CANADIAN BY DESING
Industrial designers, in their quest for product improvement, have carried out many odd experiments. But Jan Kuypers, a dignified Dutch-born designer, must be one of very few who have tested their designs by sliding down them headfirst on their stomach. Of the hundreds of products that Kuypers has worked on during the course of his 30-year career in Toronto, he says that a children’s playground slide was among the most fun. Asked by a small manufacturer, Paris Playgrounds of Paris, Ont., to design a slide that could be taken apart for easier shipment, Kuypers’ firm came up with a six-foot-high spiral model that can be packaged in a box so small that it fits into the trunk of a car. “Instead of loading a fully assembled metal slide onto the back of a truck and driving it to a playground,” explains Kuypers, “they can put a postage stamp on the box and mail it off.” He says that Paris Playgrounds soon discovered that in addition to solving the company’s delivery problems to an existing market in southern Ontario, the new slide enabled them to expand their horizons. Says Kuypers: “It gave them an international market for the slides, and it made them a lot of money.” But Kuypers’ playground slide is the exception rather than the rule. Typically, few Canadian companies have looked to innovative design as a method of adding value to their products. As various studies have repeatedly pointed out, Canada does comparatively little to turn its
abundant raw materials into finished goods. “For most of the past 50 years this country has enjoyed such a high level of productivity and wealth by just selling our resources, that it wasn’t necessary to care about design,” said Howard Cohen, president of the Design Exchange, a Toronto-based agency charged with promoting design awareness. “But now we’re going through a major restructuring of our economy and design is one of the key tools that will be employed in the New Economy.” Donald Macdonald, the former Liberal finance minister who headed a royal commission a decade ago that examined Canada’s economic problems, laments Canadian businesses’ slowness in using design. “Some of them see it as a frill, some of them may think it’s culture with a capital C,” said Macdonald, who is chairman of the Design Exchange. “But if Canada is going to be a better producer and exporter of products, design is what’s going to do it.”
Swatch watches are Macdonald’s favorite example of how a flagging industry, in this case Swiss watchmakers, rejuvenated slumping sales by focusing on design. Traditionally, Swiss watches were finely crafted, jewelry-like objects that were status symbols as much as timepieces. But when Hong Kong and other Asian manufacturing centres began making watches of comparable quality at much lower prices, Swatch, a subsidiary of a Swiss company that also manufacturers such traditional watch brands as Omega and Teissot, retaliated by rethinking the watch. In 1983, the company began using modem materials like neon-colored plastic and quirky designs to make playful, inexpensive watches that became popular fashion accessories. Now, other traditional watchmakers are copying Swatch’s success.
From watches, playground slides, fashionable clothing, store interiors or computer software, design appears to be shaping up as a key business tool of the 21st century. Just as the production line became
the symbol of the industrial age, design characterizes the information age. In the future, an ever-increasing proportion of the world’s population will be working with their brains, solving problems rather than making things with their hands.
The definition of design can be very broad and it is not merely concerned with appearance. Design is a combination of appearance and functionality. Even in design projects, like movie sets, in which the ultimate goal is mainly appearance in its most superficial sense, the designer must be concerned with how actors will be able to function on the set. In the case of industrial design, which is employed in product manufacturing, function and looks are both important in the process of marrying new technology with consumer needs.
While design may come to symbolize the information age, it is also crucial to manufacturing. Global competition is increasingly pushing product prices and quality towards single international standards. When the price and quality of all competing brands of a product are the same, then it is a product’s design—the way it looks and the way it functions—that will determine whether it sells. John Tyson, who as vicepresident of corporate design at Bell-Northern Research (BNR) in Ottawa is head of the largest corporate industrial design group in Canada, compares design with “table stakes,” the ante required for admission to a high-stakes card game. “In the future,” says Tyson, “you won’t even be able to get into the game without it.” Blair Wilson, head of the B.C. division of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association in Vancouver, says Canadian companies have to follow the lead set by the world’s best manufacturers. “The president of Sony has said that in the 1990s and beyond, design will be the only difference between products,” he said. “Unfortunately, Canada has been slow to understand that.”
Part of the explanation for Canada’s lag in design can be found in its
trade history. Jacques Giard, director of the school of industrial design at Carleton University in Ottawa, says that Canada never developed its own design capabilities because it imported so many of its manufactured goods, first from Britain and then from the United States. By contrast, the United States, as a result of the American Revolution that ended in 1783, was cut off from the supply of finished goods made in Britain. The Americans were forced to develop their own manufacturing industry and, with it, fledgling design capabilities. “The Americans became a culture of inventors, though one without a long-standing art tradition,” says Giard. “Some of the products of that period have been called Early Awful or Early Halloween, but at least they were making them.”
