How do we communicate ideas with things? How do branded products speak to us, as consumers, through their design? How does the decision between rounded or sharp corners of the iPhone impact how we think about Apple as a brand? Does any of it even matter? Newsflash: it does. It all matters and that’s why people like Dan Harden from Whipsaw, a 20-year-old Bay Area industrial design and engineering consulting firm packing serious product design experience, have dedicated their professional lives to pursuing perfection in the art and discipline of product design. Product design and branding are and should be inextricably linked. In Harden’s words, “Product design is the product itself plus everything within its orbit, such as an app, an operational interface, its package, and its service model. Product design as a discipline extends all the way to market.” Product design intersects with the concept of branding at three foundational times: at conception, production, and introduction. We’ll explore each of these time periods in the life cycle of a product and the influence and effect of a brand’s identity on their products and their perception.

The Conception of a [Branded] Product

“Brand identity, in addition to user experience and function, is what I call a ‘primary informant,’ ” Harden shares, “In other words, brand should highly influence and sometimes even completely drive a product’s design.” At the conception of a product, the brand identity is critical to what that product should become. Even beforeconsidering concepts like “look,” “feel,” or “user experience,” what the product does or why it exists in the first place are influenced by the brand of the company making the product itself. The “why” for the product is indivisible from the brand itself. “Brand perception and product design should be so integrated that you   can’t really separate them. To some users, owning a cool brand is sometimes even more important than owning a good product,” Harden offers. Take the brand out of the product and you’re taking the soul of what makes that product matter to anyone.

When balancing an impending new product with the existing brand identity, decision makers must determine how to innovate but only in a direction that makes sense for the brand’s trajectory. What do people expect from the company based on their historic brand promise and product portfolio? When asked the extent to which brand identity impacts product design, Harden responds, “You need to consider how the product design will contribute positively to that overall company impression and how it will complement the other brand components”—a tall order. We can all point to brands that have created too far from their niche, confusing consumers and even compromising user experience by doing what they don’t do well. The expectation of consumers is that brands will deliver what they do well to solve the problems of their brand following. Likewise, we can all point to the brands with capable captains at their companies’ helms, navigating consumer demand, product landscape, and brand legacy with aptitude and foresight. Those are the brands that live to innovate another day.


The Production of a [Branded] Design

Understanding a brand’s audience and the expectations for that brand is pivotal in designing a product and for the company that produces it. “As a product designer, you need to bake in brand attributes so customers can make the connection, while at the same time delivering on performance, function, and value.” A brand, in large part, dictates how people will feel about products—separate and apart from the truth and actuality of those products. How can you tell an Apple product is an Apple product from across the room without seeing the logo? You just can. But that doesn’t happen accidentally—Apple understands how to extract brand essence and transubstantiate it into product design. All great brands that continue to produce great products do. The fact is, a product that is produced by Apple impacts how the individual feels about that product and continues to experience that product well after they make the purchasing decision. The actuality of that experience and the perception of what sort of experience that person thinks they should have can be almost entirely attributed to brand perception and expectation. Pinpoint the microscopic target of perfect alignment between perception and reality and you’ve got a product that’s ready to work for your brand’s legacy.

What the consumer expects is the driving force behind what the company will (and should) deliver. It is up to the team of product designers to understand first what it is their people want and then how to innovate something that makes sense for the people, the brand, and the future. Great product designers “patiently usher the solution from concept all the way through engineering, prototyping, tooling and early production. You need to keep refining, tweaking, and improving it along the way because the solution is only as good as what ultimately gets tooled and mass produced,” asserts Harden. Every aspect of product design has opportunity to affect brand perception.

“Brand should highly influence and sometimes even completely drive a product’s design.”

The Introduction of the [Branded] Innovation

Products communicate. When we experience a product, what we are exploring is a curated brand experience (at least, hopefully). Beyond marketing, products themselves are the primary ambassadors for a brand. A great product takes the brand’s core reason for existence and marries it with its vision for the future and the individual purpose for that product. Great products communicate these ideas through look, feel, user experience, packaging, marketing, and placement. When products are synergistic with brands, people keep coming back for more. It just works. “A product’s form, features, color and materials all work together to communicate a product’s declaration of purpose, quality, brand, and value.” Miscommunication is a missed opportunity.

Planning the introduction of a new product only zooms in the focus on the consumer. Except now there is pressure to communicate something new aligned with the historic essence of the brand in order to affect purchasing decisions positively. Introduction must have both affirming and converting effects concurrently. Brand loyalists must be reminded of their enthusiasm for the brand and what it makes. Consumers unfamiliar or “not sold on” a brand must be enticed, educated, and convinced that the product (and brand) belongs in their life because it solves a problem or fills a void that they have. This “user experience” begins with the advertisement of the product itself. “Creating experiences that touch or help people in more meaningful and lasting ways; creating products that are relevant to what we need as individuals and societies; creating products that make life easier, safer or more fun; creating design that is inseparably functional and beautiful at the same time,” is the goal of people like Dan Harden and a noble one at that. Products speak and the stories they tell are telling of their brands and the individual creatives behind them.

The goal is to create timeless products that matter to people, because they solve a problem or improve their life in another way. Obsolescence is always the thief of legacy. “One mitigates this by creating as timeless a design as possible but also by doing what nature does—create brand DNA that propagate in all future product offspring,” offers Harden. Think ahead and plan for the future. With technological advances bounding forward, industry landscapes are constantly evolving. We see this in technicolor here in Silicon Valley. The pressure to innovate for better without causing excess is great in 2019. The burden is on the product design and brand teams to make more—not necessarily better—because what they’re creating matters from now into the forever future. “The scope and reach of design will grow in the future. I’ve seen design go from styling a product, to styling an experience, to styling a business, to styling infrastructures,” Harden adds. The burden of responsible creativity and ingenuity falls more and more to product designers and branders as the scope of that design increases. It extends far beyond the product itself. Within the product itself is all the power, however, and every screw matters.

Whip Saw
434 South First Street
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This article originally appeared in Issue 11.2 “Device”