Posts Tagged ‘product design’

Fake it before you make it

quirky, keyshot, luxion, solo, product rendering

Renderings drive sales at Quirky’s social media design site

Growing product ideas out of social media is just one of the unconventional aspects of the business model at Quirky (  Another is the speed of development.  New marketable designs germinate at an unbelievable rate.

“We can build two products per week.  It may seem radical, and it is,” says Quirky’s head of engineering, John Jacobsen. “Although the designs are not fully developed at that point, we are still taking the community ideas to a certain level of refinement.”

Rendered images of these designs incubate on the Quirky website for further input.  Its community members are typically ordinary (if not slighty more opinionated) household consumers. These photorealistic previews spread through members’ social networks and attract cool-gear shoppers to Quirky’s catalog page, where they can pre-order Quirky inventions at a discount rate. The items that meet a given threshold of advance sales go to the factory first.

“The visual feedback is definitely a necessary component. The better the imagery and higher the fidelity, the more compelling the product is to consumers,” says Jacobsen. “People can appreciate the idea behind the innovations, but it is really the image of the design gets the customer excited enough to follow through with a purchase.”

For many proposals, Quirky posts the rendered images before the objects are even made.  Jacobsen and his team employ a design application called KeyShot by software developer Luxion, considered a pioneer in the new generation of automated rendering tools. Once you get past the fact that the images of some of Quirky’s recent projects like the Snow Dozer ice scraper and Ripple sink strainer are not photographs, you would think that the smooth-talking, studio-lit product shots must have taken days to perfect.

“What we are working with now is lightning fast. I have a laptop equipped with multiple processors and I am able to get high-resolution images from an engineering model in a matter of seconds. For our group, time is of the essence, so this kind of capability is crucial,” he says. “I don’t think we would be able to do what we doing at Quirky without these tools.”

The speed of the processing that keeps Quirky staff in their a high-paced schedule and allows for more numerous and varied product shots. Jacobsen can rotate the object within the studio environment in real time to find the most dramatic highlights and shadows.

Rendering used to be an afterthought, a task after design and before physical prototyping. As the technology has become more interactive, designers are looking at product components in a photo-real environment early and often.  Now consumers are, too.

“It’s becoming another means of evaluating the design itself, a way to judge the forms, materials and finishes. We use it internally to make those decisions. We often find something beautiful or mysterious about the design that we wouldn’t have planned, but we find along the way. High-speed rendering now makes that happen much faster.”

See more Quirky products at
Find out more about advanced product rendering at

written by Brett Duesing, Obleo Design Media


Storytelling through Rendering

Pensa and the new art of explaining products

Any one with new ideas has the same essential problem: convincing other people that they’re great ideas.

A single picture can sometimes convey the essence of a product design, but more often new ideas need multiple images to tell the whole story.  A visual product narrative traces the thought process that went into development through a series of renderings.

Like other forms of storytelling, there’s an art to good product narratives.  Some examples can be found at the website of the New York industrial design consultancy Pensa.  Rather than showcasing single shots of finished designs for such household brands such OXO, Bic, and Samsung, Pensa presents a series of slides that show why the innovations make for better products.

Here’s a few tips for clear and persuasive product narratives:

1. Get real

There’s a good reason firms are getting more creative with photo-real rendering output. Now there’s a lot more of it.

“A few years ago, the processing time used to be a limiting factor because if it took four hours per image, then forget it,” explains Pensa principal and co-founder Marco Perry.

“To show 16 to 20 concepts or multiple views would take forever.  With the new technology, anybody in the office can literally just drop the CAD in, take a snapshot, change the view, and then grab another one.  It makes rendering a non-event.  As a result, we now generate a lot more images and have higher quality presentations.”

Pensa employs an application called KeyShot by software maker Luxion, considered the pioneer in the new high-speed automated rendering.  Designers can generate entire photo realistic scene in a matter of seconds.

KeyShot’s high-resolution imagery provides the viewer more details than hand-produced sketches and generally leaves less open to interpretation in client discussions.

2. Place the object in context

Showing your product in its intended setting can give an immediate sense of what it does and how it’s used.

