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When, in the summer of 2019, leading British supermarket Waitrose launched Unpacked – a pioneering packaging-free refill option for some of its own-brand lines – it was met with some scepticism. How much impact could the refill model have in solving one of our biggest environmental challenges? And how much influence can a retailer have in shaping more sustainable behaviours?

At Waitrose, the customer response was overwhelmingly positive, with over 80% of their customers saying they would shop Unpacked again and wanted an expanded range. And since launch, the Unpacked offer has helped save hundreds of tonnes of plastic and packaging. Waitrose is expanding their scheme further, to include more products and integrating it into the regular aisles in its shops, rather than being a dedicated space.

Image of lady using refills station at Waitrose Unpacked in London
Waitrose Unpacked. Image credit: Waitrose

Today, consumer enthusiasm for packaging-free and refillable options continues to grow. Yet, despite the reassuring signs that the current pandemic has not hindered consumers’ appetite for sustainable practices, the wide adoption of refills and dispensing models continues to present significant challenges.

Firstly, the customer experience on sustainable purchase models comes with a significant shift in influencing power. Who is pushing who to do the right thing? Is it the retailer, the brand or the customer?

Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, consumer brands have used packaging as a differentiator for decades. If packaging is going to be reduced, or disposed of altogether, how can these brands assert their presence in shops and drive customer loyalty?

Lastly, the rise of online shopping during the pandemic also opens up new challenges around transportation, the functional requirements of packaging and its sustainable credentials.

The how and where of the experience

To understand the broader challenge in refills and dispensing, the categorisation by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, leaders in circular economy practices, is a good place to start. By considering the methods of delivery – ‘on the go’ or ‘at home’ – and expected consumer behaviours – ‘return’ or ‘refill’, we can begin to understand how sustainable purchase choices might fit into our everyday lives, and their limitations:

  • Refill on the go, where you fill up your water bottle, washing up liquid, coffee grounds etc. from a dispensing point. Waitrose’s ‘Unpacked’ offering falls into this category.
  • Return on the go, where you drop off your previously purchased product at a designated point for recycling – such as SodaStream canisters.
  • Refill at home, where you receive a new product at home to refill your container, often transferring product from lightweight temporary packaging to a more practical and sturdier dispenser.
  • Return from home, where products are picked up and dropped off at your doorstep, the milkman being a good, old-fashioned example
Collage of sustainable refill methods.
Clockwise from top-left: Refill on the go, Return on the go, Refill at home, Return from home.

Across all those categories, the product and service experience must successfully meet the needs of consumers, brands and retailers alike. But unfortunately, those needs are not always aligned.

During our research at PDD, we have identified that, when it comes to refills and dispensing units, consumers tend to prioritise convenience, sustainability and – more recently in the context of the pandemic – hygiene standards. Brands on the other hand, tend to focus on visual branding and presentation and want to control the customer experience and reduce any risk of contamination. For retailers, reputation and sustainability credentials come first, as well their ambition to get customers to return to their physical or virtual stores for repeat purchases.

Addressing those conflicting demands requires careful consideration and a coherent design and development process that keeps customers at the centre. Otherwise, there is a risk of ending up with lowest common denominator solutions that turn sustainable shopping into something functional and unengaging – a ‘non-descript’ experience that does not communicate the advantages of the product and fails to persuade new customers to try and adopt sustainable behaviours. This would be a missed opportunity for brands, for consumers, and the world.

A point of no return?

To create a better, more integrated sustainable shopping experience, collaboration is key. Brands, retailers and manufacturers need to work together to accept the inherent limitations of the existing refill and dispensing models and use those constraints to develop new, more holistic people-centred solutions.

From a brand perspective, refilling at home offers excellent opportunities for innovation – the brand has a direct relationship with the consumer and control over delivery and presentation. On the other hand, it is difficult to keep the carbon footprint low because of the need for postage and temporary packaging.

In recent months, we have seen how the pandemic has given a boost to brands offering products through the refill-at-home route. Customers have welcomed the option to avoid queues and infection risks at supermarkets, whilst an increase in working from home did away with the fuss over deliveries. An example is Wild, a unisex deodorant subscription that delivers a refill-at-home product with pods that fit into a re-usable case and packaging that 100% recyclable and compostable. With a near-circular approach to waste, the brand has gained recognition amongst the informed, environment-conscious consumer.

Image of Wild Deodorant refillable pods
Image credit: Wild

But, in many ways, Wild is still the exception rather than the norm. Despite their best intentions, many consumer brands still struggle to define what a sustainable, convenient refill or dispensing experience is, particularly when the broader supply chain elements are taken into consideration.

