General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, the historic “Big 3” American automobile manufacturers are on a deathwatch. Their collective futures appear to be solely dependent on the political whims of the United States Congress. As they burn cash, are strangled by huge legacy labor obligations, confront perceived quality issues and offer cars that are out of step with consumer tastes and needs, the future looks bleak for each.
There are many reasons for the demise of these legendary manufacturing behemoths. I believe the most important cause is that for too long they did not emphasize unique, elegant design. It does not cost any more to make an ugly car than a handsome car. When I sit at a traffic light today I cannot differentiate one American model from another. As a child growing up in 1950’s America, I clearly remember going for Sunday rides and identifying every car make by the rake of the fenders, the unique headlight treatment, grille fascia and the vivid two-tone sherbet colored paint jobs specific to each model. What happened?
Design in product development is crucial to product desirability. A Krups toaster is more aesthetically pleasant than a pedestrian Emerson model. An Italian leather sofa is typically more stylized and desirable than a chain store sofa offering. Apple computers are more visibly enticing than their competitor’s units. Who would not rather drive a Smart car than a Geo Metro?
The most desirable design features are usually simple. In industrial design the term “elegantly simple” is used regularly to denote product improvements that are not overbearing or complex. This concept is a modern adaptation of “Occam’s Razor”, a theorem proposed by an ancient monk that the most useful solution to problems is almost always the simplest solution.
There are many wonderful examples of designers of that have enjoyed great success by employing “elegant simplicity”. One of my favorites is the classic modern jewelry designer and artist, Elsa Peretti. Her body of work is a classic collection of “less is more”.
Ms. Peretti, born in Florence, but residing in New York, has been a fixture on the international jewelry design scene for over 30 years. She became a principal designer for Tiffany in the 1970’s and famously collaborated with fashion designers Halston and Giorgio de Saint Angelo to accessorize their most famous haute couture fashion collections.
Her most recognized and lasting design is the “Peretti Floating Heart”. The simplicity of the piece is enhanced by the undulating wavy cleave that is inherent in the object. The heart seems to float and engenders a feeling of warmth that connoisseur’s have valued for decades. The ” Peretti Floating Heart” has been a mainstay in Tiffany’s stores and catalogues and been offered in dozens of styles, pieces and combinations since it’s initial presentation. The timeless influence of this design alone would insure Elsa Peretti’s place as one of the great artisan designers in history.
When Halston began work on his eponymous fragrance brand he turned to Elsa Peretti for inspiration. Her adaptation of the “Peretti Floating Heart” into the stylized sculpture that became the Halston perfume bottle is considered one of the classic designs in the history of the fragrance industry. It sells briskly to this day.
Ms. Peretti, like Raymond Loewy, Pininfarina, Felini and Erte created design, art, and fashion that is timeless. These artists realized that form and function are actually one joint element that can insure commercial success. We forget this at our peril. Just look at the current situation of the “Big 3”.
When we review new product submissions at our marketing consulting firm we apply a simple methodology to measure potential commercial success. Does the item adhere to the basic principal of “Occam’s Razor”?
Are the features and benefits inherent in the submitted item an advance over existing products in the space? Is the form and design distinctive enough to clearly differentiate the item from competition? These are only a few of the elements we review when grading opportunities.
Product designers, inventors and entrepreneurs need to study history’s successes and failures. Businesses come and go. Brands soar and decline. You are never the greatest, only the latest. Unique design is invaluable to long-term product success. Do not dismiss this crucial product component.
Elsa Peretti has built a lasting success and legacy by focusing on design, quality and “simple elegance” that defines her work.