don't Ignore What GM Forgot: Product Design

 

An important metric -- I'm willing to bet isn't watched -- would be the concept-to-production ratio. Even a loose attempt to gauge what isn't getting out of the design concept stage should be quite illuminating. I'm not talking not showing up for ten or twenty years, but never.

 

Today, fifty years might as well be never. Things change too much to peg a technology or approach out even twenty years.

 

Moreover, while styling was what kept buyers coming back year after year for the latest edition of their favorite car, Donner could not stand the prima donnas in charge of automotive styling. So, out of touch with where the public wanted the car companies to go in the future and completely dismissive of those inside of GM who did understand the proper evolution of the automobile, Donner slowly but surely led GM off the path to success. And Donner and his protégés in the accounting towers controlled GM’s fate for the next 35 years.

— GM: Cool But Misguided?

 

What's bad about GM? The cars Why develop concepts when you can't execute on today's reality? Maybe a little internal PR. Using concepts which are very unlikely to ship in any meaningful way can be a way for a company to fool itself into thinking it's more relevant, design, even customer focussed than it really is.

 

The current rallying cry at GM is, I believe, is GM's bad image from the 70s. Wrong again.

 

GM Doesn't Have a Bad Image. It Has A Bad Reality. GM doesn't have a bad image from the 70s. It has a bad image from right now. Lutz and the three new design centers may turn things around -- or they may just turn out more pointless concepts the company doesn't seem to learn from. GM won't be around for a fifty year concept to come to fruition.

 

It took Apple to take a concept to an actual market. ...Now. That's what's being criticized in the article.

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Guest csven

Ah. So GM failed because they put a little time and money into "concepts". It has nothing to do with anything else.

 

Oh-kay.

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Guest DCrux

The point of the criticism is concepts GM will not execute, but still uses to fool itself. The concepts serve internal PR purposes as external.

 

One point I skipped over: Focus Groups. Focus Groups - How The Aztec Made It To Production. "Unfortunately, some of the very strengths of such a focus group can also become disadvantages. For example, the immediacy and apparent understandability of focus group findings can mislead instead of inform."

 

Perhaps the real source cause is self-delusion as standard operating procedure. However, it is possible concept designs are the canary in the coal mine. A marker or visible indicator of the self-delusion which lies deeper in the company. As treatment for alcoholism includes neutralizing the enabling behavior of others, fictional concepts are enablers of deeper dysfunction.

 

Which is not to say the process around concept designs -- advocated by designers -- couldn't change. Like the surgeon general's warning on cigarettes, concept designs need caution.

 

As for money spent, concept designs could sabotage much needed self critique that should be going on about today's product designs that never lived up to yesteryear's concepts. In defusing potential critics who could be changing current product lines in a never never land of lollipops and maybes, a little money to sideline dissent and potential reform can be quite destructive.

 

A recalcitrant management might see the concept dungeon as a way to keep up the mediocre status quo. Keep in mind ambitious design likely pushes everyone out of their comfort zone. All the more reason a few bucks defusing change with fairytale projects is money well spent.

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Guest csven

So, in an effort to fall in line with all the other IDers like DCrux who think the occasional "product concept" (used only as PR and for no other reason) is destroying corporations, I read those links.

 

I remain unconvinced.

 

-

 

First link is from ... the Home Textiles Design website (http://www.hometextilestoday.com/article/CA6326314.html)? Written by someone named Jennifer Marks? In 2006? when gas prices were ... what? ... about half of what they are today? ... and Joe Consumer couldn't buy enough SUVs? and shareholders were loving what GM was doing (note the upward trend in share value between 2006 and late 2007 on the 5-year graph - Link)?

 

Putting that link in as support is just insulting. But at least it includes this at the very beginning:

Certainly, GM's problems include heavy pension promises, junk bond status and a whole host of things.
If it had been timely, it'd have included what might be the biggest shift in American driving habits since the automobile was introduced; a shift coinciding with one of the biggest jumps in oil prices.

 

I'm not saying the Big Three aren't to blame for their current woes, but the issue goes deeper than putting some concept cars out in the public eye. It goes deeper than the automotive industry. I'd argue the problems are cultural.

 

- GM is American. Toyota is Japanese.

- Americans tend to plan using a 3-5yr horizon (the ever-important 3-5 ROI issue). The Japanese are notoriously long-term planners.