The challenge is particularly obvious with ‘return-from-home’ services, whose carbon footprint is the same as it would be if the product was in the shop, and potentially double if the empty packaging is posted separately. We have recently seen brands look back to successful delivery models of past decades to try to address this issue, like fizzy-pop lorries where customers would buy the product and pay a deposit for the bottle, which would reduce the price of their next purchase when the van came back. A modern-day version of that is Loop which, in partnership with retail giant Tesco in the UK, offering a similar service for reusable containers filled with household brand products. With a limited number of brands on offer, there are still issues here to be addressed in terms of personalisation and consumer choice.

‘Refilling-on-the-go’, say, at your local supermarket presents an even bigger conundrum. If consumers have the responsibility of cleaning containers themselves and fail to clean it properly, fill it with food from a supermarket and then get food poisoning, the vendor might be held liable. Refilling stations were starting to appear in UK supermarkets before the pandemic, but the risk of infection from shared interfaces meant that plenty of these initiatives were paused. Even without considering the current health concerns, retailers would still be responsible for the maintenance, cleaning and presentation of these stations which can easily become messy or be mishandled by customers. This creates a tension with brands who lose control over customer experience and find their opportunities for aesthetic control reduced, presenting a challenge to brand differentiation.

Unthinking a more sustainable world

If as innovators we are to transform the way people shop and drive more sustainable behaviours around refills and dispensing, we need to ‘unthink’ and deconstruct how we look at everyday consumer products and experiences.

For instance, many of us are accustomed now to use a shower gel but, until relatively recently, most people used to be happy with bars of soap which require only a simple paper wrapper. Whereas the bar of soap remains flawed – it can become squidgy and slippery – there is opportunity here for improvement, with a design solution that might blend the convenience with a more sustainable footprint.

Homethings in the UK has addressed this challenge in the context of the home. It provides household cleaning products in the form of dissolvable tablets, eliminating the need to ship water. Water and air in products take up enormous amounts of weight and space so this is an elegant solution that might serve as an inspiration for others.

Image of HomeThings sustainable home products
Image credit: Homethings

A richer experience 

Wild, Homethings and Waitrose Unpacked are all laudable initiatives, but of limited scale. And whilst retailers are testing and developing new models, mass-market FMCG brands have largely fallen behind.

At a time when consumers are painfully aware of the impact of human activity on the climate and the environment, the pressure to provide a genuinely sustainable solutions is mounting. However, if sustainability is going to succeed in the long term, those solutions must also be appealing and desirable.

Refillables and dispensing present a fabulous opportunity for experience enrichment and customisation. Wild deodorant, for example, offers an excellent array of 9 scents including limited edition options. Perso, a ‘soon-to-hit-the-market’ initiative from L’Oreal, is an AI-powered home system that customises a user’s skincare, lipstick and foundation and results in a fully personalised experience. Brands should take note that an exciting level of personalisation is possible by formulating a base product and layering desired add-ons on top, giving people the chance to make the product ‘theirs’.

In rapidly changing landscapes, such as we are experiencing now, significant opportunities in refills and dispensing exist for those willing to try out new things. Our historic understanding of consumer priorities and habits no longer applies, and we need to be prepared to imagine new products and services through research, scrutiny, and testing.

Brands looking to take the lead in this area need to step back, think bigger and consider all facets of the product lifecycle for consumers, manufactures, distributors and retailers.

To succeed, they need to embrace a holistic human centred design approach and adopt a future-thinking mindset, with integrated, personalised experiences that support sustainable consumer behaviours not just now, but ten years into the future.

When was the last time you pulled when it said ‘push’?

Every day, we are surrounded by products and services that somehow, don’t work as we expect them to. Whether it is an ‘impossible-to-follow’ set of instructions or the ‘push’ sign on a handle that clearly invites you to pull, people are constantly forced to develop workarounds to compensate for poor design.

The practice of Human-Centred Design (HCD) was born to tackle those issues and is now widely recognised as a tool to create products and experiences that work for users and are therefore commercially successful.

However, despite the wealth of knowledge we have today around HCD, trying to understand what people really need remains a challenge, particularly when you are exploring something that did not exist before.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

The idea of asking people what they want is not new. Since the 1950s, advertisers and brands have invested millions on market research with a view to understand which products or services might work best for consumers.

But although market research techniques can help us explore a defined market segment or identify who might use a new product of service, it rarely delivers when evaluating innovation.

Asking people for their opinion about something they use on a daily basis doesn’t often turn into insightful outcomes. Asking them about something they have never seen or experienced in real life presents even bigger limitations.

Doctor going through results and medication on tablet with senior patient

When you ask someone what they need or how a product or service can be improved, they might talk about micro-changes – something small that they want, or that they think they want. Often, people find it difficult to express what they truly need, either because they cannot imagine doing anything differently from the current ‘norm’, or they accept a product’s flaw as something they have to live with. Through no fault of their own, most people lack the technical knowledge, insight and foresight needed to think up revolutionary concepts and better product solutions.

