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An Interview with Kris Verstockt in Design Magazine

01-Jan-2005

Having studied in London and Belgium and then worked for more than 10 years in Taiwan, I have had the fortunate opportunity to design within different cultures.

Furthermore, during my career I have been active in the electronics industry providing product design services to large global organizations. Therefore Design Magazine ’s request to write about culture and design has offered me the opportunity to address subjects close to my heart and I am truly honored to be able to share some of my thoughts with its distinguished readers.

Although each customer has different tastes and emotional preferences, an interesting reality has recurred frequently during my cooperation with a broad range of different clients. Indeed, there is greater similarity in how each customer looks at good product development than most people would suspect. We all follow similar principles of design, we all have the same notion of what entails good quality, and we all strive to make better products. The culturally motivated dissimilarities only become visible in the details, not in the overall product strategy.

Everybody agrees that products coming from different countries (and cultures) have distinctive local characteristics. But you will find that enterprises in Tokyo go through largely the same development steps as their counterparts in Europe or the US.

It is important to acknowledge that there are brands who can break through regional taste barriers, Mercedes-Benz, Sony, Gucci, IBM, Coca Cola, and Nokia to name but a few. Sony products with their well-defined Japanese design language and Mercedes Benz cars with their German image might be expected to only be successful in their respective local markets. Yet, reality has proven otherwise.

Why is it that these organizations are able to create cross-culture products? The answer lies in the combination of value-added product development and regional branding strategies rather than regional product design.

When a device has superior specifications and innovative technology in combination with good product design, the balanced solution will be strong enough to break through cultural walls, even when the device ’s design has regionally recognizable features. Over time, these cultural features will become selling points rather than obstacles. We all know about ‘German engineering ’ and the ‘Japanese sense for detail ’. These concepts came to be not only because of the superior engineering and the eye for detail but also on account of the fact that the market links these qualities to the German or Japanese design style.

It is only fair to point out that the above companies did not achieve this global recognition overnight. A cross-cultural product works only if superior specifications and excellent industrial design are linked with an exceptional product and company branding strategy. It is interesting to note that global companies do not change their products per culture as much as they change their branding and advertising strategy. Everybody understands the aspect of excelling quality. The message that draws people ’s attention to that quality has to be different for every community.

Culture is passed on through verbal, visual and written communication and nothing is more regionally diverse than communication. People living just 100 km apart may not be able to understand each other ’s dialect very well. Their culture (and country) may be the same but they communicate it in different ways.

Hence, successful global brands use the same innovative and value added merchandise worldwide but they diversify the message so as to attract regional consumers to their product ’s surpassing qualities.

With a few exceptions, Taiwanese companies have not developed strong brand recognition or marketing power to promote their products within the global arena. For them, it is more difficult to control communication and they have to focus on the device aspect only.

Before looking at the problem of culturally motivated tastes, Taiwanese companies need to evaluate the strength of their product proposal. Based on a set of simple deductions, they will find out if their article can cross cultural borders or, if they need to invest in regional product design. Areas that have to be studied objectively are:

1) How strong is the technological innovation?

2) How strong is the improvement over products currently on the market?

3) How strong is the improvement on the user-device relationship?

4) How strong is the product ’s manufacturing quality compared to others on the market?

Only when these questions are answered sincerely can development teams look into the ‘emotional value ’ strategy called product design.

Let ’s say that your planned product scores pretty well on the above list. By no means can you eliminate good product design but it will be much easier to bypass cultural taste barriers with one, very good designed solution. Let it be based on a European, American or Asian design style.

Branded correctly with a regional advertising strategy, the consumer will recognize the added value of the total proposal. He or she will buy the product for its even balance between technical and emotional value.

In reality, though, chances are that your product ’s specifications scored quite low on the above questions and will only excel in one or two areas. When this is the case, a company has but two alternatives: see that your merchandise is the cheapest on the market or, invest more time and resources in creating additional ‘emotional value ’.

When being the cheapest is the primary marketing plan for your article it needs to be noted that, while sometimes a workable strategy for new entrants, this is really only a temporary solution. Sooner rather than later somebody else will be able to produce a similar device at a lower price.

Playing the price game is a good startup engagement to enter a certain trade but no company can base their long term strategy solely on pricing, unless they happen to own all major sales channels and can dominate an entire industry (not a very common situation).

The second solution is to invest in product design so as to instigate a stronger “I want it” factor. Especially when your product specifications are similar to others, design becomes the major differentiator from your peers. When items depend on this emotional value to create sales it is important that design teams are given the control to design more freely, more regionally, and with more specific user groups in mind.

When I ask company executives about their marketing strategies, many times they reply that they want to launch a certain device worldwide, both for males and females and for all age groups. Not only is this quite impossible, it is carelessly dangerous to do so. Yes, truly value-added products can have a worldwide breakthrough but even big multinational giants don ’t launch their merchandise without targeting a certain demographic population.

A comprehensive regional design strategy can compensate for mainstream product specifications when designers are allowed to study cultural and user behavior for local market segments. Too often time does not allow user-centric studies and companies end up with technically mediocre and emotionally generic items.

Can a design team create ‘cultural ’ product variations that will motivate different consumer groups into buying a product solution? Part of the answer to that question is hidden in the word ‘variations ’. Designers must have the freedom to customize products for several trade regions. This is not achieved by merely changing the color or parts of the device but by creating individual designs that tap into regional and cultural tastes.

On the other hand, it is a logistical nightmare to create too many versions of one product solution. Inventory will soar and shipping will become prone to mistakes. Therefore, designers must group different cultural target markets into several umbrella strategies.

When analyzing worldwide cultural taste differences it becomes clear that it is close to impossible to develop an article that will be equally successful in Europe and North America. Yet, the same study will show that it is quite achievable to set up an acceptable product language for Europe and South America or in several cases, Europe and Japan.

Bold and generic statements as the example above hold little value as umbrella design strategies are complex and different for each customer case. As designers it is essential that we do not generalize our profession. The whole point of our occupation is to bend the rules, to avoid generalizations and to think outside the box.

So it is impossible to explain exactly how to attack the problem of culturally oriented design in a relatively brief article like this one.

Nevertheless, it is safe to say that when a product has value-added specifications in combination with one excelling value-added design, chances are substantial that it will become a global success, even when it has regional design features.

When a product lacks multiple technological and innovative improvements, then a manifold of product designs will be essential so as to evoke the emotional attention of several culture and user groups, and to avoid seeming to be a “me-too” solution. Given the cost and complexity of product development, it is almost always worth investing in strong and innovative product design at the start.

Kris Verstockt. 
Executive Director 
CRE8 Inc.