- The U.S. can't produce enough engineers (something we've known for years, but which is continually pointed out ... as with yesterday's Wired article). Other countries export their engineers to us now.

- The U.S. can't consume enough energy; we're happy to waste it driving over-sized, fuel-inefficient vehicles. Other countries have been dealing with higher oil prices for years and lead in the development of renewable energy.

 

Dumping all the problems on a company's willingness to do the occasional "product concept" misses a much bigger truth. As does focusing - again - on one industry.

 

Where's the long list of "product concept" examples from other American companies in other industries that also got their head handed to them by foreign competition? Where are all the "concept small appliances", the "concept televisions", the "concept furniture", etc etc.

 

Neither Black & Decker nor GE design or manufacture small appliances anymore (even though their brand is plastered on many Chinese-designed and -manufactured toasters, coffee makers, clothes irons, aso).

 

Is there even an American television manufacturer left? Guess they shouldn't have been showing off a bunch of ... product concepts?

 

And how did IKEA become the big name in RTA furniture? Guess American companies were too busy showing flashy concept furniture.

 

There are plenty of issues with companies like GM, but putting a relatively little effort and money into a "product concept" intended only for PR (which I still haven't seen validated) is not, imo, one of the major issues.

 

-

 

As to the other two links, I'll let the words speak for themselves:

 

From "What's bad about GM? The cars":

GM keeps putting marketing and imagery over engineering. ... You might blame GM's woes on poor American workmanship ... Japanese cars are being assembled in the USA, and the quality holds up just fine.

 

So what's wrong with GM? The cars. GM is famous for being run by bean counters and ad men. Toyota is run by engineers.

From "GM Doesn't Have a Bad Image. It Has A Bad Reality.":

GM produces some solid, competent products

The first article laments poor engineering and blames focusing on high-margin goods instead of "the mass-market cars that once made it number one".

 

The second article essentially says the products aren't emotionally satisfying; they don't have a "blanket of appeal". Sounds like someone who was caught up in the "Design Has Won" bullsh*t from ... 2005.

 

So which is it? Are GM cars poorly designed and engineered or are they "solid, competent products" just lacking emotional appeal? It can't be both.

 

-

 

How about some better links? If you're going to convince me that "product concepts" (intended only or primarily for publicity) are the insidious reason for failing corporations, you'll have to do much better than citing Home Textiles and a couple of articles that contradict each other.

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Guest DCrux
So which is it? Are GM cars poorly engineered or are they "solid, competent products"? It can't be both.

 

If the word "some" is a percentage less than 100% (as in even a blind squirrel finds the occasional acorn) then yes, it is possible. If authors confuse the word engineering and design (as is common usage) then it is possible for GM to have acceptable quality standards -- something GM continually argues -- and not so hot design.

 

I remain unconvinced.

 

That's okay. Exactly what makes for discussion threads.

 

However, there is more than one person than the author who hold to this position. That position being not that concept designs are bad or a chief cause in and of themselves. Rather, concept designs are what I call a recipe for mischief.

 

These are ideas, phrases, behaviors, even products, which are magnets for misunderstanding and abuse.

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Guest csven
The point of the criticism is concepts GM will not execute, but still uses to fool itself. The concepts serve internal PR purposes as external.
You started off asserting that these are concepts never intended for anything but PR:
when you can get publicity for the concept -- why build it?

...

There are companies who use concepts as part of the development process (Apple) and companies which use the concepts as marketing props, never intending to learn from or develop product advances.

I've yet to see you prove that these concepts serve no other purpose than marketing and PR.

 

Furthermore, you've not addressed my contention that - assuming those concept are, in fact, only for PR - the money is already budgeted and it's arguably better to have blue sky concepts than more television commercials.

 

As to your assertion that GM "uses [product concepts] to fool itself", that's pretty bold. And I'd argue it ignores the much more reasonable assertion that GM focuses on short-term ROI and shareholder pressure. You can bet someone fooled their way to a big payday; either through a sweetheart deal or through some backroom dealing.

 

-

 

One point I skipped over: Focus Groups.

You're growing the issue without addressing the questions haunting the first. Rein it in.

-

 

Perhaps the real source cause is self-delusion...

And now you're playing armchair psychiatrist. Better to stick to the issue than venture even further into speculation.

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