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Forays into the physical with thoughts on industrial design from frog's product design team.

Beauty Is Free

The subject of aesthetics is one of changing paradigms and endless intrigue. In objects, just as with subjects, the meaning of “beautiful” has evolved perpetually with time. But one decision spares debate: given two which only differ in aesthetics, the one we consider more beautiful will always remain.

Consciously or subconsciously, our decision steers with that unspoken quality-without-a-name. In reality, though, factors such as cost play an important role in our decisions. When it comes to both the buying and the making of a product, we are sometimes faced with the decision of whether to sacrifice aesthetics for cost. But in a market driven by high quality and performance, can a product still be competitive without raised considerations for “beauty?”

In the late ‘70s, management consultant Phil Crosby published a book titled “Quality is Free.” At the time, quality was a great concern for consumers, as American manufacturers were losing market share to Japanese competitors largely due to the superior quality of Japanese products. Crosby noted that corporations frequently deemphasized quality for the sake of cost. He believed that investment in raising product quality would pay back with regained market share, effectively making the process “free.” The idea of “quality not just for those who can afford it” positively impacted the market, and dramatic improvement in products followed.

Now that high quality has been accepted as the norm, what determines “obsolete?” Take a look at the products we already own: it’s not difficult to point out a perfectly functional item that we’d happily trade in for a better-looking model. In a time when products outlast their reliability expectations, has aesthetic longevity become the new expiration date? While it’s not viable to design for changing tastes, it remains that the aesthetics of a product should always be given great emphasis: be it physical, digital or a manifestation of both. Keeping vitality in mind, the aesthetics of a good product should complement its functionality and be made with full intent. The most insightful designs are those which are not only competitive in quality and cost, but also uncompromising in aesthetics. It is both the responsibility of the designers to create, and the consumers to choose - carefully - in order to shape a market where good products live through their life expectancy.

If a single product can redefine a market, shape social behavior, and go as far as influence society as a whole, it becomes increasingly important for products to be designed well in every way. Perhaps I could take Crosby’s argument one step further, and suggest that quality has now become a necessity, and beauty should be free. In an age of fast making, over-production and obsolescence, all objects should be designed carefully and beautifully in order to be good. And doing good won’t cost as much as you think.