Prosaic products go in for pizazz

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If your product isn't selling, try a new package. That maxim, long familiar to the people who make consumer products like "new, improved" soap, soda pop, and pretzels, is being adopted by companies making less everyday items, such as word processors and periscopes.

These companies are turning more and more to a group of specialists who combine art and science -- industrial designers. In the process, the industrial designer is having to come out from behind his drawing board, put on a suit, and be a businessman.

"There are 9,000 industrial designers in the United States," says Brian Wynne , president of the Industrial Designers Society of America. "And the field is growing. There is more of a demand for design than ever before. Industry is realizing the importance of a product's design in terms of function, value, appearance, and sales."

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Manufacturers, unable to invest heavily in new products during the recession, are turning to designers for updates of old ones, says Gregory Fossella, founder of New England's largest design consulting firm, Gregory Fossella Associates.

"There is always something which needs to be improved," says Richard Schneider, president of the New England chapter of the Industrial Designers, "and manufacturers are realizing that designers can boost sales by modifying products enough to make them sell."

The new interest in industrial design has moved a growing number of companies to bring in their own, in-house design departments who work exclusively for them. This has sparked increased competition among consultant firms for the remaining work.

Formerly, design was carried on almost exclusively from consulting firms such as Latham, Brefka Associates in Boston.

"The design field is changing," says Paul Brefka. "It just isn't what it used to be. We have to work harder now."

Mr. Wynne points out that the increased hiring of in-house designers reflects the growing recognition of industrial design's importance. "Especially in the East, firms are realizing that in-house designers are cheaper, more consistent, and indispensable," he notes.

At the same time, many companies are requesting multiple design proposals in an effort to find the best design at the best price. "The practice is new," Mr. Brefka says. "Used to be that a company would find one designer and stick with him. Now they're all shopping around -- which is good; keeps us on our toes."

As a result, the consulting firms are becoming "more businesslike," notes Read McCarty of Latham, Brefka. "They are becoming more aggressive by advertising and marketing their services. They are incorporating human factors and statistical research into their design to make it more versatile and professional."

Tradionally, the industrial designer was concerned only with appearance. This "artsy" tradition is being replaced by the new designer who plays an important part in the product's overall development and improvement.

Design now emphasizes the "human factor". Men and machines "must get along well," says Mr. Fossella. The concern for comfort and practicality is just as important as the appearance of a product. Human factors determine positionings, such as the angle of the screen on a word processor, or how far the stick shift is from the steering wheel in an automobile.

At Ford Motor Company, cars and trucks are constantly updated, both inside and out. Bill Carroll, assistant manager of design and engineering public relations, says there are over 900 designers. "The designers work with the engineers from scratch," he says. "They go back and forth for anywhere from three to five years. They're continuously updating and redesigning according to changes made by the engineers."

In offices, the rapidly increasing number of computers and word processors means many people spend eight hours a day in front of a terminal. If keys and screens aren't positioned correctly, it may mean stiff necks and fingers. In the redesign process, such problems are corrected.

"Designers are realizing things have to be adjustable," says Mr. McCarty. "Computer screens can be raised, lowered, and angled. Office chairs can be altered for longer legs."

These new demands require designers who once worked by instinct to work mor closely with engineers, using precise measurements, surveys, and clinical studies to make a product comfortable and convenient for the user. It also helps the product sell better.

And just what is the ideally designed product? According to Mr. Fossella, it is attractive and sophisticated, although not trendy. It is relatively easy and cheap to manufacture, and highly competitive with similar products on the market.

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