CGI applications now make it easy to render the product seamlessly into a photographic back plate with the same lighting effects.

An alternative method is to model just a few familiar 3D objects that subtly suggest the environment.  In Pensa’s renderings for packaging on Mr. Longarm’s stain applications, the model of the fence provides enough context without the distraction of too much background.

3. Demonstrate user actions


Innovation in products means users will do things differently. Where appropriate, include the user interaction with the proposed product.

In Pensa’s presentations, this is achieved with just a simple outline of a hand gesture or a standing figure.

The loose representational drawings on top of renderings convey the scale of products and their ergonomics while keeping  the spotlight on the product image.

4. Use Narrative Economy


Anytime you set up a rendering view or storyboard sequence you have to consider narrative economy.  A scriptwriter’s term, it represents the strategy of communicating more important story details in a shorter time interval.

Consider Pensa’s proposal for DC+/ethernet shelf.  Other objects — a ring of keys and a couple smart phones — communicate the functional features (it cordlessly charges phones, has hooks).  The doorknob behind it gives several contextual clues economically.  It establishes the shelf’s height without having to show the entire wall.  The viewer also gets a quick impression of what kind of wall it is, and therefore what kind of room it is.

The combination of these minimal elements makes the viewer imagine the whole scenario – the shelf is where you throw the contents of your pockets when you enter a home or office.

5. Speak to a wide audience


Consider your audience might get larger than the few industry representatives you are talking with now. The narrative might soon make its way to specialists in other departments —  from engineering to retail sales —  who’ll have their own set of questions.

Good imagery travels fast in large organizations, Perry says.

Make your narrative clear enough for even the layman can understand to allow newcomers into the conversation.  And include enough description to anticipate the concerns of both the manufacturer and the marketer.

Changing majors

Perry says everyone on his staff can render their own work, which makes visual storytelling a group effort.

“Rendering in the past required you to have the skills of both a photographer and a computer expert,” says Perry. “Because it’s now so fast and easy to make images, it removes the bottleneck that comes from having one particular staff member who is an expert at rendering and lighting schemes.”

Automated rendering may have eliminated the need for the equivalent of a scientific degree in order to get realistic shots.   At the same time, the technology may be introducing a requirement for a more literary-minded skill set in designers  – borrowed from cinematic direction, graphic design, and comic book art – to order to spin the most dramatic and impactful stories of their ideas.

See more of Pensa’s recent product narratives.
or browse through some other creative renderings.

Written by Brett Duesing, Obleo Design Media.  A version of this article appeared in DEVELOP3D Winter 2011.

Making Good


LifeStraw shows how products — rather than politics — may be the answer to the needs of the developing world

Lately, a small plastic tube has been lauded with superlatives. After it swept international design awards, TIME announced it as Invention of the Year, Forbes magazine called it “one of the ten things that will change the way we live.” Reader’s Digest chimed in with “Europe’s best invention,” and tech-reviewer Gizmag went one step further, labeling the tube “the invention of the century.”

The tube in question is called, LifeStraw®, produced by the Vestergaard Frandsen Group, a Swiss textile firm which has for years supplied developing countries with anti-malaria netting.

Although the 10-inch-long polystyrene tube seems modest in its construction, lifes_productthe problem LifeStraw sets out to tackle is of monumental scale. Sipping through a LifeStraw makes contaminated surface water drinkable.

“At any given moment, about half of the world’s poor are suffering from water-related diseases, of which over 6,000 – mainly children – die each day by consuming unsafe drinking water,” says company CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen. Today, 1.1 billion people are without access to safe drinking water. Diarrhoeal diseases affect the world’s HIV-infected populace (numbered at 33 million) especially, ranking as one of the leading cause of death among HIV-infected children.

LifeStraw may also be significant for another reason. One of the eight Millennium Development Goals set by the UN is to halve the number the people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. A simple and inexpensive product — rather than bureaucratic outlay of aid — is now poised to achieve this objective.

This raises the question: Can products of designers, rather than the policies of bureaucrats, alleviate the worst of the world’s conditions?