In Canada, the manufacturing industry got off to a slower start and industries that were not forced to be innovative tended to stagnate. The residential furniture industry is a case in point. When the 1989 Free Trade Agreement lifted trade barriers on furniture imports, the domestic industry worried because market surveys revealed that consumers did not recognize their furniture as being Canadian-made. But Giard says that the industry has only itself to blame. He says that for years Canadian furniture designs were merely copies of products viewed at international furniture shows. “They won’t admit it publicly, of course,” says Giard, “but when I’d sit with them in the bar over a drink, they used to laugh about their designer, Mr. Polaroid.”
Canadian designers argue convincingly that it is not their fault that Canadian manufacturers lag in design. In fact, many of them spend much of their time working for foreign clients who use the very design expertise that Canadian businesses overlook. The designers say that only a company’s senior executives can harness the potential of design.
Declared Giard: ‘You cannot have good design without enlightened management.”
One of Canada’s most commercially successful designers, Donald Watt, confirms that a company’s top executives are key to the effective use of design. He credits his success at the Ontario-based Loblaws grocery store chain to owner Galen Weston’s innate good taste, which, he says, leads instinctively to an understanding of what design can accoms plish. Watt’s training as an industrial designer led him to work as a re tailing consultant in Europe, which in turn brought him to the allencompassing design work that he does for Loblaws. For the past 20 years, Watt has designed everything from the architecture of Loblaws stores to the package for its chocolate chip cookies.
Working together with Weston and Dave Nichol, president of Loblaws’ merchandising arm until he resigned in November, Watt was behind the introduction of Loblaws’ President’s Choice products. By developing the distinctive products, Watt gave customers a reason to shop at Loblaws instead of other grocery chains, which carried the same brand-name products. His approach has been so successful that Watt has now undertaken a similar project for Wal-Mart Stores, the Arkansas-based retail giant. There the product line is called Sam’s American Choice, after Wal-Mart’s late founder Sam Walton.
Unfortunately, Loblaws represents the exception rather than the rule: too many Canadian business executives dismiss design as an expensive frill. Giard notes that he is often approached by small local manufacturers who want to sponsor design contests for his students. “They tell me that they want to offer a prize of $50 to the student who can design the best such-and-such product,” says Giard. “But it turns out that all they want to do is get a cheap design. They’re prepared to put their product in the hands of a student who has probably never done any commercial work before.” He adds: “They’d never do that
with their legal matters, or their accounting, but they think design doesn’t matter.”
Alexander Manu, a Romanian-born industrial designer who heads Toronto-based Axis Group, laments the lack of focus on design in Canada. He does a lot of work for Asian computer and other electronic equipment manufacturers and observes: “The Japanese would never think of bringing a product to market that hadn’t had extensive input from an industrial designer,” says Manu. “Of course, much of their work is done by European or American designers.” The Japanese, because they tackled the challenge of selling products to foreign markets 40 years ago, realize the value of using designers who understand the consumers in their target markets.
Manu, like most designers, is passionate about his profession—especially about the social benefits of good design. He is so passionate, in fact, that he is irritated by the suggestion that design is primarily a moneymaking proposition. “If a company’s only goal is to make money
I can’t do anything for them,” says Manu. “They have to have a greater purpose, something more than just making a buck.”
He cites his experience designing a refill container for kitchen plastic wrap as an example of a recent project that was inspired by more than profit potential. Motivated by environmental concerns, one of the country’s largest plastic film manufacturers asked him to design an inexpensive container that could replace the cardboard box with a metal serrated edge in which the wrap is usually sold. Manu designed a plastic box that he says would work better and would be easier on the environment. The only problem, he notes, is that the big retail store chains remain unconvinced that there is any advantage in making space for the dispenser. One prime reason is the $15 cost, comparatively hefty for stocking on grocery store shelves. Still, Manu asserts: “They don’t give a damn. If they really cared about the environment they’d be leading with this kind of thing, not resisting.”
Despite the resistance, however, when necessity demands it, Canada’s spirit of innovation can rise to the challenge. Canada has some exceptional design-oriented companies. Bell-Northern Research, the Ottawa-based research and development arm of Northern Telecom and the Bell telephone companies, is one made-in-Canada success story. There, industrial designers take basic technological inventions and turn
anufacturing household appliances has never been a Canadian strength. But one product has become a design legend in Canada: the electric kettle. Fred Moffatt, 81, worked on early models as an industrial designer for Canadian General Electric (CGE) in Barrie, Ont., 50 years ago. Moffatt says an engineer working for Canadian Motor Lamp, a CGE subsidiary, in the late 1930s was probably the first person to make an electric kettle. Seeing how much the domeshaped chrome shell of a Buick headlight that CGE manufactured resembled a stove-top kettle, he put an electric heating element into the bottom of the dome and added a spout and a handle. That first electric kettle made its debut in stores in 1940. It was an immediate success, and in 1941 Moffatt was asked to improve upon the original model. “It was well engineered,” recalls Moffatt, “but it wasn’t well designed.” His first change was to raise the height of the handle because users burned their knuckles on the dome.
