::Literate Blather::
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
5 Questions About: Design

(DaRK PaRTY interviews Paul Ocepek, the owner and principal of Torpedo http://www.torpedodesign.com, a product and graphic design studio in Norfolk, Massachusetts. The award-winning firm has worked with an impressive array of clients that include RCA, Motorola, GE, Mattel and Rubbermaid. Paul has more than 18 years of experience in product design. He is also the owner of Fishboy http://www.fishboy.com, a premium line of funky sportswear illustrating Paul’s unique artwork. DaRK PaRTY wanted to pick Paul’s brain about the art of design.)

DaRK PaRTY: Torpedo Design specializes in product design, which is designing the interfaces and usability for consumer products like television sets, DVD players, remote controls and cell phones. There seems to be a building backlash by consumers about the complexity of these items. The complaints are usually about too many features, too many buttons, etc. There was even a New Yorker cartoon recently that showed a man asking for a cell phone that could actually make phone calls. Is this a real problem in the design of consumer electronics?

Paul Ocepek: Yes, I believe it is. Consumer electronics are commodity goods and one of the few ways that manufacturers can add "value" or differentiation to their products is to add features. More features mean higher price points which obviously lead to higher profits. The problem with this scenario is that the majority of added features are software driven - meaning they aren't necessarily obvious or intuitive. In most cases a function is buried in levels of tedious on-screen menus and sub-menus - sometimes never to be found without referencing the instruction book, and as we all know that can be an adventure unto itself. Features and product "add-ons" are a funny thing - consumers often complain that they don't understand or can't operate a product because it's too complex, yet those are the things that make them buy the product in the first place. "Hey, it's got all this stuff so it must be better than the lower priced model." We often equate number of features with product quality or ease-of-use, when in many cases this is just simply not true.

Another challenge, especially in the case of cell phones, is that the product continues to shrink in size. This means that there is less real estate for physical buttons - so in reality, we're dealing with very advanced products and fewer buttons. This has led to the proliferation of cursor or navigation type keys that operate in tandem with on screen displays, allowing one button to perform many different functions. Along with great product design - great user interface design is critical in these types of applications. Button size and graphics are also an issue - how small can a button be before it's too small? When does the type labeling a button become unreadable? Unfortunately (or maybe not) the human body is far slower at adapting to new technology than consumer electronics - our thumbs aren't getting any smaller and our eyes aren't getting any bigger!

DP: Can you give us an example of a product that you think was successful because of its product design and an example of a product that failed because it wasn’t designed properly.

Paul: I think the iPod is a wonderful product design. It's so simple yet so utterly complex. I remember the feeling of sheer amazement after I ripped my entire CD collection and placed more than 5,000 songs on to this tiny box smaller than a deck of cards.

"Is this magic?" I thought. The scroll wheel interface is incredibly easy to use, it's intuitive and it makes the task of reviewing a huge amount of data relatively painless. The entire product is elegant in its use of materials and the form. Although a rectangular, it has a sensual look and feel. The Apple design team could have very easily gone overboard on this type of product by adding a multitude buttons, a more curvaceous form factor, and various surface finishes such as fake chrome or metallic paint. As one of my old design professors always used to say, "Sometimes the quietest design says the most."

As far as product failures, one current product that I find particularly annoying is the Gillette M3Power razor. This was the first battery powered shaving "system" on the market. Now, I'm sure that this razor has a lot of fans as it provides a close shave, but then again so did my old Mach3 sans motor.

First, the handle is noticeably fatter and doesn’t feel as good in the hand as the older, thinner designs. Second, the power button is poorly positioned - I often inadvertently turn off the razor during the middle of a shave. Third, on more than one occasion, I have found the razor turned on in my shaving kit after something had been pressed against it - this always raises some eyebrows at the airport! Fourth, the entire notion of another hundred million or so dead batteries filling our landfills bothers me. The whole product just reeks of superficial marketing. In my opinion, it's a needless waste of money and resources. What's next - battery powered soap bars?!

DP: You’re also a prolific graphic designer with a fondness for bright, bold colors and a playful, vibrant feeling. Most of your stuff seems designed to make people happy. Is that accurate and how would you describe your style?

Paul: Well, I'm glad you feel that way. I would say that's a fairly accurate statement, at least that's been my intent. My style is most likely considered "pop art" or "graphic illustration." My use of bold, saturated spot colors and heavy line weight is a reflection of my love for silkscreen printing. I don't get overly caught up in detail - I'm more interested in color, shape, impact and in some cases, typography. I'd rather spend my time getting on to the next design than laboring tediously over a particular piece. I love the idea of print making - whether digitally or manually - for creating multiple images. And yes, I seem to gravitate towards "happy" or humorous images - sometimes that's just a natural result of certain color combinations as opposed to subject matter, but in general I tend to avoid dark subjects. Goth, I'm not - although I do like skeletons a lot.

DP: You are also the principal of Fishboy – an online boutique that sells hats, t-shirts and gift items featuring your fish-based artwork. Fishboy has been around since 1996 – which is a long time for an online store. What’s the secret of your success?

Paul: I believe Fishboy continues to survive and grow in an ultra-competitive market due to a commitment to unique, funny artwork, but within the framework of a brand. I try and keep a cohesive look and feel to all the artwork as opposed to the shotgun approach employed by some other companies. People immediately recognize a Fishboy design and that's incredibly important when trying to build a brand.

We live and die with repeat customers so it's paramount that we are satisfying expectations when people come back to the site looking to make new purchases. Let's face it - the world doesn't really need another t-shirt design, but there is always a market for something just a bit fresh or different. A slight twist or unique viewpoint can go a long way in a crowded retail space full of copycat products. Funny always sells - it's just the process of trying to determine what is actually funny and what isn't that keeps me up at night. But I love it.

DP: You grew up in land-locked Pittsburgh, PA. What’s the deal with fish and fishing?

Paul: I grew up around a lot of lakes and rivers in Southwestern Pennsylvania. I was introduced to the joys and frustrations of fishing by my father and grandfather at a very young age and have been angling ever since - although I must admit, since the birth of my daughter the rod and reel have been gathering a lot of dust!

On an artistic level, I think I'm attracted to fish because of their unique shapes, unlimited color combinations and graphic patterns - it's certainly not the smell. I can draw the most outrageous fish and then find something 10 times crazier that actually exists. It's fascinating stuff. Nature rules.

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