‘The Invention of the Century’

According to Roelie Bottema, the designer at Vestergaard Frandsen who modeled the LifeStraw, the idea originated nearly a decade ago, when world-aid personnel from the Carter Center assigned to travel in Sudan and Ghana to fight Dracunculiasis — also known as Guinea Worm Disease — which was particularly endemic to these regions. The simplest method was to build a filter into a straw-like construction.

The guinea-worm straw inspired the idea of a super-straw, equipped with a combination of polymer-based purification filters that would protect against a full range of pathogens. In the final design, each replaceable LifeStraw filter purifies about a year’s supply of drinking water for one adult, up to 700 liters. The LifeStraw filters kills 99.999% of waterborne bacteria, eliminates 98.7% of waterborne viruses, and removes all particles over 15 microns.

The idea of travel factors greatly into the proper framing of the water purification problem. Village drinking water often has safeguards already – boiling through cooking, chlorination, or filtering at the well source. Also, residents naturally develop some degree of immunity to the microbe content in their local supply. The biggest risk for infection comes when villagers travel outside their localities for work or trade.

“With the guinea worm, for example, people would have protection against this disease where you have villages.” says Bottema. “Because people travel so much, they get easily contaminated from outside water sources. If you have a solution that cleans your water inside the village, it doesn’t necessarily address the entire problem.”


Personal, portable, and cheap, LifeStraw ensures protection against unsafe water anywhere. Worn on a cord as a necklace, the durable, lightweight product provides even small children with a safeguard against waterborne diseases.

Design of the LifeStraw

The bulk of the research and development behind the invention took place in a laboratory. The University of North Carolina School of Public Health performed the large battery of tests for a wide range of filtering methods and media.

“You do a lot of testing to determine what sorts of filter dimensions and which filter media work best together,” explains Bottema. “In the end, you design the chambers according to the data. You make sure you know what the effect will be if you adjust the size of the chambers or if you find media that work better or as cheaper substitutes.”

Bottema crafted the injection-molded plastic design in a 3D surface modeler called Rhinoceros, a software used by industrial designers to give consumer goods their distinctive curvatures. Rather than aesthetics, the focus of LifeStraw modeling was the parsimony of construction costs.

“The biggest challenge of engineering the LifeStraw was to combine the right media at very low cost,” says Bottema. The cost of each personal LifeStraw is under four dollars. “It is not that hard to make a water-purification device. It is very difficult thing to make it affordable.”

Engineering Solutions

Another product making headlines for developing-world innovation is Plumpy’nut, invented by a nutritionist in the French firm Nutriset. Extreme food scarcity threatens the youngest the most. In Niger, for example, more than a quarter of children die from malnutrition before their fifth birthday.

Plumpy’nut is a simple protein-rich peanut paste fortified with other nutrients, which has been administered through Doctors Without Borders. Four-week treatments of foil packets of the product have been miraculous in reversing even the most severe symptoms of malnutrition.

Just as the design of LifeStraw addresses the real situation of villagers’ mobility with respect to water sources, Plumpy’nut satisfies the famine situation, at least better than the previous remedy, powdered milk formulas. Plumpy’nut takes up less space and costs less than powered milk. While prepared milk goes bad, Plumpy’nut has a shelf life of two years. The product can also be manufactured locally with ingredients common to much of the developing world.

Perhaps the most important improvement is the access to the relief. Fortified milk-based treatment required sanitary preparation by professionals at a feeding center on a daily basis, resulting in long lines and full hospital beds. The full four-week Plumpy’nut regimen can be given to mothers, who feed it twice daily to their children at home.

“With this one product,” says Dr. Milton Tectonidis, nutrition specialist for Doctors Without Borders, “we can treat three-quarters of [the] children on an outpatient basis. Before, we had to hospitalize them all and give them fortified milk.”

Framing the most dire of humane crises as a design problem — rather than a political one — may be the most effective way that industrialized nations can aid less fortunate countries. For innovative designers and manufacturers, it can as simple as considering a new, overlooked market – consisting of about one billion people.

