24 July 2013

Adding value to designs

By Raja Sharil Azhar bin Raja Abdillah

When I was a student of graphic design at a prominent Malaysian art and design institution, my lecturers often stress upon work ethics and discipline. Experienced teachers as well as highly sought-after creative directors, they demanded perfection and every design piece must be developed meticulously. At first it was hard for me, and I often questioned myself if it really has to be perfect. It was only after years of experience as a designer did I understand the thinking behind the obsession with perfection.

Those who never had training in design, who never had to endure the rigours of design production, should watch reality shows such as Hell’s Kitchen, Master Chef, Project Runaways, and Top Design. They will give you some hints about how professionals deal with imperfections. All the creative energy gets translated into shouting, swearing, and scolding. It may seem that a tiny mistake could mean the end of the world. If it is a piece of paper, it would be shredded. If it is a dish, it would be thrown away as rubbish.

Why do creative directors or lead designers have to be so harsh and intolerant towards any flaws? To find out, we must first understand the primary contribution of “design”. Whether it is in designing vehicles, buildings, cell phones, food or health care creativity has always been responsible for producing that “added value” which makes a product or service desirable.

It is this added value that transforms a simple t-shirt into an iconic Polo shirt by Ralph Lauren or a superfast car into an iconic Porsche 911 Carrera. It is this same principle that communication designers elevated Milo from a simple chocolate drink into a healthy beverage favoured by Malaysian families.

The added value that designers offer often goes beyond the basic functionality of a product. For instance, anyone who knows how to cut and sew fabric will be able to produce a t-shirt. But in the hands of a determined fashion designer, instead of a mere garment, the material could be turned into a product that represents a young, active and ambitious lifestyle. Or, while engineers could make the Porsche 911 Carrera a fast car, in the hands of a car designer it is transformed into a supercar desired all over the world.

When practised in a market economy, the added value could mean a higher price tag because of the costs involved. For one, it took millions of ringgit to push Milo to where it is today. But customers are willing to pay the price for the extra benefit they could obtain from it. These benefits are not limited to performance or efficiency alone but could be in terms of self-expression or social esteem.

Let’s imagine that you need a plain black shirt and it costs only RM50. Later you come across another plain black Calvin Klein shirt but this garment with that tiny cK logo has a price tag of RM200. At first glance both may look similar but after putting them on you noticed the difference. The cK shirt just feels good and makes you look better because of the material, cut and stitching. You just need to have it no matter what the price. But let’s suppose there are some uneven stitching and loose thread on this piece garment. Would you still be willing to pay RM200 for it?

In another scenario, you are getting yourself a sports car that costs more than a million. For the kind of money you are spending, you will definitely want to be sure that not only could the car go fast but it should still in style in the next five years. If the design becomes obsolete after a year or two, would you not regret having acquired it?

These examples show why designers must be super-analytical with every single detail that goes into the design. It is precisely this approach that adds value to every piece of work a designer creates.

Any flaws in the design, be it in the concept, materials or production stage, would mean our downfall as professional designers. The values we look to create will not be realised and customers will not be willing to pay the asking price. So, if a logo has to be 95% red, it must be precisely that. If a product is meant for the youth, everything about it must appeal to that segment of the market. If an animation must reflect the culture of Sarawak it must display the most authentic form of that culture.

Designers therefore need to be highly analytical, creative, passionate and committed to create the added value in a product or service. The struggle for perfection is what defines one as a professional designer.

Raja Sharil Azhar bin Raja Abdillah is a lecturer with the Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He is contactable at sabdillah@swinburne.edu.my