Therefore, we need to go beyond questions and observe and explore how people interact with the product or experience in a real-world setting. We need to look at not only how people use that product or service, but also their surrounding environment and how the product might fit into their lives. Only then will we be able to see what has not been said, get under the skin of users and identify their true needs and desires.

Human-Centred Design, or Design Research, opens levels of empathy to help us understand how people might interact with what doesn’t yet exist. Instead of surveys or focus groups, we use observations, ethnography, cultural safaris and a range of other tools to assemble a detailed, human-centred picture of the user. Rather than relying solely on what people say, we use the tools of anthropology, psychology and sociology in order to understand why people behave in the way that they do. This enables us to get to the bottom of their unmet needs, define challenges to solve, and establish paths for improvement.

Importantly, whereas market research might tell us about the what, Design Research focuses on the why. Our findings are therefore not just data, or anonymised statistics, but true insights into who the users really are, what they do and why they do it. It is in this why that the opportunities for innovation lie.

Photo of design team with sketches

Are we losing focus?

Since its adoption in the 1970s, HCD has become ubiquitous in design. Even those unfamiliar with HCD methodologies understand the importance of developing products and services that respond to the needs of users and consumers.

However, as HCD becomes widely adopted, we run the risk of diluting its impact. All-too-often, the research becomes a tick-box exercise – something that must be done as part of the development process but only to a certain extent or for a limited period of time, and that can be conducted without specialist expertise. This can have a negative influence on the outcomes. By applying tools inconsistently, without due process or a full understanding of methodologies, you risk missing important insights and can fail to identify internal and external biases. At best, a half-hearted approach might translate into a missed step-change market opportunity; at worst, you risk investing in a product or service that your target audience will not want, or use.

Set up for success

As well as having a clear process in place, the success of Human Centred Design relies heavily on the tools you use, or don’t use. It is a highly-nuanced task where emotional and cognitive ergonomics are important.

For example, when conducting healthcare research, you might end up talking to someone in harrowing, highly emotional circumstances – those with a condition, or who are caring for someone with a condition that has a significant impact on their lives. In those instances, you need to have a thorough understanding of how best to listen and empathise, whilst still guiding the research to ensure that goals are met and useful information uncovered to inform the design going forward.

Alternatively, you might be speaking with someone whose condition has resulted in a significant physical or cognitive impairment. In these circumstances, you need to choose the right tools to meet the research aims, but also to make sure that the methodologies do not influence or bias the outcomes. Just as in physics, the ‘Observer Effect’ – the disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation – is something we must consider and minimise as much as possible in Design Research.

Flexibility is also key, particularly in early-stage research. Being too prescriptive in the methodologies you use and the direction of the dialogue, runs the risk of missing crucial information, and results in a narrow or segmented picture of potential opportunities. Whilst it is important to have overarching aims for the research, following a flexible approach allows for greater spontaneity and the potential to adapt the interaction between the facilitator and respondent. In those circumstances, whilst the dialogue is guided by a pre-defined script, it allows the facilitator to pick up on interesting threads of information or observations that arise naturally throughout the research session.

In research, selecting the right tools is important; but selecting the correct respondents is also key to guarantee the collation of holistic findings. In that sense, a major component of successful research activities is the identification of stakeholders; those with a direct interest in the product, system or service you are going to develop. For example, when working with a world leading food and drink brand to learn what healthy growth meant for families, we had to acknowledge the needs of both kids and parents and explore the dynamics that might influence purchasing decisions. By broadening the stakeholder engagement, we were able to get to deeper, more valuable insights on people’s behaviours and motivations.

Look back to move forward

As the leader of the Human Sciences team at PDD, my background is in design and engineering. This is not uncommon – our entire human sciences team is a cross-section of talent with designers, psychologists, ergonomists and more.

This diverse expertise gives us a clear view of what’s coming down the line in the development process.  As a team, we understand people and their needs, but also the many challenges innovators face when turning ideas into reality – from the limitations of a manufacturing process to nuances of building digital interactions. At PDD, we tailor our research to produce the best results. We ensure the outcomes are always actionable, with insights that our clients can use to drive real-world innovation.

What’s more, as we move forward with the development process, we continue to look back. We go over the data to see how things fit together, identify where users are struggling and frame the most appropriate opportunity areas. And we never lose sight of the users to ensure that the products and services we create can deliver the market impact we were aiming for.

Grounded in Reality

In innovation, one of the most significant challenges is delivery. After all, turning ideas and concepts into products and experiences that succeed in the real world is not easy.

You need to have a clear process in place, but also a multidisciplinary team that can confidently drive ideas forward in a holistic manner, without individual biases. You must also keep an open mind.

