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?
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.
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.
Posted by Marko Plevnik
Principal – Industrial Design
English, Bosnian / Croatian / Serbian (take your pick!)
The last thing that inspired me: Eduardo Souto de Moura's concrete arches at the Sensing Spaces exhibition.
My dream project: I'm really wanting to make a pair of raw denim jeans right now!
My obsession: Mackrel. Sourdough.
Image credit Honda. BrewDog.