Design Stories: Telling it like it is

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Gaylon White

We live in an ever-confusing world. The New York Yankees dynasty has been replaced by Duck Dynasty while another baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, looks more like the television show’s bearded stars. Some plastics are billed as glass-like. Biopolymers are ballyhooed as the salvation of our planet even though some of them could deplete our food supply. “What’s going on?” Marvin Gaye asked in a popular song by the same name. “You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some understanding here today.”

That understanding needs to start with straight talk.

Rudolf Flesch had the right idea as far back as 1946 when he wrote, The Art of Plain Talk. He went on to write several “how-to” guides for communicating, from Why Johnny Can’t Read - And What You Can Do About It to one on business communications: How to Say What You Mean in Plain English.

When the latter was published in 1972, a coworker friend at a major greeting card company distributed copies to senior executives so they could write better memos. They didn’t improve but no one ushered him out the door.

Plain talk is even more important now because of the avalanche of information that buries us daily, numbing the senses and making us even more skeptical when we hear about the next greatest thing.

Forever etched in my mind is a comment Rex Bare made before he retired as president of Omnica Corp. Product Development. Rex was browsing through a brochure for a new plastic when he said, “I’m looking for what was left out.”

For Rex and other designers, what plastics manufacturers don’t say about their materials is telling and maybe even more significant than what is said.

“You have to be up front about the whole matrix of what a material can and cannot do,” says Scott Clear, vice president of product development for Intersection, a San Diego, Calif., design firm. “Most of the time we only hear the can-do. We need both sides.”

The late Howard Cosell transformed television sports broadcasting by “telling it like it is.” The same kind of straight talk is needed in the plastics world.

“Material suppliers typically are very poor at clearly articulating where they don’t perform well,” says Warren Ginn of GinnDesign in Raleigh, N.C. “You can do a lot of smoke and mirrors but designers are a pretty cynical bunch. You’re better off being upfront and honest as opposed to trying to put a lot of marketing spin on things.”

“It takes courage to go into a customer presentation and say something negative about your material,” adds Chris Lefteri, a designer and author of several books on materials and design. “It goes against any kind of natural inclination we have to sell.”

JohnPaul Kusz, a specialist in sustainable design and strategy, uses “a little bit of chicanery” to fill in the gaps. “I’ll ask a salesman for a competitive material so I have the competitive perspective as well as the promotional. They’re both legitimate and it gives me a better picture of the material.”

“Tell me the good and the bad,” Lefteri says. “The bad I can turn into good if it fits my particular project and need.”

A case in point was a so-called “design storm” Lefteri participated in at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Students were brainstorming uses for a new plastic that while extremely tough, still showed scratch marks like any other plastic. They decided to “embrace the imperfection” of plastics by coming up with mobile phone concepts that showcased scratches much like holes in a pair of faded blue jeans.

“You can always spin something negative about a material into something that could be a positive attribute,” Lefteri explains.

A heavy plastic, for example, might be used to create a container with a premium glass-like look and feel to it. “A supplier would never say something is heavy,” Lefteri says. “But that could be what I want so the perceived value of the product is greater.”

“We will adjust the design based on what a material can’t do,” says Clear. “If something is lightweight and strong but maybe it’s not aesthetic, we’ll change the design. You need the harmony between the can-do and can’t-do.”

Nobody is accusing plastic suppliers of being misleading or dishonest. “They’re putting their best face forward and that’s to be expected,” Kusz says.

The problem is common words such as “strong,” “sustainability” and “adaptable” mean different things to people in the product development chain.

The word strong can mean protect to a designer. Adaptable often is interpreted as compatible. “Sustainability is an abused word,” Clear says. “It’s usually associated with something being greener, but it doesn’t necessarily mean its performance is good. We’ve had cases where we’re sold on a bio-based plastic from a marketing perspective and once we dig into it, we find out that it’s not usable because of all the compromises that have to be made. So the romantic idea of the material falls short of expectations.”

The key, according to Clear, is identifying the language to be used at the beginning of a project. “We’ll look at the brochures, the websites, and the tangible media that the client is saying their product is and essentially produce a glossary of words. We want clarity in the messaging and in order to get that, we make sure everybody understands the words and uses them properly.”

One word that inevitably pops up is “authenticity.”

“The king is authenticity,” Clear says. “People don’t like designs that are misleading. They want real marble, real stone, real wood.” For plastic, authenticity is being “faithful and honest to what you’re trying to communicate.”

Straight talk is needed to bring some understanding to the dialogue between plastics suppliers.

“Take away the car salesman approach and the dog-and-pony show and let’s talk about real solutions,” Clear says. “We’re looking for clarity, honesty and authenticity. They will never go out of style.”

White is a writer, storyteller and communications consultant.