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Universal Changes

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For Smart Design, better rendering makes for better products

by Brett Duesing

Few product designers have a more conscious emphasis on process than the New York/San-Francisco/Barcelona consultants of Smart Design.  The progenitors of the “universal design” movement in the 1980s, Smart Design today starts each project with extensive research into every aspect of product life, including its ergonomic use, brand identity, and on-the-shelf appeal.  Smart Design maintains a close dialogue with its clients to find an innovative and exacting solution for a new market opportunity, whether it is a sophisticated handheld device or simple household tool.

“Our job is to design, not necessarily to render.  We’re not a graphics house.  We’re not an advertising agency.  We’re a product development consultancy.  High-quality renderings aren’t our final deliverable,” says John Jacobsen, Senior Design Engineer at Smart Design.  “But 3D rendering is an important piece of the puzzle for us.  It helps us sell initial concepts; it helps us communicate; and it helps us build our clients’ confidence in the design progress.”

Smart Design is an example of how advanced rendering is being used not to make a final product look better, but to make a better final product.

Products friendly to everybody

Smart Design was founded nearly 25 years ago, corresponding with the rise of its first and most closely connected client, OXO, a manufacturer of kitchen gadgets, cleaning tools, and other household items.  Together, the companies earned the first widespread commercial success using the concept of universal design.  In theory, the central challenge in universal design is to create a product that can be used by a wide diversity of users – young or old, abled or disabled — without much increase in production cost.

“The pinnacle product that brought this idea to the forefront was OXO Goodgrips Peeler,” explains Jacobsen.  The objective was to make a potato peeler more usable for elderly consumers.  “The OXO design replaced the incumbent peeler, which was basically a bent piece of metal, with an organically curved handle of softer materials. A potato peeler is a pretty mundane, simple product.  Maybe it’s not high design, but very thoughtful, good, innovative design.”oxo_images_844

With the idea of friendliness in mind, Smart Design and OXO essentially re-invented many common tools by carefully studying the task of the tool and understanding its ergonomics.  The success of innovative Smart designs in the 1980s endures today in catalogs-worth of OXO products, and as influences to product development everywhere — especially in the handheld high-tech tools that have become as commonplace as potato peelers.  The curvy aesthetic, a friendly ergonomic feel, and an expanded palette of materials of early OXO designs have now become elements de rigueur.

“Product design in general is getting a lot more sophisticated,” says Jacobsen.  “Clients and customers are getting more specific about how they want a design to look.  You can see this in a lot of areas – cell phones, mp3 players, handheld games, or computer mice.  If you look at the fit and finish of these new products, they are fairly sophisticated in their surfaces.  Designers are pushing the envelope to make things that look better and that are made better.  This includes more attention to the palette of materials, like brushed metals or soft rubber textures.  Throughout the industry, designers are now operating on a level where all these subtleties come into play.”

Real-time feedback

Jacobsen recently added HyperShot into the digital workflow of the San Francisco studio.  HyperShot can take imports from both of Smart Design’s major modeling platforms, Pro/ENGINEER™ and Rhinoceros.  Besides being a far easier application to use, he says, HyperShot has an advantage over old rendering tools because designers do not have to wait hours to see the end result.shell_black_magic_hs50

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“The preview out of HyperShot has very high fidelity to what we’ll get when we do render,” explains Jacobsen.  “In fact, you really don’t have to ‘render,’ because HyperShot is always in this continuous rendering process.

“In most other tools historically, you’d get a rough preview, but it’s not really there yet.  You process a rendering, which might take a very long time.  You check it, and have to go back, adjust the settings a bit more, and do it all over again,” he says. “With HyperShot, you can really cut out a lot of those steps.  You get immediate results, minimize the amount of tweaking you have to do, and then move on with the project.”

Smart Design relies on renderings throughout its process, either as internal documents for discussion among team members, or to periodically show the evolution of designs with clients. “Feedback is what we get out of HyperShot.  The program is fast, so our feedback loop is faster,” says Jacobsen.

To gain the client’s green light on important features, Jacobsen can use HyperShot in lieu of PowerPoint in the conference room, or even during an online meeting via Adobe Connect.  HyperShot’s real-time rendering allows Smart Design to do the show live.   The presenter can change the look of the design model instantly, showing different combinations of materials, color schemes, and finishes right in front of the client.

For Smart Design, feedback is the fuel that propels the product development process forward.

“Primarily, good rendering helps us make decisions,” says Jacobsen. “The one thing we’re seeing as the process speeds up due to this very effective and controllable tool, is that we are able to put that time we saved back into our core function, which is design.   We reallocate the time the where it belongs, in the design process.  So in a very real way, Bunkspeed rendering allows to get a higher quality product out the door.”

The power of visual thinking

The careful forethought rooted the tenets of universal design – innovating simple items to include of more groups of customers – paradoxically gives Smart Design the means to specialize.  Recent products like Shell’s Black Magic auto detailing tools contain an attention to style, comfort, and function reminiscent of OXO utensils, but aim at only a narrow lifestyle market.  In this case, the same design elements appeals to the scrutinizing tastes of car tuning enthusiasts.
The lessons from universal design, then, are universal.  A product that looks distinctive, feels good, and works better naturally builds a rapport with its user, which forms a true brand relationship.  The actual shape of the product can create an identity more recognizable and powerful than just a logo on a package.
While tactile qualities and functionality are undeniably important, Jacobsen ranks this visual appeal as paramount, since it the most communicative.  This means that realistic and efficient rendering tools will take on an increasing critical role inside the development process.

“A lot of things we do in life and in commerce involve reasoning in a visual context.  You walk into a store, and you’re gravitated to what you see.  Visualization is the first step in a consumer’s reasoning process,” explains Jacobsen.

“Behind the scenes you need the tools, the process, and the methodology to support that kind of sophistication, and to meet the challenge,” he says. “To visualize that effectively and to really understand the subtlety in these designs, you really have to have the high-end visualization tools, like HyperShot.  It’s not really a choice anymore.”

About Bunkspeed
Bunkspeed is a leading global provider of visualization software and services for design, engineering and marketing. Headquartered in Los Angeles, California, Bunkspeed’s advanced visualization technologies leverage digital engineering assets and contribute to enlightened decision-making in the digital design process. The company’s clients gain a cost-effective way to deliver sales and marketing imagery, and realize significantly reduced product development costs. Bunkspeed’s customers include Nissan, Ford Motor Company, Volvo, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Land Rover, Pininfarina, Mercedes Benz Advanced Design North America and BMW Designworks. For more information on Bunkspeed’s products and services, visit: www.bunkspeed.com.

About Smart Design
Smart Design creates informed and inspired design for people and memorable brands for clients.  The award-winning Smart Design team has been turning insight and innovation into successful consumer experiences for over 25 years. Smart Design’s approach integrates product development, interactive experiences, brand communication, and strategic insights to ensure winning design solutions.  Smart Design’s consistent results are delivered by its multi-disciplinary, international staff working in teams across offices in New York, San Francisco, and Barcelona.  For more information, please visit: www.smartdesignworldwide.com.

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