At PDD, when following our research and the framing of opportunity areas we embark onto ideation we do so wholeheartedly. We embrace all ideas, no matter how far-fetched. In our experience, even concepts that might not immediately seem feasible might end up informing new elements or become part of a future product pipeline.

As we move forward with the development process however, we start filtering down ideas in line with commercial and business objectives. This is not a linear process but rather, a cyclical one – with researchers, technologists and designers working in close collaboration throughout to ensure our solutions respond to user needs but also that they are viable, technically feasible and grounded in reality.

Building confidence at a time of change

In a world where people have increasingly high expectations of what a product and service should do for them, being rigorous and having a clear understanding of people’s needs and aspirations is more important than ever.

Innovation can be a risky business and requires significant investment, both in terms of time and money. Only by developing experiences that truly address people’s needs, can organisations gain a competitive advantage, get better return on their investment and stand out as drivers for change in their industry and beyond.

Crucially, any piece of research should always deliver real-world value. How is that research enabling new opportunities? How can we act on the results? How will our work benefit our customers, our organisations, and our societies?

As innovators, we must never stop asking these all-important questions. Ultimately, research is there to give us and our clients confidence – the confidence that comes with knowing that a new product or experience has a meaningful impact in people’s lives and the reassurance we get from knowing that it can deliver market success.

Designing characterful experiences that encourage us to do the right thing

Over the last year, while in and out of lockdowns, moving around London has been a trying, intense and reflective time.

The limitations on our movements and use of public transport during the pandemic also brought a new vantage point to observe our cities and reflect on human movement and behaviour, and I have been particularly struck by the palpable increase of electric vehicles (EVs) on the roads in London.

Battery EVs are, of course, not the ultimate answer to our transport and environmental woes, but their increasing adoption and “normalisation” is certainly a step in the right direction in helping to combat emissions and energy use in our cities.

Although there might be many economic and social factors behind the rising number of electric vehicles in our cities, I cannot help but thinking that design has a huge role to play. Design can be a powerful driver in sustainability – it can inspire more accountable behaviours, encourage us to act more responsibly and in a way that is meaningful, and emotionally rewarding.

The importance of character

Going back to London’s streets, the automotive-design geek in me has been in full flow, and never been quite so engaged as with the repeated, continued sightings of a welcome newcomer– the Honda e urban electric car.

I can hardly recall having been so wowed by a new piece of design on first impression, where everything from proportion, detail, colour and proposition appears to have been so brilliantly and unashamedly focused towards a clear goal – a modern zero-emissions vehicle aimed squarely at the urban context.

Honda should be applauded for the bravery of not engaging in a specification war when it comes to electric vehicles. After all, when it comes to range, or acceleration, the Honda e is, by industry standards, pretty average. Instead, Honda remained steadfast in designing and putting to market a product that has a clear purpose and meets the near-term needs of the urban mobility problem with fun, personality and technology.

But, why does it stand out so much? To paraphrase the respected automotive designer Frank Stephenson, this is a car designed to look like a modern urban car and not an angry Transformer. Its charm is communicated from a distance – approachable, cheeky and far more human than most other examples of automotive design out there. It does not attempt to be worthy, but entices us to do the right thing by being desirable through its lovable nature and its innate comfort within its natural environment. Our urban landscape and lives in general need more of this bravery.

The composition of character

When it comes to design, it’s important to remember that ‘character’ as such is not solely the domain of surface, sculpture or large-scale objects. In the case of the Honda e, personality comes through in other interesting ways such as the interior and lighting design.

But you can look even closer. In recent months, I’ve been amazed when visiting a local hardware store that the queue to enter the premises was not the result of an enforced restriction to ensure adequate social distancing, but a line of people actively wanting to sanitise their hands for the second time.

Rather astoundingly, the reason appeared to be the sanitiser dispenser itself. More industrial and functional in its appearance than what most people would consider beautiful, it dispenses a fine mist of alcohol-based sanitiser automatically, but with an intriguing motion of the dispensing nozzle and a thoroughly appropriate mechanical sound. A machine that makes people want to do the right thing and sanitise their hands before entering the shop. Adults giggling like toddlers when having alcohol applied to their hands by a mini robot – who could imagine calling hand sanitisation fun?

Handpure Sanitiser.

On reflection, what makes this sanitiser work and the reason why it succeeds in inviting us to do the right thing is a convergence of multiple factors; the tactile dimension – a pleasing sensorial experience and more practical, distinct solution when compared to the cloying hand-sanitising gels we are all used to by now; and the character – poetry through industrial motion as the sanitising liquid is dispensed, reminding us that technology can facilitate a more effortless and even fun route forward.

A slightly different example also caught my attention recently, partly because the dynamic between product character and responsibility has evolved during its lifespan.

