The cool factor

  • By Eric Fetters / Herald Writer
  • Sunday, January 23, 2005 9:00pm
  • Business

Fluke Corp. installed its electrical test meters into heavy, metal boxes in the early 1970s, with only the slightest thought about whether they pleased the eye.

If there was any doubt that view of design died years ago at Everett-based Fluke, proof came in 2000.

That’s when the company was invited to model at a best design exhibition hosted by the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.

Michael O’Leary / The Herald

George McCain, corporate design manager for Fluke Corp., stands among some of the company’s award-winning test and measurement tools at the company’s Everett headquarters.

“It was really strange for us to be there, and to be there between Kate Spade with her line of handbags and Martha Stewart,” said George McCain, Fluke’s corporate design manager.

While consumer-oriented companies such as Apple, Target and Volkswagen are well-known for their cool-looking products, the importance of industrial design – “architecture for products,” as McCain describes it – has seeped deeper into the business world.

Fluke and Intermec Technologies Corp., also of Everett, don’t make products normally stocked on retail store shelves. But they’ve found that good designs help build sales and brand loyalty.

“It was Raymond Loewy who said that if you take two products of equal value and performance, the better designed product will win out every time,” said John Bandringa, Intermec’s director of corporate design and brand.

Loewy, known as the father of industrial design, lent his talents to everything from the Lucky Strike cigarette pack to the Studebaker automobile. Seeing one of those cars first inspired McCain’s interest in design.

Industrial design became a necessity for Fluke in the mid-1970s, when its first hand-held electronic test tools, also called multimeters came on the market.

Today, looking at one of those meters designed three decades ago, it’s easy to find flaws. The buttons are crowded, they’re clunky to hold and the plastic housings are an unappetizing mushroom-gray color. At the time, McCain pointed out, the all-gray housings were considered “European and sophisticated.”

Since then, however, Fluke has adopted bright yellow and gray as the standard color scheme for nearly all its products.

Incorporating those colors is just one priority for Fluke’s designers. In addition to looking good, the product has to withstand being dropped, be comfortable to hold and be simple to use.

“We try to make our products intuitive, so someone can see it and say, ‘Yeah, I know how to use that. ‘” McCain said.

The challenge is to find the balance between simplicity and usefulness. To do that, designers talk to customers.

McCain points to Fluke’s 1650 Series multifunction tester, released last year, as an example of how that process works well.

The 1650 is used by electrical inspectors in Europe, who have to stringently test wiring in new buildings. Designers first traveled to Europe and watched the inspectors do their jobs.

Through that practical research, the designers found that the European workers preferred wearing the testing tool around their necks.

So Fluke made its product about two pounds, less than half what competing products weighed, and curved so it would fit against a person’s chest.

In the end, Fluke’s designers took about a year and three trips to Europe to perfect the design.

But that attention showed in the end, McCain said. The innovative 1650 won and Industrial Design Excellence Award last year. More importantly, customers in Europe have made it a best-seller.

Intermec hasn’t focused on design for nearly as long as Fluke. In Bandringa’s eight years with the company, however, he and Intermec’s design team have focused on improving the ergonomic features and user interfaces of mobile computers and scanning products.

Both are important aspects, as Intermec’s devices are used in industrial and warehouse settings for hours at a time.

“If we can use good design to reduce a customer’s total cost of ownership, that’s a good selling point,” Bandringa said.

But he hasn’t ignored aesthetics. Intermec’s line needed a united look, something missing after the company, through acquisitions, had compiled a line of products that looked like they had nothing in common.

The design department undertook the task of redesigning virtually all of Intermec’s products.

Now, most are made in hues of gray and white. The main control switch, knob or button is bright blue to stand out. Additionally, Bandringa helped to develop a consistent shape that runs through the products.

“From 50 feet away, from 75 feet away, you can target which is the Intermec product based on its shape, its color and its interface,” Bandringa said.

That’s a huge advantage in helping the Intermec brand stand out. The aesthetics also are designed simply to look appealing.

“The people who use our devices are human. They have no different emotional response to a product at work than they would to a product at home,” he said.

Bandringa came to Intermec with impressive credentials. Straight out of design school, he was one of the first three designers assigned to create Volkswagen’s critically acclaimed New Beetle in the 1990s.

After leaving the automotive world, he worked on the design of the Boeing Co.’s 777 interior and revamped 767 and 747 interiors. He also co-created Starbucks’ basic stainless steel mug design and the poster for the first “Matrix” film.

At Intermec, in addition to giving the company’s products a more distinct identity, design work has benefited the company’s bottom line, Bandringa explained.

For example, Intermec used to create wildly different instruction books for each of product. They were big and expensive to print. Bandringa and his staff simplified the basic instructions, gave them a unified look and brought the printing cost down to just a fraction of what it had been.

He also points to the company’s CV60, a vehicle-mounted terminal that sold much better in its redesigned form. While there could have been other factors at work, Bandringa is confident of his department’s role in boosting sales.

Not all industrial designers work for big corporations. Just east of Everett Station, in the loft of a century-old building, industrial designers Carm Pierce and Alan Mizuta operate Built Corp.

The independent design firm works primarily with outdoor gear makers, including winter-sports equipment maker Salomon; Seattle-based outdoor equipment maker MSR; and W.L. Gore, the developer of Gore-Tex. The two principals said they relish the variety.

“Certainly, there’s no opportunity to get bored,” Pierce said.

Mizuta said companies with their own designers sometimes will call an independent firm such as Built to get an outside view of things.

The nearly two-year-old firm does everything from research to actual product design, with Mizuta sometimes using Built’s big sewing machines to construct prototypes.

Pierce and Mizuta describe industrial design as “somewhere in between” art and engineering.

“With just about every product, there’s the opportunity to make advancements,” Mizuta said.

Fluke’s McCain said he thinks design will continue to gain importance in a range of products.

“As products become more of a commodity, the only differential you have sometimes is the design.”

Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or fetters@heraldnet.com.

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