Two worlds colliding.
That's how one participant described the beginning of an extensive collaborative effort between creative West Coast design firm IDEO Product Development Inc. and conservative, Appalachia-based chemicals and plastics giant Eastman Chemical Co.
``But it was a gentle collision, and a tremendous experience,'' recounted Gaylon White, Eastman's business promotions manager and a prime driver of the 18-month project. He spoke in a June 2 telephone interview from the $5.3 billion company's headquarters in Kingsport, Tenn.
The result: an exotic range of prototype, high-fashion eyewear using Eastman cellulosic and copolyester resins that both parties hope will open many eyes to the innovative application potential of such materials.
``We went in knowing that designers know very little about our materials, and that we knew very little about design,'' said White. ``We recognized we had a lot to gain.''
White claims the objective was not necessarily to commercialize the products the partnership developed, noting that, ``if that happens, it's gravy.'' Still, since Eastman's specialty plastics business is about selling pounds of resin, efforts are afoot to see what commercial benefits can be reaped from the project.
``The prototypes are done,'' explained White, who said Eastman has design patents on all six versions. ``We'll be having discussions with one firm in particular about commercializing one or more of the designs.'' But, he insists, Eastman's payback already has made the collaboration very worthwhile.
Working with a respected, global design firm such as IDEO, whose approximately 350 employees in eight offices around the world work with a blue-chip list of manufacturing clients, has given Eastman instant credibility in certain circles and already helped to open doors to key future clients and partners.
Kara Johnson, materials specialist with Palo Alto, Calif.-based IDEO, said, ``The idea of the project is to get people to think about Eastman's materials.''
To assist with that end, the firms have documented the inspiration and execution of the project - titled ``Collective Vision'' - in a glossy, 64-page booklet subtitled: ``The advance of design through materials; an exploration in eyewear.'' IDEO created the publication and Eastman is distributing the 1,500 printed copies to industrial designers and to select media.
But why eyewear, which has been a slow, cyclical growth market?
Buddy Bounds, director of Eastman's engineering and specialty polymers business unit, noted that Eastman is familiar with the market, having sold cellulosic resins to eyeglass frame makers for decades. That market tends to ebb and flow over the years, with fashion trends favoring plastics, then metals, then back again, he explained.
``We thought we might speed up the cycle, in favor of plastic,'' Bounds said in a June 4 telephone interview. But IDEO also liked the idea, and felt that Eastman's Tenite cellulosics and DuraStar and Eastar copolyesters offered them the opportunity to create a series of design ``stories'' around the theme of eyewear.
What resulted were six innovative, if not bizarre, prototype glasses, made by IDEO and featuring thought-provoking combinations of materials. They are branded as follows:
c Visage - Tenite, with elastomer-encased brushed aluminum, incorporating various-shaped, interchangeable lenses that can be square, round, large or small, depending on the wearer's mood.
c Ensemble - extruded Tenite, featuring multicolor stripes of material, used not only in the eyeglass frames, but also in matching shoe heels and even a portable radio case.
c Vogue - patterned fabric sandwiched between two clear sheets of Eastar copolyester resin creates the lenses for IDEO's version of a modern-day veil.
c Play - multicolor, injection molded DuraStar, comprising snap-together pieces that let wearers build their own custom glasses, including various color-tinted lenses.
c Extreme - vacuum formed, printed Eastar shell for the lens, side protection and closure in the back, with molded elastomer frames that blur the line between sportswear and club wear.
c Bespoke - laminated layers of Tenite cellulosics, copper and wood, in glasses that wrap in a continuous band around the back of the head and grip the head, with no nose bridge.
``There was a lot of debate about how far IDEO could go [with its designs],'' Eastman's White said. He said they were told ``to be futuristic, but realistic ... to push it out there, be thinking down the road.''
The Kara Johnson-designed Play model appears to be the most commercially viable design at the moment, White said, based on enthusiastic feedback Eastman got about the glasses at the International Vision Expo in New York in March. Johnson said she exploited the thickness, color and clarity of copolyester, and turned its flexibility into an asset, since polycarbonate, a competitive eyeglass material, is quite rigid and can be uncomfortable as a frame. The glasses are targeted primarily at kids, who can swap the click-together colored beads and build their own glasses from a kit of sorts.
