(Aug. 19, 2003) — Leave it to some creative designers to parlay the recent massive power blackout into a humorous, slice-of-life case study about U.S. ingenuity, commercialism and product development.
Nearly 600 design professionals and students attending the Aug. 13-16 Industrial Designers Society of America's annual conference at New York's Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square felt the full brunt of Aug. 14's electricity meltdown but, like most in the city, they responded well and made the best of a difficult situation.
Take the case of Augusto Picozza, Luis Pedraza and Brian Matt. Less than an hour after the sweeping, 4:11 p.m. blackout paralyzed the Big Apple, the three designers found themselves in front of a T-shirt vendor's stand in Times Square, when they had a stroke of inspiration.
The vendor was quickly packing up his stall and preparing to leave. Picozza, manager of corporate industrial design for Boca Raton, Fla.-based Sunbeam Products Inc., haggled with him for several minutes to sell them some “I love NY” T-shirts, and eventually bought two for $3 each.
They then saw a Chinese calligrapher practicing his craft at a sidewalk stand nearby and convinced the artist to loan them a fading, blue-ink pen, and the design team leapt into action. They wrote in across the top of the shirt “BLACKOUT 2003” and below the “I [heart] NY” design added the words “IN THE DARK”. The tall Pedraza, vice president of design development for Product Genesis Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., then took the prototype, held it high over his head and shouted “Blackout T-shirts for sale — $10 each.” Within five seconds, Picozza said later, a woman approached them and said, “I want one!”
That, he said, is when the design trio realized their first problem: “We didn't have manufacturing capacity.” They decided to keep the shirts and, undeterred, they continued the caper. Pedraza found someone to sell them a black pen, and they darkened their impromptu graphics.
They then decided to personalize/customize the shirts by having individuals use the pen to sign them. Two female tourists from Cincinnati were to first to lend their signatures. Then a New York City policewoman called “Officer Torres” did the honors. Some of the growing horde of media in Times Square spotted Picozza and Pedraza wearing the shirts and approached the trio. The designers gave a couple of interviews, including, the Sunbeam executive said, a brief dissertation on American ingenuity and resilience. An interested CBS television reporter and her cameraman signed the shirts. A couple of British ladies gave the entrepreneurs some beers, so they, too, got to add their autographs.
The trio headed south on Broadway as darkness settled in. By sheer luck, they came across a Marriott Courtyard hotel near West 40th Street that, unlike its much larger Marquis sister property, was equipped with a fully functioning emergency power generator. The sold-out hotel had lights, air conditioning and working restrooms, so the trio took refuge in the lobby, and got the hotel staff to sign their shirts, as well. Midnight approached in the darkened city. Picozza said that once the hotel manager realized that stranded travelers who had booked rooms in the inn were not going to make it, he rented the empty rooms to the designers. So, unlike many of their conference brethren housed at the Marquis (including this reporter) who spent the night camped on a Times Square sidewalk, with no working facilities, Picozza, Pedraza and Matt, who is founder and chief executive officer of Somerville, Mass.-based Altitude Inc., spent a comfortable night indoors.
In recapping the experience some 36 hours later at the by-then-functioning Marriott Marquis, Picozza detailed the entire process, which he described (only partly tongue in cheek) as an example of a just-in-time, speed-to-market approach to product development. It began with ideation and a concept (hatched via discussion on the sidewalk), which led to the immediate creation of a prototype (the marked-up T-shirts).
“We evaluated with the consumer by doing some test marketing” (Pedraza holding up the shirt in the street), “and got good, immediate feedback” (from the would-be customer).
“We personalized the product to give it more meaning” (via the addition of signatures of individuals whose paths they crossed during the adventure), and performed public relations by generating a media blitz (which led them to quickly add a “TM” trademark symbol to the “Blackout 2003” text).
There are lessons to be learned, he suggested: “When there is a market need, you must act quickly.” But, alas, “We learned that without manufacturing in place, you have nothing.”
Picozza said the trio may yet try to make some real, post-event, commemorative T-shirts and perhaps try to sell them to colleagues via the IDSA Web site. But by then the demand may have passed.
On Sunday morning, Aug. 17, tourist shops around Times Square were selling — guess what — T-shirts silk-screened with the Manhattan skyline and labeled “I survived historical blackout, New York City, Aug. 14, 2003”. Those shirts, of course, lacked the unique, creative flair and sentimental attachment of the designers' T-shirts. But then, the abundantly available gift-shop variety also was selling like hotcakes, for between $12.99-$14.99 apiece.
This serves as yet another reminder that to the victor — in this case the manufacturer who quickly fills a market need — goes the spoils.
Robert Grace is editor and associate publisher of Plastics News.