After 50 years designing iconic products (ever hear of the Pocket Fisherman?), Walter Herbst still wonders how things work and works to make them better. Herbst holds 85 patents in products from housewares to medical technologies, is a professor at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, speaks internationally, wins awards every year and runs the Chicago-based design firm Herbst Produkt with his son, Scot. Herbst will speak at New College of Florida on March 18.
Interview by Susan Burns
WHAT QUALITIES MAKE A GOOD PRODUCT DESIGNER?
“Most [product designers] grew up sketching, noodling around, taking things apart. We have an interest in everything and anything. The first day of my classes I tell students they need to ask, ‘Why did they do it this way? Why didn’t they do it that way? Why did you buy that?’ You need to have a curiosity that is never satisfied.”
WHAT DRIVES CONSUMPTION OF NEW PRODUCTS?
“It’s aspirational. Most consumption is about getting inside of these little individual personas of who you want to be, rather than who you are. Ultraconservative business-suited guys, doctors, lawyers, financial folks…why on weekends are some of them wearing bandanas, leather jackets and riding Harleys?”
HOW DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FOR PRODUCTS?
“Sometimes it’s just identifying frustration. Or asking the question, ‘What do we do next?’ We explore the space and the opportunity. Most of our clients are looking for white space, for something that doesn’t exist.”
CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE?
“We did a lot of work for my friend Sam Farber, who owned Copco. You can still buy their beautiful plastic kitchenware. About 25 years ago, Sam’s wife, who was arthritic, was peeling potatoes with a dopey peeler that had been around since 1943. She told him, ‘Do something. I can’t peel this potato.’ So Sam started Oxo Good Grips. He understood universal design, that if my wife can’t use the utensil, chances are good my 4-year-old grandkid can’t either, so let’s create a big, globby but cool-looking handle on [a peeler]. Instead of a $1.99 item, you can have an item for $4.99. Sam recognized that good design can win the day in a really boring neighborhood. That’s white space.”
HOW DO YOU TEACH THAT KIND OF CREATIVITY?
“I teach a class called design thinking and communications for freshmen. For 18 years someone’s been telling them there’s only one right answer. So we give them a project that maybe came up at a rehab institute with a physical therapist who has a [paralyzed] stroke patient who wants to braid her hair. ‘OK, kids, let’s find out what the problem really is. Go down and talk to these folks.’ They’ll all come up with a different solution and realize, ‘Wow! Light bulb! Son of gun! Everyone lied to me. There’s not one right answer.’ Explore and do user-centered research and you come up with all these opportunities.”
HOW DO YOU STAY ON TOP OF DESIGN TRENDS?
“You should always be doing second generation. You have to ask, ‘We’ve had this thing for five years. How do we get you to buy the next new one? Or, after we did it, 10 other people did it, so now what are we going to do for an encore?’ In an appropriate world, you’re not only designing the next one, you should be designing the one after that, because if you don’t take yourself out, someone else will.”
DO YOU TEST ALL YOUR PRODUCTS? USE FOCUS GROUPS?
“Focus groups are really dangerous methodologies. They’re just frickin’ awful. A big mouth takes over and everyone else feels intimidated and then they agree with the big mouth and we don’t get information.”
SO HOW DO YOU KNOW WHICH PRODUCT WILL HAVE APPEAL?
“Research tells you what you need to do, but in some cases your retailer tells you what to do. Maybe it’s a price point they need to fill. So you appropriately design to make sure you’re meeting the retailer’s needs. But if you can’t emotionally drive this thing, you don’t have anything.”
YOU’VE SAID THE FAILURE RATE OF NEW PRODUCTS IS 90 PERCENT.
“It’s because people don’t have a process. That’s what I teach. If you follow the process, you’ll generally do pretty well. If you don’t, you’re going to get eaten alive.”
WHAT’S THE PROCESS?
“You start out with a big, broad market exploration and an opportunity and technological exploration. What’s in the field and what’s technologically available? What are the drivers? Then you do a bunch of concept work. You just scratch it out. Then do internal ratings and rankings based on, ‘We know how to do it. We have the technology. We think we can produce it at a price. We can get it done in time for the show. We believe it’s patentable.’ These are just criteria. You have all these things stuck all over the wall. It’s crazy but you do.”
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE A WINNER?
“Go out to the public and find out, ‘What do you think?’ Is this anything that excites you?’ If you’re not getting ‘I really, really love it,’ alongside people who really hate it, you’re not doing anything that’s galvanizing enough to have someone reach in their pocket and buy. You shouldn’t expect to get any more than 35 response rate of ‘Oh my God. I love it! When will it be available?’ You never get better than that, but that’s huge.”
HOW MANY DESIGNERS OR RETAILERS FOLLOW THIS PROCESS?
“In the real world this doesn’t happen at all. Someone in a corner office says, ‘My wife loves pale blue.’ Unless she’s going to buy the entire production line, I don’t care. Or you’ll bring it to a retail buyer and she says, ‘I don’t like it.’ I don’t give a s---. It’s what your market wants. But that’s one of the frustrations in the marketplace. Unless you have data to support why you need to take something off the shelf to carry mine, it’s really tough.”
GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE OF ONE OF YOUR SUCCESSFUL DESIGNS.
“You know the remarkable little utility knife? It’s won every major award in the world because we found white space. Everyone’s doing dopey knives and you’re throwing them into your pocket by mistake and you cut yourself or you’re ripping up a box and you’re ripping up your knuckles and we said, ‘There’s got to be a better way. Go with a ceramic blade.’ This knife will go for 20 years. We want long-lived products.”
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST BIG SELLER?
“I have giggly products that I developed 40 years ago that became icons in Americana. The Pocket Fisherman by Popeil was one of the first projects I did. It was a little fold-up fishing gear thing. It was one of those late-night television laugh-laugh things. It sold 15 million units the first year. I wasn’t smart enough to take a royalty.”
IS IT MORE DIFFICULT TO DESIGN BECAUSE OF THE PACE OF TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE?
“God, no. There are more opportunities. Certainly in medical, diagnostic, and we’re playing in that field. We can start from idea to production in six months. It used to take us two years. A lot of organizations still lumber along and that’s why the young, facile, quick response need-it-now organizations beat up on some of these older ones. That’s not to say P & G isn’t going to be here 10 years from now, but they’ll continue to be there by the virtue of absorbing a lot of hot little firms.”
WHAT THINGS ARE YOU NEVER WITHOUT?
“A pencil and a sketchbook. If I’m running out to a lecture, the sketchbook is with me.”