Making Britain Modern at the Design Museum is a retrospective of work by product designer Kenneth Grange. I’ll confess to not having heard of him until a few days before going to the exhibition… however, the range and prolific nature of the products he has been involved in prompted me to pay a visit.
If, like I did, you’re in need of a primer – the retrospective celebrates a career spanning 50 years, during which time Grange’s work has included:
- Cameras (Kodak), Razors (Wilkinson Sword) and Food Mixers (Kenwood)
- TX1 London taxi and the nose of the InterCity 125
- Parking meters, bus stops and post boxes
He was one of the founding partners of Pentagram, and today continues to work on a mix of commercial commissions and personal projects.
What really caught my attention though was the focus on the end user’s experience in Grange’s work.
The influence of Modernism and the form follows function mantra is evident in Grange’s work – the objects on display are largely free of gratuitous decoration or featuritis. Function and affordances (possible actions) are obvious.
And yet the cold, industrial edge often associated with Modernism has been replaced by products with a friendlier vibe. The exhibition’s introduction suggests that British designers engaged in the ‘softer-side’ of Modernism. An undeniabley successful approach, given the sales volumes – some running to millions – attributed to many of the items on display. (I can’t provide exact figures though, as I didn’t make notes on the way around.)
The products for Kenwood illustrate how simplicity is key in determining the usability of an object. Taking the juicer as an example: it is fairly neutral in both colour and shape. Yet two large orange blobs stand out, indicating the interaction points on the object. It is no stretch to imagine (and I am making a small leap here) that one enables you to remove the lid and the other is the on/off switch. Function and the possible actions are easily discoverable. Bright orange blobs inject character. The juicer is user-friendly.
Making user-friendly products
User-friendly wasn’t arrived at by accident. The exhibition includes insights into Grange’s process when developing new products – extensive research, sketches and model-making.
Wooden models of cameras designed for Kodak where created to better understand how they would feel in the hand. This iterative testing would have provided feedback on (limited aspects of) how users would experience the product. Modifications could be made to these simple prototypes inexpensively and then re-tested, reducing the risk of extensive resource being commited to the production of a product that was unusable and unable to sell.
For a business, getting a product to a point where it is usable takes one giant step towards making it saleable. The sales figures I alluded to earlier and longevity of career indicate that Grange’s approach has, on the whole, been successful.
Working on the web it’s easy to forget that consideration for user-experience isn’t a recent development. The exhibition highlights this well – and, by this evidence, there is a wealth of experience in related disciplines that we can tap into.
Grange made low-fidelity wooden models when designing cameras for Kodak. They were tactile, inexpensive and easy to iterate on. In web we can achieve similar results with pens and a pad of paper.