Smart Design Innovation Begins with Materials
In this dialogue, designer, author and educator Chris Lefteri and Chip
Reeves, director of design programs at Dow Corning discuss the role of
materials in design innovation.
How important are materials in design innovation?
|CL: Materials are one of the driving forces in new
product development in so many design areas. The mass of new advances means
that designers have a huge supply of new tools that are available to help in
branding, interface and bringing new functions to products. It’s something that
originates from many areas: from consumers who are demanding more
environmentally sensitive materials to material producers who are developing
some amazing new materials and technologies.
Materials also matter far more than they used to because as the boundaries
between form, function, surface, interface become more blurred they provide one
of the strongest tools in taking our physical world to new levels of
Dow Corning Corporation
|CR: It is also amazing to see designers
creatively stretch the basic sensory characteristics and performance of
materials to deliver world-changing new products. And it’s not just the initial
impact that materials must deliver. Increasingly, materials must make sense in
the entire life cycle of new products.
Q. What are some macro design trends and how
are materials enabling key design trends?
CL: In terms of trends, the traditional role of the physical form of
objects is now only a part of a product’s performance. “Emotional attachment”
means that products must be imbued with another bandied about term:
CR: Silicone in kitchen utensils and bake ware is a good example
where the naturally soft and flexible characteristics of silicone rubber made
it an interesting material selection. People like the “feel” and the high
temperature performance allows entirely new “experiences” in baking.
Silicones for the kitchen and home were only recently “discovered” by the
design community, but the materials have been around for many years. It makes
us wonder about other possibilities to apply existing materials into new
CL: There is also of course the growing importance of sustainability
and the waste issue. I don’t think that this just means designers need to only
specify green materials, but more the issue of the most appropriate material
CR: We definitely see the growing interest in sustainability. Often
this translates to needs for better materials and for materials that improve
production processes by reducing waste, eliminating other problematic materials
or reducing energy and/or water consumption.
We also see a trend in product innovations for emerging geographic markets.
These situations demand robust, global supply chains for materials. Another
trend is products for the aging population which demands materials that enhance
human interaction factors.
CL: There is always the temptation to go for the most innovative new
materials without looking around to see what exists already. In his wonderful
book, called What is a Designer, Norman Potter says, “Don’t be conned into
thinking that only new materials or processes are worth investigating. Every
material available is strictly contemporary”
CR: I’m really glad that you mentioned this point. While Dow Corning
is constantly innovating new technologies, we have over 7,000 existing
products. Each has a unique and interesting story. Most of these products are
not well known in the design community. We believe there are many opportunities
for innovation with these existing and proven materials in entirely new and
unpredictable directions if designers have full information and perspective on
the possibilities to apply them to emerging design challenges.
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Q.What are challenges/obstacles to
effective collaboration between designers and materials companies?
CL: The dynamic of this relationship is really changing fast.
Suppliers are beginning to realize the importance of the design community and
that this community needs a different type of information than the more
traditional engineering industry. Essentially a large part of this is about
bridging the gap where actual physical samples are not available and giving
information that fills that void. It’s also about suppliers understanding the
process of designing and that it is as much a cultural activity as it is
something which is based on bringing a product to commercial fruition.
CR: We truly have a lot to learn. While we recognize the importance
of design, we still have most of our information and resources trapped deeply
in engineering-oriented web pages and brochures. Our challenge is to unlock
this information and make it accessible. We are also taking steps to reframe
how we sample to meet needs of “hands on” experience with materials and design
concepts. If we get it right, we have an opportunity to participate
collaboratively in the cultural activity of product design. Our employees like
to help solve problems, so there is a natural benefit if we can build the right
We hope to learn from the few materials manufacturers who are leading in
this area and to build examples for other materials companies to follow.
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Q.How optimistic are you that designers
and materials suppliers will collaborate more effectively in the
GZ: I believe that three criteria work for understanding the
performance of innovation activities. The first is “impact,” which is measured
by revenue and margin growth. The second is “return,” which we measure as
return on the investment made in terms of revenue and margin years after the
innovation activity starts to produce revenue. The third is “success rate,”
which involves evaluating the portfolio and activities and gauging the actual
impact versus predictions made at different points throughout the project's
evolution process. This is more of a real options look, not a net present value
analysis of the portfolio.
CL: I am super optimistic! I think that as the sophistication of the
web grows the interface between selection and information will be more
seamless. I also think that the traditional barriers between engineers and
designers are being broken, resulting in more collaboration. There is a very
well known computer manufacturer that produces the most beautifully considered
and detailed products. This can only happen because of a passion for working
with material suppliers, engineers and manufacturers to push the boundaries of
Chris Lefteri’s eight books on design and material innovation can be found
in most design studios around the world, the latest of which, Making It
Manufacturing, Techniques for Product Design was launched earlier this year.
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Dow Corning announces
Zank's appointment to presidential council - Dow Corning Corp’s
director of New Ventures Research and Development, Gregg Zank, Ph.D., was
recently appointed to the Nanotechnology Technical Advisory Group (TAG) of the
President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)
About Dow Corning
Dow Corning provides
performance-enhancing solutions to serve the diverse needs of more than 25,000
customers worldwide. A global leader in silicones,
silicon-based technology and innovation, Dow Corning offers more than 7,000
products and services via the company’s Dow Corning® and
brands. Dow Corning is a joint venture equally owned by The Dow Chemical
Company and Corning Incorporated. More than half of
Dow Corning’s annual sales are outside the United States.