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Consuming Passions: In Product Design, Form IS Function

We used to distinguish between form and function, but in today’s design economy form is function.

As manufacturing costs go down and the amount of “stuff” that people accumulate goes up, consumers increasingly want to buy things that will provide sensory stimulation in addition to simply doing what they’re designed to do. A Dilbert comic strip poked fun at this trend when it featured a product designer who declared: “Quality is yesterday’s news. Today we focus on the emotional impact of the product.” Fun aside, the new focus on emotional experience is consistent with psychological research that finds that people prefer additional experiences to additional possessions as their incomes rise.

Two young entrepreneurs named Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan discovered that basic truth when they quit their day jobs to develop a line of house-cleaning products they called Method. For years companies like Procter & Gamble plodded along, peddling boring boxes of soap powder to generations of housewives who suffered in silence, scrubbing and buffing, yearning for the daily respite of martini time. Lowry and Ryan gambled that they could offer an alternative — cleaners in exotic scents such as cucumber, lavender, and ylang-ylang that come in aesthetically pleasing bottles. The bet paid off. Within 2 years, the partners were cleaning up; they vacuumed up more than $2 million in revenue. Shortly thereafter, they hit it big when Target contracted to sell Method products in its stores.

There’s a method to Target’s madness. Design is no longer the province of upper-crust sophisticates who never got close enough to a cleaning product to be revolted by it. The red-hot store chain has helped to make designers such as Karim Rashid, Michael Graves, Philippe Starck, Todd Oldman, and Isaac Mizrahi household names. Mass-market consumers thirst for great design, and they’re rewarding those companies that give it to them with their enthusiastic patronage and loyalty. From razor blades like the Gillette Sensor to computers like the Apple, from imposing roadsters to the lowly trashcan, form is function.