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Young German designer Konstantin Grcic is known for his hip, functional, and versatile objects -- like his sleek, portable Mayday lamp, a plastic conical light that comes with a handy hook that's just as much at home in a car-repair shop as in a chic urban living room. But for the past three years, Grcic has been designing household appliances for Krups.
Grcic's latest creation for Krups is a state-of-the-art home blender that made its debut on May 19 at New York's International Contemporary Furniture Fair, a must-see event for retail buyers and design aficionados alike. Krups recruited Grcic to re-invigorate and update its brand, while making sure that he maintained its identity as a maker of high-quality, nearly professional cooking equipment for everyday use.
When Grcic was first approached by Krups, he had never designed a household appliance, let alone tried to make over a manufacturer's brand using design. So he decided to formulate a strategy to better communicate and update the Krups brand. Grcic devised what he calls "formal codes," or visual cues, that define what the brand stands for.
These design elements, consisting of particular shapes or materials, shine through as "Krups-like" in each appliance, no matter how different its function is from another product. By articulating and outlining different types of materials, shapes, or appliance controls before actually designing each product, Grcic found that he saved time and was able to distinguish Krups goods from others on the market.
Grcic spoke with BusinessWeek Online's Reena Jana about his concept of formal codes, his design for the new blender's innovative control panel, and why it's key for designers to remember to not think like an expert. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow.
How did you devise the idea of "formal codes" to help define a brand?
I think this is part of any designer's job when asked to create a whole line of products to represent a brand. It's a very marketing-oriented strategy, but also a necessary structure or tool for us to design products that are consistent with the brand across a range of offerings that are very different.
How do you jump from kettle to espresso maker to blender but communicate the same message?
We have to create a certain alphabet or formal codes that give us some guidelines. We started by speaking about architectural qualities that these machines should have -- an architectural volume or body. I like the architecture metaphor because all buildings have the same basic elements: doors, roofs, walls, floors. When you focus in, an individual one obviously has a lot of details. But they have different scales or different formal codes.
What sort of research did you conduct to formulate the formal code for Krups?
We started by looking at existing products and history. Also, we looked at what kind of communication existed about the brand. How do they photograph or talk about their products? Krups used to be German. What does it mean to be German? In terms of German colors? Sounds? Touch?
But in terms of products, I felt that I had a lifetime of research. Since I was a kid, I've experienced household appliances. Part of the beauty of being a product designer is that I feel like I've had my whole life to research how things work on a daily basis. I've literally been unconsciously putting together a bank of experience.
Most important, common sense is needed. A designer needs to protect a certain feeling that you aren't an expert. Why? The end user isn't an expert. No one reads the direction books anymore. So it's important to show users what a product is, so he or she can immediately understand it and feel comfortable using it.
So what exactly are the formal codes you created for Krups?
We broke down the idea of Krups into what was simple and essential about the brand. Krups stands for a kind of semi-professional machine. So we only use materials that are quite solid, namely aluminum or glass, and not plastic, to convey sturdiness, durability, value, and performance.
All of the designs are more or less angular. But on another level, on a smaller scale, I used other formal codes to communicate how to use the appliances more efficiently. The best example of this is our use of softer details, like rounded shapes, in parts of machine where you interact. You know where you hold the thing or touch it. The softness is inviting.
Your newest appliance for Krups is a blender -- typically, a banal object. How did you keep the design fresh, yet brand-consistent?
I started with a body made from die-cast aluminum -- again, no plastic. It's sturdy and heavy. Krups blenders have more powerful engines than others on the market, so I wanted to convey that. I designed the blender to have a bigger jar to suggest a sense of power and capacity.
But I had to make sure the blender looks like a blender. I wanted the function to be legible. So it was important to make sure features like the spindle and cutting blades were somewhat visible. Yet I wanted to highlight one big feature: the control panel. I thought it was important, because the Krups blender has more speeds to select from than those of other brands. So we created a kind of control panel that grows out to house the round, cylindrical mulcher in cylindrical body. From that we stick a control panel onto the cylindrical body. It sticks out.
And I wanted this to look different to distinguish it. You use it like you use a remote control or your phone when typing a text message. You use your thumb more than your fingers. It's a very intuitive and common way to use a panel with buttons these days. What's great about operating it with your thumb is that you can use other fingers to hold the blender or jar. This distinguishes the brand's blender and highlights its features -- and makes it easier to use.
Do you come up with "formal codes" for all the brands that you work with -- perhaps even when designing your own objects so they say: "This is by Konstantin Grcic"?
So far this is a unique strategy, and related only to Krups. Usually, most brands I work with -- and other designers have this arrangement, too -- ask me to design a certain collection of pieces with both my name and the brand name. I usually don't work with the formal code. Then again, I've never really designed anything as relevant or important as a household appliance. Plus, competition is so close in this market.
The commercial situation for a toaster or blender is challenging -- it will be on the same shelf as six competitors. The appliance really has to make a strong expression on that shelf. Sure, as a designer, I wonder if sometimes I've put pressure on myself during the creative process to be working within codes. But my studio came up with the idea of the codes. It was a fantastic experience for us. Rather than see it as stifling, it has been liberating. In fact, it has given us confidence that we can design such codes.