BrewDog, the Scottish brewery at the vanguard of the craft beer revolution, recently announced its shift to a carbon-negative company, removing twice as much carbon from the air as it emits in the production of its beer in a single year. The company purchased over 2,000 acres of Scottish Highlands to create the BrewDog Forest and plans to plant over one million trees over the next couple of years to offset its carbon emissions. In the meantime, it is working with partners to achieve these offsetting goals and investing over 30 million pounds to guarantee that all of its infrastructure and supply chain – from the use of only renewable energy sources through to minimising the waste of water during brewing – helps the business reduce carbon emissions and minimise the waste of precious resources.

BrewDog Make Earth Great Again.
Image credit: BrewDog

The important design aspect is that the essence of BrewDog’s products, the flavour, intensity and character of their beer hasn’t changed at all. Their stalwart beer, Punk IPA, is still very much Punk IPA, and people will continue to love it for its full-flavour hoppy intensity, only now there is an added dimension in its claimed responsibility credentials.

BrewDog, in their brash and industry-norm-baiting style, have not been shy to vocalise this new-found dimension (and with good reason, one can comfortably argue). But the initiative could have ended up as a footnote had it not been aligned with the overall company stance and ethos.

The great beer came first – it allowed users to build a relationship with the product, with a tangible voice and ethos that people loved. The company’s ethical vision followed – but without relenting or economising on the product’s character, to ensure that customers continued to engage with this newfound sense of responsibility.  By staying true to its character, BrewDog allows users to attain levels of responsible consumption and behaviour that might not have been achievable at the outset, ensuring that any positive impacts in responsibility will be warmly embraced in the future.

When it comes to talking about their initiative to reduce waste through the re-use of old-design aluminium cans, BrewDog says it best “…their uniform doesn’t quite look the part, but we can assure you it’s what’s inside that counts.”

A few things to remember:

Personality, soul – whatever we choose to call it, is as important now in design – and in our lives –, as it ever was. But how do we ensure that we can design products that people will connect and engage with?

Here are a few things we should always consider:

Truth: Focus on real needs

The Honda e’s focus purely on urban mobility is a great example. Make sure you fully understand the challenges, desires and motivations of people and the limitations and needs of our environment and context. Understand who you are designing for and account for all stakeholders’ needs and viewpoints.

Engage with, observe, and talk to as many people that have some bearing on the solution as you can, so that you can wholeheartedly understand what these needs are. Importantly, don’t be afraid to question whether a potential solution is needed at all, and what the wider societal and environmental impacts are likely to be. If there was ever a time to be brave, it is now.

Simplicity: Communicate clarity of purpose

Brought to life by the hand sanitiser’s emphasis of touchless dispensing, with a visibly curious spray wand. Whether it is visual simplicity, utility or functionality, or the innate need to reduce waste, always keep questioning and appraising any potential solution with total honesty. This is the only way to ensure that the story, character and use are unambiguously understood. What is unnecessary? What could we live without? Then be bold, remove these attributes and appraise again.

Humanity: Accentuate story and character

Brewdog’s bold tone cuts across everything, from graphic communication to the flavour of their beers, and it came long before their environmental mission could be put into practice. Account for every touchpoint across the user journey, because every step and interaction can be designed to provoke experiences that satisfy our senses and emotions.

Seemingly small things – the satisfying click or slide on a simple mechanism or door, the dynamics of an animation on a touchscreen, or the just-right mass and balance of a handheld device can elicit conscious and subconscious emotional responses that make us want to prolong these experiences and make them feel natural. There lies our power to influence better, more sustainable choices.

Designers have a duty to ensure that everything made by humans is ethical and accountable to its core – from the application of materials through to how and who makes it. However, a puritanical pursuit of reducing our impact will not suffice if we are to inspire people to do the right thing. We have a duty in shaping and encouraging ethical and responsible behaviour from people. We therefore need to strive for an intelligent fusion of the functional and the emotional if we are to design and innovate ourselves to a better future. Crucially, never be afraid to lighten the mood – we all share a desire to smile.

‘What is Design for China?‘ is a series of three blogs where we will be taking a look at design targeted at the mainland Chinese market. In our first instalment in the series we focus on how some Western brands are creating designs specifically for this increasingly discerning market.

An interesting story occurred when the PDD Hong Kong team, a mixture of German, American and Chinese designers, created a series of water bottle concepts for the China market. PDD designers were invited to create new packaging that incorporated elements of ‘Western style’ into a new bottle design. The drawings created by Western teammates focused on the more ‘outward’ view of Chinese culture, such as dragon and ethnic patterns, derived from historical references. During validation studies of these patterns almost none of the mainland Chinese participants selected the designs by our Western designers. But why

The dragon image has become an overused expression in Chinese design over the years. Very few products can carry a contemporary appearance featuring a dragon image. Chinese users often associate ‘cheap’ quality when traditional elements, such as a dragon, are used without another layer of depth. Even the most traditional type of products we use these days, such as moon cake packaging and New Year cakes, required careful consideration of colour and material design in order to stand out in the crowded market place.

