Called a ‘bake-off’ the exercise is sometimes created by companies who want to test the market for new personnel, new ideas and new solutions.
According to John Brown, managing director of Design Resource, such an intensive challenge does not occur frequently.
“The bake-off is about clients questioning whether they can do better. It’s a very clever way for a client to deal with the issue of innovation,” Brown said.
“It was a rude shock for us to find out that we were going to be measured. So in a way it was a very, very healthy exercise for everyone concerned.
“I just couldn’t conceive of coming second in a bake-off. Every night I’d take the work home, and every morning we would meet to improve what we had done.
“We worked it and reworked it until we had the ultimate solution. It’s easy to say ‘well the budget’s expended we’ll just leave it at that’, but in this instance we really did have to go a lot harder.”
Brown says the recent exercise, initiated by the US company, VeriFone, was not the first bake-off Design Resource has been involved in.
“We’ve won a few, one with Energiser from a five-line brief against three other international design groups. With that project we all had a budget and had half a day to present in a hotel suite in San Francisco. We finally competed against Frog design in the US to win that one.”
Design Resource had worked with VeriFone, based in Silicon Valley, for several years before the recent competition. VeriFone is a leading provider of secure electronic payment solutions.
According to Brown, the bake-off was the client’s idea. “They decided there was nothing wrong with what we did, but they wanted to test the market to see if they could do better.
“That was a daunting realisation – when you are the incumbent and you get the message – ‘I do know there are some very clever design houses out there’. But to actually go into the bake-off and come out with an absolute nod of approval was a great achievement for us.”
David Talach, director product management for VeriFone, said Design Resource, came through the bake-off as more creative, artisitc, free flowing and collaborative than its competitors.
“Sometimes the best way to get something out of a group of people is to have a competitive situation,” Talach said.
“We wanted to make sure that Design Resource was still our valid partner. We believed in them and we wanted to see everything they had.
“Competition can inspire you to work harder; to look at things differently.”
Talach says the bake-off was tied to the company’s planning of a new product.
“We had a very new and innovative product that we were working on and we really wanted to spark some competitive spirit and make sure everyone was putting their heart and soul into this new project.
“The group in the US was very systematic and disciplined and, if anything, crippled the brainstorming process.”
According to Brown, Design Resource had been responsible for creating a new product image program and extensive product branding for VeriFone, which took it away from the plain grey box of the past.
“They found out about us because we were working for a small Australian manufacturer of the same type of electronic transaction solutions. The designs that we had done for our client had competed very successfully with theirs.
“More or less at the same time, our Australian client had a change of staff and looked for another design consultancy to work for them.
“For VeriFone, the first thing we did was look at all of their products. We realised that with every product they produced they started from scratch. So we talked to them about the need for a product image, like a corporate image, a signature image for their solutions.
“At the time the managing director was from Apple so she understood the power of design. She gave us a budget and told us to tell them what they should be doing.
“We created a totally new product image that started with simple things like a special colour (that was also impossible to copy). Then we created a signature style, we called ‘organic tension’, which essentially was a combination of organic form and tension lines in their product styling.”
Brown said it was important for the company to have its own visual language and what he calls ‘signature threads’. This meant that all the keypad shapes on their keyboards were always the same, the colour palette was rigidly enforced, the textures were all identifiable and the graphics and icons came from a specially designed family.
"The display lenses all had the same colour and tone of backlight.
“The marketing people loved it – because it sounded important and special, and the engineers thought it all amusing. I gave many presentations to marketing and engineering groups within the company.
“Within twelve months the whole of the group we were working with had embraced this theory of having a signature PI or product image for their company’s range. This is a classic example of a design house taking the time out to bring a client with them, by explaining the value of consistent, eye catching styling and user interface design.
“Every year now we publish a range of posters for internal circulation so everyone working at VeriFone knows about the changes that are coming through with new products and the product image.
“Their customers like the products and identify with them. VeriFone’s solutions are the visual manifestation of their strong position in the world market.”
VeriFone recently changed ownership and with it came the decision to test the market for greater innovation.
According to Brown, the new owners announced that they had decided to do an iconic product that would represent a technological breakthrough for the market and that they wanted the best design house they could get.
“They selected four design companies – three from the US and us,” he explained.
“They visited all of the design groups and evaluated them. I travelled to the US and presented to them during this time. The four companies had been given the same brief. We were then short listed with Lunar Design in Silicon Valley. That was what we call the real ‘bake-off’.
“We then entered what the client called ‘Phase Zero’, driven by marketing. The company had new technology that would enable one of their products to become much smaller. The product was a portable product, a next generation portable wireless transaction terminal for use in restaurants.”
Brown says the challenge was to address the problems of paper and printer required for use with the terminal, and to ensure the keypad was no bigger than a mobile phone and user friendly.
“In Phase Zero we were sent away to study all of the environment and to propose solutions that would match the cleverness of the technology VeriFone’s engineers had developed.
“We took all of our knowledge about the product and all of the relationships between the components. We set about creating something that was truly different.
“We expressed this by creating accurately weighted solid models and a detailed user interface study, which we believe was critical to making a breakthrough design.”
As part of its research and feasibility studies, Design Resource personnel acted out merchant and customer scenarios.
“The client was very impressed by our replication of the work environment. They knew then that we were taking Phase Zero very seriously and we believe it definitely gave us the edge.”
Brown said the process assisted in developing the components in a ‘form factor’ – an orientation that basically broke the mould.
“We literally turned key components upside down, and it worked supremely well. So only the things the customer needs, the keyboard and the display, were on the top surface. There was no wasted space.”
Phase Zero lasted for about eight weeks and the ‘bake-off’ required workshopping the model with the client followed by a three-week engineering analysis.
After a second visit to Silicon Valley, the team at Design Resource was told they had won and that the reaction from the marketing department had also been very favourable.
Design as strategy
David Talach believes VeriFone products have been part of what was previously considered a ‘design-less’ industry.
“As a technology begins to stabilise, it becomes more difficult to differentiate your products from your competitors,” he explains.
“Design for us has become a differentiator. By focusing on a product feature set, ergonomics and user scenarios it has enabled us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.
“Design allows us to break away from a commodity marketplace and to keep our brand solid and strengthen what the VeriFone brand means. It is something we are continuing to investigate.
“I believe we are not fully fledged into design as much as the horizontal marketplace like consumer electronics; we are not quite that competitive.
“But there is a shifting point right now where design is becoming quite competitive. Not all of our competitors are realising this. We are in an inflection point.”
According to Talach, the standout difference for Design Resource was its collaborative approach.
“Design doesn’t just come from industrial designers; there is a designer in every one of us.
“And the US based designers tried to force upon us what they thought we should do. They didn’t ask the questions they needed to ask.
“It’s important to recognise that industrial design is no longer only for industrial designers. It’s for those in marketing and advertising and for engineers also.
“Design Resource worked collaboratively with all of us. They were the creative spark that brought out the designer in all of us.”