Over the years Moffatt kept changing the kettle’s design to stay ahead of new competitors. He says, for instance, that he changed the kettle’s original round shape to an elliptical one simply to make it more difficult for rivals to copy. Some 50 years later,
Moffatt has retired, CGE has disappeared and the North American manufacturing industry is shrinking. But the electric kettle is as popular as ever.
Now, Moffatt’s 49-year-old son, Glenn, 9 updates it as a freelance designer for
Canada’s last remaining manufacturer js of stainless steel kettles, Superior"
Electrics Ltd., of Pembroke, Ont. Superior’s national sales and marketing manager, Marven Mandel, says that even though it costs several hundred thousand dollars to design a new kettle, the company introduces a new model every year or two. “Customers like the new fashions and they’re always upgrading in their kitchen,” says Mandel. “I’d have to say that design is just about the most important thing for a kettle.”
Despite the popularity of the electric kettle in Canada, however, CGE never managed to penetrate the U.S. market. For that, Moffatt blames U.S. parochialism. According to him, consumers there seemed to like electric kettles—-Americans in border cities crossed into Canada to buy them. But General Electric resisted efforts by its subsidiary CGE to export them to the United States. Moffatt recalls that, eventually, designers at GE’s U.S. headquarters designed their own kettle but it was too costly and was soon discontinued. Moffatt describes it as an awkward-looking overdesigned kettle. And to this day electric kettles remain uncommon appliances in American kitchens.
them into products that consumers can easily use. Says Tyson: “The technology alone is not valuable until it can be translated into something that a consumer wants or needs.” Although individually most of BNR’s design innovations are usually only small advances, over the years they have helped to transform telephones from large wooden, wall-mounted boxes to portable, fold-up devices that fit into a pocket. Tyson notes that one of BNR’s more dramatic innovations made its debut in 1967, when Bell Canada introduced the so-called Contempra telephone. For the first time, Bell designers incorporated the telephone receiver, transmitter and dial into the same hand-held headset.
Bombardier Inc., the Montreal-based transportation company that invented the snowmobile, then the smaller Ski-Doo and, more recently, introduced the popular water-borne SeaDoo, is another Canadian design innovator. Denys Lapointe, director of product design for Sea-Doo and Ski-Doo, says that design is key to the company’s success. Bombardier introduced the first Sea-Doo, a craft that is to boats what a motorcycle is to cars, in 1967, long be fore any other company had a comparable model. But it withdrew them from the market after a few years because of lack of consumer demand. It was not until the mid-1980s when the popularity of a stand-up version by the Japanese motorcycle manufacturer Kawasaki proved that a
market had developed that Bombardier reintroduced its Sea-Doo in 1988. The industry now has four major competitors, with Bombardier as the leader. “It’s hard to quantify the contribution of design,” says Lapointe. “But we had zero per cent of the market in 1988 and now we have 35 per cent. We’re No. 1 and we’re leading the industry. Design has to be important.” Bell-Northern and Bombardier’s achievements are based on selling highvalue niche products that face limited competition. By contrast, some experts say that more Canadian companies should follow the example set by the best-known international design leaders, such as IKEA, the Swedish furniture retailer, and Braun, the German appliance manufacturer. Those companies have capitalized on design in its narrowest sense—a pleasing, distinctive appearance—to set their otherwise ordinary household products apart from a host of international competitors. IKEA specializes in designing and retailing furniture and household objects, while the manufacture of most of its products is contracted out to companies around the world. Recognizing the crucial importance of its designers to its success, IKEA occasionally features them in its advertising. At Braun, head designer Dieter Rams has created such a simple yet distinctive look for Braun’s appliances that they are instantly recognizable. Rams himself has become so famous in Europe that he has developed a cult following in design circles.
But even with those companies, a strong team of designers is only part of the key to their success. The first step to success is for a company’s senior executives to appreciate the potential of design. “Someone once asked where the Dieter Rams of this country are,” said Giard. “The real question is: where are the Max Brauns?” he added, referring to the company’s founder.
Still, there are indications that Canada’s appreciation of the value of design—both among company managers and Canadian consumers—is growing. Toronto’s Tom Deacon, an architect by training, has no trouble selling his graceful wooden chairs that retail for as much as $1,200 (page 45). And although the Canadian furniture industry has not been on the cutting edge of design in the past, Deacon says that is changing. He works on a freelance basis and says that his time is completely taken up by regular assignments from several Canadian furniture manufacturers.
Many industrial designers agree that Canadians’ design awareness is improving. But they use a much more modest benchmark for design awareness than Deacon’s pricey chairs. They point to the Canadian Tire and Consumers’ Distributing catalogues. The mass-market catalogues are the true measure of the design savvy of the majority of Canadians, they say, and there the image is getting better. “There are products by Braun, Philips and Olivetti, all design leaders,” Manu says. “And there are hardly any TV sets with fake wood-grain sides any more.” Clearly, if more businesses would stop feigning an interest in design and get serious about it, more of the catalogue products would actually be made in Canada. □