Above image credit: Lamborghini veneno. Featured image: PDD

Let’s take Ferrari as an example, with the 458 Italia China Limited Edition launched on April 2012. While the application of the new ‘Marco Polo Red’ colour complimented the curves and overall form of the body, the black and gold dragon stripe running down the centre of the bonnet missed some of the subtle nuances that come with a deeper rooted understanding of the Chinese culture. Subsequently, the aesthetic of this limited edition was criticised in the media as “Ferrari Dresses up 458 Italia in a Chinese Costume”.

Business success requires comprehensive understanding of culture and behavior. Some Western brands trying to share a ‘piece-of-the-pie’ in the Chinese market, seem to have better success by adopting the local culture as best as they can. For example, the fast food chain, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), has done a miraculous job compare to some other Western fast food chains in mainland China. The figures below indicate the profit growth for KFC from ’08-’12 (despite the bird flu incident in 2012 which led to a drop in sales).

Image credit: The Wall Street Journal

KFC wisely didn’t try to take the exact look and feel of its U.S. restaurants and menu to China; instead they serve squid, fish sticks, rice and even congee during breakfast hours. In 2011, 50% of operating profit came from China, compared with 32% from the U.S. (Source: Slow Cooking China’s Still Good for Yum, Tom Orlik, The Wall Street Journal, June 2012). We believe that KFC’s success in China was based on attention to cultural insights.

Squid on a skewer from KFC in Shenzhen. Image credit: M.I.C Gadget

Chinese Congee (basic Chinese breakfast) served in KFC China. Image credit: Wandering China

Design and business are closely connected. Adapting to local preferences is the key to business success; in the case of KFC, their success was the ability to adapt to the local food tastes of their customers. We understand the importance of immersing ourselves in Chinese culture past and present when designing for the China market; combining our global skills with in depth regional knowledge and the nuances of client, culture and consumer.

We often hear and talk about the need for retail spaces to be designed to create the best shopping experience for consumers, but what about designing retail spaces for the store employees? Having briefly had a taste of what it is like to work in a high street fashion retailer, I have to admit I was struck by the poor back-store layout and how it affects the employees’ work.

With so much money spent on designing shop layouts and the drive for staff to create the best customer service while hitting sales targets, I had expected to see stockrooms and staff-only areas to be as well laid out as the customer’s shop floor. Instead, I was faced with the most divided and disorganised space arrangements. Stockroom locations are sometimes split on different floors, all accessed from different doors and different staircases, far from any fitting rooms where most of the stock often goes first before hitting the shelves.
If this was a restaurant, we would not allow food storage to be located in such places that would require staff to go cross the dining room to fetch new items and bring them back to the kitchen, in front of hundreds of customers. But in clothing shops it is often okay do to so because they are just clothes.
Too often it felt as if nobody had considered that people would be working all day long in these stockrooms. Has the thought of ‘what will workers do in these stockrooms?’ even crossed the mind of someone, rather than only considering ‘what are these used for’? With barely enough room to fit all the stock items, leave a delivery box or to open a step-ladder, it made me wonder: has the retail space been designed with the right people in mind?
Image credit: Clothing retail shop © Input Creative studio via

Shops are work environments too.
Work environments are usually designed, among many other factors, to improve workflow and employee efficiency. Yet, for fashion shops, a fast-paced business, the layout work puts such a big emphasis on reaching the consumer experience and promoting sales that it has left little space to think about employees’ efficiency and wellbeing.
Shouldn’t it be designed to create a positive (or at least neutral) working atmosphere for employees too, before being a shopping space?
Of course, I am sure there are many well-designed retail shops out there. It goes without saying that creating such space has many challenges, especially when it comes to rearranging existing buildings.

Having recently been to see the Light show at the Hayward Gallery, London, I am reminded of a trend I am seeing more and more of these days – reflected light. Like the artists in the show, lighting designers have recently been playing with light as the critical source material and focus of an object.

It often feels like you are receiving light in its simplest form – not so much moulded by a lampshade but displayed on a facade, raw yet still changed. Light is presented on a surface, rather than through a surface.

Image credit: Full Moon by Cedric Ragot

Designers are using monotone colours and primal forms to ensure that the light itself remains the centre of attention.

Parasol Table Lamp by Jonas Forsman. Image credit: PDD

Frequently, the structure used by designers encourages the user to become the real player and master of light; conducting your own light show, experimenting with your environment.

Image credit: Ricochet Light by Daniel Rybakken

I loved Daniel Rybakken’s Ricochet lights at Milan design week last year. Typical of his work such as the Right Angle mirror, Rybakken plays with light and shadowing, using different material surfaces to bend and change light.

