Aesthetics. As a Designer, this term is one of the most overused yet undervalued, and misunderstood aspects of our work. Far too often, products aesthetics are seen as a final bolt-on, a finishing touch which might make a product ‘look nice’. Having considered this for a while, however, I think this rather over-simplifies and underestimates an aspect of design which ultimately drives the personal connection between the product and user. The very notion of drawing connections between users and products may seem to over-romanticize things somewhat and for the vast majority of products, we may feel nothing at all. They serve a purpose, they do a job, and we forget about them. In a few distinct cases, however, a product has an altogether more significant impact which enhances the very manner in which we use it.
One of the first products which truly impacted me was my first Macbook. Apart from being sleek and stylish by any measure, the entire product experience was welcoming, intuitive and crucially, undaunting. At the time I bought mine, laptops were still by and large enclosed in cheap plastic housings, with harsh styling and were known for producing incomprehensible warning and errors. The thought of using a computer at school, for instance, was not something which inspired a sudden rush of creativity or excitement, but rather as a means to an end. And that’s where I realised that the MacBook was different. I was genuinely excited to use it. I wanted to use it. And because of that attitude shift, I found that the work I did on it changed as a result. Upon comparing specs with friends it was difficult to justify the extra expense – on the surface of things, it was no more powerful, didn’t have any extra features, and to quote my friend had just “a pretty box around it”. And that’s where I feel that to simply pass something off as ‘aesthetics’ is a mistake. If done thoughtfully and carefully, product styling can change the whole way we interact with our products.
What’s interesting is that often this relationship between user and product goes unnoticed, and I think that it is for this reason, that styling and aesthetics are often overlooked during product development. People are drawn to particular products without being able to understand why. When we see a beautifully designed product it is often obvious, however, understanding what it is about it that makes it so appealing is not so easy. And the appeal of certain products often has the same effect on people regardless of whether or not they are consciously concerned about its aesthetics.
Recently I found myself at an exhibition of 3D printers with a group of doctors, there to choose a printer for their department to print implants. With a very specific list of required features and constraints, the team browsed the myriad of offerings over the course of the day. And which did they choose? The one with the ‘cool orange lid’. This is a product which will sit hidden away in a lab, used by maybe 1 or 2 technicians, well out of sight of the general public. The product style and design were at no point mentioned in the initial wish list, and yet those aspects proved to be absolutely critical in the ultimate product choice. Of course, the product technical specifications had to be correct, and as is the case with any number of products, the core product functionality is critical. However, as people, we don’t make connections with technical details. But we can with the visual features of the product. So many subtle impressions about the product are transmitted through the way it presents itself. From build quality to ergonomics and ease of use. The moment we first see a product we infer all sorts of impressions about these features, and a bad initial impression can be almost impossible to shake, even if it is ultimately unfounded.
So when you are considering your next product to develop, don’t leave styling and aesthetics as a last minute bolt on. Place it front and centre right alongside key technical features, and make sure that you resource it accordingly. At 4D Products, the Concept Development stage is arguably the most critical part of the project. It is the part of the development cycle where we as designers can impart the greatest value, and ensure that those first product impressions garner the best possible reaction.