Each design has its own purpose. The fabric-lensed Vogue - which White aptly described as ``the most far-out'' model - is not practical for everyday use since it acts more as a veil that impairs the vision. But Johnson explained that its aim was to provide creative inspiration to others who wouldn't otherwise realize that fabric could be laminated with copolyester in such an application.
``Designers never do what they see,'' she said. ``Prototypes or concepts open the door to new applications.''
Indeed, noted White, the combination of plastic with fabric has proved to be ``a big hit with the brand owners,'' meaning the original-equipment eyeglass makers such as Oakley Inc. and Smith Sports Optics.
Similarly, the Bespoke model proves that cellulosics, copper and wood can be laminated into an attractive, layered, hand-crafted application. White admitted that Eastman had never thought of such a materials combination.
Johnson said the most surprising aspect of the Tenite materials to her was ``the craftlike nature of the process.'' Cellulose, which originates from wood, can be colored, extruded into sheets, cut out, bent and shaped and then, in this case, laminated with other materials to yield a personalized pair of glasses. The copper gains a patina over time, unique to the wearer's own skin oils. Johnson said that even Eastman had no idea, until IDEO posed the question, if copolyester could bond to copper. Nobody had ever asked before.
The Ensemble design demonstrates the possibility of making boldly colored, stylish, matching fashion accessories, including personal electronics.
``We're all inspired by it,'' said Johnson, who has earned two degrees from Stanford University - a bachelor's in industrial engineering and a master's in material science - and joined IDEO in 2001 after completing her Ph.D. in materials engineering from Cambridge University in Cambridge, England. She also recently co-wrote with Mike Ashby a textbook called Materials and Design: The Art and Science of Material Selection in Product Design.
Johnson played a key role in the project, according to White. It was her expertise combined with the fact that roughly half of IDEO's employees are engineers that helped Eastman feel comfortable with its new partner.
White first met IDEO co-founder Bill Moggridge in July 2001, and the two spent time together a few months later in Seoul, South Korea, where both were attending the International Council of the Societies of Industrial Design Congress. Discussions there led to an agreement between the two companies to partner on a project designed to stretch the limits of Eastman's materials. Small, high-level teams from both firms convened in Palo Alto on Jan. 15, 2002, to brainstorm about which products to develop and how to move the project forward. Johnson then visited Eastman headquarters in Kingsport to learn more about the firm's materials.
``The hardest part of the whole project was starting it,'' Johnson said. ``That's true with all materials companies.''
After work progressed, she said of her Eastman partners: ``I'm sure they saw the designs and didn't quite get the story behind them.''
Bounds said of designers in general: ``They view the world differently. But, hey, that's what we paid them for! They [IDEO] helped us to speak their language.''
Eastman would not disclose how much it invested in the Collective Vision project. White termed the amount ``significant.'' Bounds said that part of his team's message in selling the project to senior Eastman management was that ``this is not necessarily about quick payback. It's more about exposing [our resins] to a whole new set of people who are responsible for specifying materials.''
White said such efforts by Eastman were sorely needed, as underscored by the results of an informal survey of design educators taken at the Industrial Designers Society of America's 2002 National Education Conference in San Jose, Calif., last July. It was a small sample, but still showed that awareness was lagging of Eastman and its materials among this key group, especially compared with that of marketing-oriented competitor GE Plastics, which White acknowledged ``has done a tremendous job of getting themselves well-known by designers.''
More than 96 percent of the 27 respondents said they were familiar with polycarbonate and GE's Lexan brand name and acrylic and Rohm GmbH & Co. KG's Plexiglas brand name, compared with those who knew of Eastman's Tenite cellulosics (37 percent), or its Spectar (33 percent), Eastar (26 percent) or DuraStar (11 percent) copolyesters.
It is obvious that the Collective Vision partners have developed a healthy respect for one another.
``IDEO gave us visibility in the design community that we could never have gotten otherwise,'' White said. ``What better way could we have got our materials into the hands of several IDEO designers? ... It was a very, very interesting and valuable experience.''
For her part, Johnson believes Eastman ``is way ahead of its time in terms of recognizing the value of design,'' at least as regards its approach to integrating materials and design via project-based collaborations. Other companies, such as GE Plastics, also value designers, she noted, but have chosen a different approach - more-exclusive industry partnerships with design firms that some might see as imposing subtle limits on creativity or variety.
Regardless, Johnson wishes to expand her firm's involvement with plastics suppliers. The task now, she suggested, ``is to keep the momentum up. It doesn't end here at all.''