I highly recommend catching the Light Show while you can (it finishes on the 28th April), not only are there some beautiful pieces to look at, there is a highly enjoyable interactive experience that goes along with it. Highlights include Anthony McCall’s You, I, Horizontal that creates a three dimensional space by cutting through a dark room with light projected onto mist, and Carloz Crus-Diez’s Chromosaturation which forces the viewer to perceive their environment differently according to the light projected around them. Collectively, all the artists throughout the show are playing with light in a way that moves beyond the customary shade. Something that we will hopefully be seeing more of within the home environment in the year to come.

There is a phrase “it looks so good you could eat it”, but are there times where this idea goes a step too far? Or are there lessons to be learnt when it comes to product design? In this post I take a look at the force that is food.

There is a lot that can be said about the world of food today. It is mega. In writing this article I have found that I could go on and on, and that others could probably say it better (and have), but there are a few points that I wanted to highlight here and discuss with you.
As food increasingly becomes a form of entertainment, it, in itself, is becoming more beautiful. If I compare the LV fashion shoot below, with this image of popcorn (above), it seems to me that there is a similar air of construction and styling. Colour, light, depth all handled with precision. Food has become fetishised.
[Image credit: Louis Vuitton]
Let’s eat everything!
And then there is the whole world of edibles – what is the obsession with eating everything?! As if we weren’t already eating enough! On a serious note though, the current research done into edible packaging is interesting, take a look at Wikicells and start to envisage a world of reduced plastics and paper. Even Victor Vetterlein’s Bite Me lamp makes an interesting foray into transient objects, considering a product’s decomposition after use. Soak his lamp made of biodegradable plastic derived from vegetable glycerine and agar, a gelatin made from sea algae, and you have yourself a plate of jelly. Or just stick it on the compost heap.
[Image credit: Victor Vetterlein]
Glamour Glaze
Promotion – designer collaboration
As discourse around ‘design’ becomes more mainstream, it is not surprising that brands start clambering to collaborate with the latest creative geniuses. IBM did it with, Marks & Spenser with Marcel Wanders, and food brands are no different – Glamour magazine partnered with Krispy Kreme and Hagen Dazs Japan joined forces with Nendo. Interestingly, Nendo’s brief was to design an aromatherapy candle holder giveaway to Japanese consumers as a premium gift. The act of eating Häagen Dazs is typically marketed as something of a special occasion, for when you need a treat, or perhaps wanting to impress a potential suitor. Creating an aromatherapy candle, with the scent of creamy vanilla reinforces Häagen Dazs’ brand reputation surrounding luxurious experiences, while retaining Nendo’s classic and simple design ethos.
[Image credit: Häagen-Dazs Japan]
Food has so many meanings in our lives – the self-indulgent moment, the social facilitator, the romantic first meeting, the nervous comfort, the apology… It is no wonder then that it becomes a powerful vehicle for artists and designers, as well as cooks, to connect with audiences in any culture.
[Image credit: Fact or Fiction myth-busting food info-graphic]
Construction – information design
Food’s power to convey interesting contradictions, celebrations and opportunities is perhaps why it had been fully adopted in information design.
Often you may be wondering if the food is the communication or is the communication actually food. This blurred boundary is what spurred me to write this post in the first place, I am interested to see that food as become a form of entertainment and ultimately a new way to construct identity… to become part of the cool gang.
Entertainment – new social currency
I blame M&S for starting the whole ‘sexy food’ movement. Before, we had normal food and artisanal food, but after that advertisement – you know, the one with the piping hot chocolate pudding and crispy roast potatoes – everyone got a bit more sensual with their food. Since then, brands have understood that to really excite our taste buds they need to show movement in food, to make it less two dimensional. Cue dripping sauces, wafting steam and bouncing Brussel sprouts.
And what makes experiences so great – the moment of discovery, being the first, the chance to tell your friends that you were there… and it was amazing. In the last year the number of apps rose dramatically, offering smartphone users social platforms for capturing food and even photoshopping tools to beautify their pics, helping thousands of people show off their latest discoveries.
[Image credit: Caviar Mani by Ciate]
Allure – tempting the senses
Of course, I could go on – cooking blogs, food-bots, chef communities, artisan take-away services, food trucks… but what really interests me is what this all means for product design? I am in no way advocating that TV’s should look like beef wellington or respiratory devices look like Cornettos. But what can we learn about the allure of food and create products that are just as appealing to consumers?
Good lighting might be one thing, but also to understand the importance of the senses; touch, smell, sights and overall the need to create mouth-watering expectation. The macaroon bakers Ladurée branched into beauty last year, using all their skill and branding for food and applying it to make-up. Whatever your design taste, the above example of packaging pulls on all the brand’s heritage and glamour and entices with a glimpse of something special within. Anticipation is a key word to consider.
[Image credit: Ashtanur by Ido Mohar and Baruch Mogilevsky]
P.s… Novelty – why not?!
Of course, there is the plain and simple novelty side of things. Who doesn’t want a pitta pencil case?

