Walter Herbst wandered into a store recently, looking to buy some speakers for his son's computer system.
Once there, he homed in on a set elegantly packaged in clear plastic. They were, Herbst said, not merely speakers but ``sculpture.''
He asked which speakers offered the best sound, and the employees pointed out another brand, packaged in a pair of basic black rectangular boxes, which cost $50 less. Herbst went home, though, with the more striking - and more expensive - equipment.
``Good design is the baseline,'' said Herbst, chairman and founding partner of Chicago-based design group Herbst LaZar Bell Inc. ``Great design can have a major market impact. It gets to the emotional part of buying. It's the thing you've got to have.''
Too often design is seen as a last-minute decision, merely the package for a product, rather than a way to drive sales, Herbst said during a June 22 session focusing on design at Plastics News' Plastics Encounter in Cleveland. In fact, design can change the industry.
A potato peeler was merely a commodity piece of kitchen equipment, sold for less than $1, until Oxo International founder Sam Farber changed the game with his Good Grips brand and found a market for a plastic-handled item selling for triple the going price.
``Instead of 79 cents, you could charge $2.79, and they were looking at 45 percent annualized growth,'' Herbst said.
A clever hook or look can break through the market where a cheaper price perhaps cannot, he said.
``Price is the last refuge,'' he said. ``It's what you sell when you don't have anything else to differentiate you.''
``Too often, designers are brought in at the last minute, seen as a cake-decorating function, rather than as integral,'' added Jim Couch, principal and founder of Substance Design Group Ltd. of Columbus, Ohio.
Toolmaker DeWalt Industrial Tool Co. expected to sell 30,000-50,000 radios when it decided to put its name on a portable stereo system and market it to contractors on job sites. Designers came up with one highlighting the company's traditional yellow and black colors and look - and came up with a radio that instead sold 1.5 million copies, Couch said.
Design is receiving a new focus for Procter & Gamble Co. as it works to redefine itself, added Greg Zimmer, upstream design studio head for P&G's health-care design team.
Historically, P&G saw itself as a maker of consumer products - the ``juice'' that goes into packages, from toothpaste to laundry detergent to hair color, Zimmer said. The package those products went into was the last step in the production process. Product line managers, not designers, had the say on how those packages would look.
Two years ago, though, the firm changed direction. Design - and P&G's 140 designers - were given new latitude to relaunch existing concepts and come up with new products.
One of the first results of that change is the Mr. Clean AutoDry car washing kit, which debuted in January and now is expected to be a $100 million business. The system broke P&G's rules, Zimmer said, and demanded that designers and the company's suppliers reconsider preconceived notions.
Rather than a simple bottle to hold the soap, the system has a spray-gun-style device that hooks onto a hose. Procter & Gamble traditionally relies on blow molded bottles for its products, but for this one, it needed injection molding.
``We needed information from our suppliers for molding,'' he said. ``We needed information on resin in terms of how it would impact our moving parts and how our chemistry would interact.''
Future products in the pipeline likewise will alter what P&G expects from its internal development and its suppliers, he said.
``We're going to be telling all of our suppliers that here's an idea - now go out and find out how we can make it,'' Zimmer said.
Automakers are using plastics-specific design in interiors, trying to highlight the same attributes that draw consumers to high-technology gadgets to differentiate their cars. The style DaimlerChrysler AG has dubbed ``synthetic luxury'' used a clear acrylic on a concept steering wheel and is in the faux tortoise-shell touches on the new Chrysler 300C sedan.
``If a manufacturer is making a commodity product, shame on them,'' Couch said. ``Anything can be improved. Design is the next big thing, particularly if all other things are equal.''