The Process of Creating Star Products

By Gabrielle Whelan

As a consultancy, we’ve learned a thing or two over the years while designing products across a broad array of sectors. Some of these products have become standouts in their market area, and Whipsaw Director of Industrial Design Cole Derby and Creative Lead Elliot Ortiz have taken note of the similarities between them. (Not similarities in product, per se, but similarities in process.)


Get a Mix of Sketches from New and Experienced Designers

Design is a trade, so the longer you do it the better you get and the more you can cross-pollinate strategies that have worked in the past. Nothing is scarier to a new designer, however, than that blank piece of paper in front of them. There’s also no time to wait around for a creative jolt of inspiration when you’re under a tight deadline. Says Derby, “Sketching is the same as cooking. If you’ve never cooked before, you can’t just open a fridge and a spice rack and start throwing things together. Someone’s grandparent has no trouble getting started though, because they’ve accumulated a ton of recipes and can recall what has worked well for different creations.” That said, the biggest asset for new designers is their fresh outlook; something they can leverage to toss an original or unexpected idea into the think tank.

Even the most advanced designers can still get stuck in a project’s early stages though, and that’s when it’s tempting to use quantitative research to provide some direction. In our experience at Whipsaw, however, qualitative research trumps quantitative. Companies who rely on data to drive their designs tend to be in the medical and commercial industrial space, and when working with these clients we still opt to get out there and observe users in action. Says Derby, “A lot of qualitative reasoning is just watching someone use something. Over the years people have MacGyvered their own way of using a product that wasn’t even intended to be used in that way, and your job is to just observe their workflow and listen as they explain their process. If the person says, for instance, ‘Oh, that button is too hard to hit,’ then you think, ‘Okay, there’s a pain point.’” Qualitative research is therefore a great way to locate the heart of what will make a design a hit. Then, market data should be used to help with the finishing touches such as the colors and textures. All said, products that become bestsellers in the end usually have both seasoned and novice designers banging out concepts that incorporate qualitative research at the beginning.

 

Bring All Minds to the Table

The common denominator we’ve found between our hit products is that each one had all the minds at the table during the collaboration phase—including those directly working on the product and those directing the process. Says Derby, “I think it comes down to having all the decision-makers in the room at the same time. More money doesn’t help. More time doesn’t help. It’s conversations. Sitting down and getting to the meat of the problem. Watching. Listening. Asking questions. A designer getting to the root of the problem is like that little annoying kid repeatedly asking why.” Our multidisciplinary approach at Whipsaw also means we try to get outside of that Silicon Valley bubble and assemble a group of designers and engineers with diverse backgrounds and interests. Someone who grew up in Europe skiing every weekend is going to have a different perspective than someone from Michigan who geeks out on video games. Says Ortiz, “There are a bunch of firms who solve every problem the same way, but you can’t just throw the same texture on a medical device that you did on a consumer camera. Firms get stuck on a certain aesthetic because of a lack of perspectives.” 

One of our industrial designers, Aki Nakazawa, for example, has embarked on several solo backpacking expeditions around the world, so when we set out to design a backpack line for Ventir, he had a uniquely user-oriented perspective. His traveling experiences caused him to focus on the way the backpack’s components interlock, fold and nest. When he combined those functional elements with the visual simplicity the client was after, we ended up with something special. Says Ortiz, “Incorporating a bunch of different viewpoints and life experiences is the key to innovation. By that I mean ensuring you’re getting the opinion of people of different socio-economic classes, genders and upbringings. When you brainstorm with one type of person, you wind up entering a group think state, which stunts creativity.”

Once you’ve culled ideas from a variety of sources, thus begins the funneling process. It’s possible you’ll have dozens or even hundreds of sketches that fit the client’s parameters and brand. This can seem overwhelming, but the more ideas you have the better. Says Ortiz, “We have an extra-large soup of ideas which makes things easier to funnel. On the left, you have an idea that doesn’t work but looks really interesting, and on the right, you have something that works but looks like everything else out there.” When sorting through your many ideas, the right one will often present itself once you start eliminating the wrong ones. Says Derby, “In many cases it’s not about choosing the ‘right’ concept, but more about eliminating those that just won’t work. The laws of physics can’t be bent. The right concepts reveal themselves over time through the design process.”

 

Sometimes, You Just Know

“A lot of times you can just look at a new technology, hear a concept, or meet the CEO of a new startup and you just know it’ll be a hit,” says Ortiz. “Tonal is a good example of that.” At first, Tonal was simply an off-the-shelf electric motor hooked to a cable with a bar, and if you pulled on the bar you were met with resistance. “We just knew that was what was so important about it, and Tonal did a great job of sticking to their core offering of a purely digital weight training experience. You can wrap a concept in the most beautiful aesthetic but you need that essence of a great experience for it to also be a great product.” A similar thing occurred when we met with our client Tile for the first time. Their core offering stemmed from a personal need. They focused on answering why personal and/or valuable items such as laptops, keys, and bicycles couldn’t be tracked in the event they go missing. Says Derby, “I think for all the successful companies out there, their initial goal wasn’t to make money but to solve some personal pain point. The financial success then came when they discovered that pain point was also shared by the majority of the world.”

This is why it’s important to remind clients that to create a hit they can’t lose sight of their product’s core experience. Says Ortiz, “More often than not, startups need more help understanding how to focus on their initial goal. Since they have no history of success, it’s easy for them to forget their core strength and overburden a product with extra features or even pivot entirely…which is how they can get in the weeds. In those cases, we remind them of the product’s core offering and to focus on the experience associated with that. The most successful products always keep the user experience in the limelight.” When a client’s concept has that intangible, intrinsically great X-factor, it’s easier to help them create a hit product. In cases where the core offering isn’t clearly delineated at the top, however, the design process can still be used to help uncover it. Says Ortiz, “The discovery phase might be the crux of the design process in this case. You wanna know what the client wants so you can uncover something they didn’t even know they needed. That often creates a new aspirational point to focus on.”

*

Says Derby, “In design, the ‘ingredients,’ if you will, are the mechanical constraints, user pain points, physics, and opportunities to be solved. The spices are your personal creative touches. You’re sprinkling in the colors, crease lines, textures and materials. As with food, the spice makes the dish…and it also makes the design.” A lot of what we do at Whipsaw is finding different ways to incorporate our qualitative research and creative touches within a client’s constraints that still preserves a product’s original essence. Nowadays, it’s all about creating experiences rather than simply solving a problem. And if your experience is truly unlike any other, and you’re the first to get it to market and in an affordable and captivating way, you just might have a hit.