Our Principal of Design Insight, Maeve Keane, was approached by Second Sight magazine to write about the key trends that she thinks we’ll be seeing in 2013. Here’s what she wrote.

Surrealism, the new Escapism

Surrealist visual expressions and experiences will provide a welcome diversion from austerity in 2013. After years of economic woes, people are growing tired of spending cuts and pared-back aesthetics. While we won’t see a return to traditional luxury, people are looking for affordable forms of escapism that offer a touch of luxury and exclusivity, if only for an evening. We are already starting to see this emerge in some high-end restaurants that offer up a strange cocktail of whimsical interiors and high-end dining to divert people from their everyday lives to make them feel special.

Joey Ho’s restaurant design provides an escape from the busy streets of Hong-Kong into an M.C. Escher inspired interior that uses playful, optical illusions to encourage diners to contemplate another world. Even furniture design is taking more risks, displaying unusual materials, colours, form-factors and finishes than we saw before the economic crash.

Image credit: designboom

Surrealism takes on science in furniture designer Maarten De Ceulaer’s Mutation Series. We’re also seeing hopeful expressions appear in the form of brushed, brightly coloured metallics and muted glitters, which hint at the light at the end of the tunnel.

Image credit: Ameblo

From Provenance to Personality

This year the narratives told around ‘local’ products will shift from being about provenance (where something was made or where the raw materials originated from) to being about the ‘local’ person behind the product. The need to differentiate from other local products as well as the popularity of storytelling platforms such as TED, that celebrate individual ingenuity on a global scale, will drive brands to focus more on the stories of the ‘local people’. Big brands will lead the way, showing their ‘everyman, down-to-earth’ image in the face of the growing anti-corporate movement among some consumers. Gucci’s recent campaign in Japan celebrates the nation’s master craftsmen while Jack Daniel’s use unknown local artisans to market the brand’s sense of American heritage and originality.

Image credit: Infoniac

Beyond Monitoring

On the technology-side, the year will bring monitoring products that will be more sophisticated in their functionality. As people become more comfortable with using technology to manage their health, innovation in this space will focus on health and beauty.

In 2013 and beyond, we’ll see products that don’t just listen to and report on issues, but also predict outcomes, offer advice and even treat symptoms. Products that are already indicative of this change include Color Frame, from Fujitsu Laboratories in Japan, a smartphone app that tracks a skin condition over time, detecting the areas on which wrinkles and blemishes are likely to appear. This allows for preventative treatment before they materialise.

The weathered old man approached me in one of the impossibly difficult to find grocery shops in Havana. Though he spoke no English, he communicated through body language and fierce pointing that he had a small, hungry baby at home and that I should buy him the outrageously priced powdered milk. Fortunately a friend had warned me of this “baby hungry needs milk” hustle. He said that the scammer, usually a woman, with babe in arms, approaches you and begs for the powdered milk. After you buy the milk, she sells it back to the store and keeps 80% of the proceeds, as the shop owner and scammer are in cahoots and price the milk artificially high. Interestingly, my friend had warned me about popularity of this scam in India. It seems to have crossed borders, and genders, and made it to small Caribbean island where many inhabitants depend on tourists for their livelihood.

I wonder whether the common scams in Cuba will likewise make their way to India?

In Cuba, the first hustler my travelling companion and I encountered intercepted us outside our pre-booked casa particular (bed and breakfast), explained that he was the owner’s son and had been sent to apologise that the casa was full, but that he was take us to another. He earned his keep as he carried our luggage through the hilly, hot cobbled streets of Trinidad de Cuba for half and hour (see photo) and we learned a lesson a few days later when we found out that he was not the son of the owner of the original casa, but a jinetero (literally, “jockey”, figuratively tout or hustler), hired to bring customers to other casa owners.

What would be great is a tool that tracks the origin and spread of such scams across the globe, like Rhiza Labs Flu Tracker.

And it could be combined with a  mobile  app that lets people contribute their own experiences, similar to the City of Boston’s Citizen’s Connect App  which lets people Geotag and report potholes, graffiti and other issues.

Anyone up to the challenge?


Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum on the world’s biggest tourist scams.

Top 10 tourist scams.

Search results of “travel scams” on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forums.

Lonely Planet, 10 common travel scams in Thailand.

India Mike’s site on scams and annoyances in India.

Rick Steve’s tourist scams in Europe.

Rick Steve’s tourist scams 2005.

Bangkok scams

The China Primer.