Planners and Seekers

Former World Bank economist William Easterly wrote in this 2006 book (White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good) of the ironic example that millions of children all over the West unfailingly find their own copy of the latest Harry Potter novel at their local bookstore on the day of its release, while cartons of donated medicine sit in warehouses far away from the dying children of the developing world who need it. The difference, he writes, is that Western aid, although generous, is not tied to mechanisms of the market. There is no effective link matching resources to needs, nor any accountability between good intentions and beneficial results.

Easterly describes two mentalities to helping poor countries, the Planner and the Seeker. Planner thinking, abstract and political, is a macroeconomic and lawyerly approach, involving governments, banks, corporations and bureaucracies. The Planner approach has dominated in West’s interventionist attempts throughout the 20th century. In broad terms, Planner aid has failed to trickle down to the needy in time to save them, and its large-scale projects frequently misread the cultural or economic realities on the ground, leading to incongruities inside an already unfortuante state of affairs.

Instead of focusing on macro-level projects to re-make developing nations in the West’s image, Seekers look for simple, inexpensive solutions that have proven immediate benefits at an individual level.

The idea of well-designed products as a way to improve lives in the developing world fits well within Easterly’s definition of Seeker-type programs. A common element in many such community-based programs ties beneficial supplies to the local economy. The goods cost a token amount to prevent hoarding. A shopkeeper can make a small profit as an incentive to re-order supplies.

Designing a Better World

In VF’s case, the LifeStraw is sold in high volumes mostly to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Some organizations find that subsidizing the cost but still charging a small amount helps to regulate supply to demand. “The NGOs don’t always donate the product, sometimes they sell them,” says Bottema. “It depends a great deal on what the organization wants. Sometimes they ask for just part of the price.”

Incentives in product-driven solutions exist too for designers and manufacturers of the developed world, if they tune their ingenuity to the basic needs of a billion-person market. Vestergaard Frandsen and Nutriset are for-profit companies, which in typical entrepreneurial style, shoulders the risk of the product’s success or failure and supplies the upfront costs for the product’s R&D and manufacture. NGOs are in effect altruistic wholesalers, who instead of marking up the price, subsidize it with donations to fit into local economies.

If last century’s charity passed through the hands of politicians and planners, perhaps a system of aid in the new century will revolve around products. This may indicate a trend to greater reliance on the private sector than governments, and it may also change the way Westerners give donations.

As recent tsunami and hurricane disasters have shown, many in West are eager to give charitably, yet where and how the aid is spent is anybody’s guess. A more precise method of giving would address the specific means, not just a vague intent. Like stockholders backing a commercial product they perceive to have the most chance of market success, charitable donators could support the most effective solution.

Rather than aid siphoning through corrupt or inefficient bureaucratic systems, monies devoted towards a product like LifeStraw or Plumpy’nut ensure that maximum benefits reach the individuals in need.

About Vestergaard Frandsen

The Vestergaard Frandsen Group is an international company founded in Denmark in 1957. The company specializes in complex emergency response and disease control textiles, with clients all over the world. With headquarters in Switzerland and branch offices in Denmark, India, Ghana, Nigeria, Vietnam, Kenya, USA and UAE, and licensed production in India, Vietnam and Thailand, the Vestergaard Frandsen Group is able to meet complex emergency needs at a very short notice. Over the years, Vestergaard Frandsen has worked closely with most non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, as well as ministries of health in various countries. Vestergaard Frandsen takes pride in its superior technological and quality standards, innovative products and constantly works on new product development as complex emergencies require. To find out more about the LifeStraw product, or to make a donation to organizations distributing the device, please visit:

About Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros provides the tools to accurately model your designs ready for rendering, animation, drafting, engineering, analysis, and manufacturing. Rhino can create, edit, analyze, and translate NURBS curves, surfaces, and solids in Windows, without limits on complexity, degree, or size. Rhino gives the accuracy needed to design, prototype, engineer, analyze, and manufacture anything from an airplane to jewelry. Rhino provides the compatibility, accessibility, and speed in an uninhibited free-form modeler that are found only in products costing 20 to 50 times the price. To see the many diverse products designed with this affordable 3D tool, and to download a free evaluation version, please visit: