News & Views

Opinion / Designing on the Edge


Last week, I interviewed Daan Roosegaarde for a piece in the Q4 issue of Contagious. As well as having an awe-inspiring ability to rock a turtle neck, the Dutch designer is renowned for making brilliant products. Take a flick through our Wildfire section over the past few magazines and you’ll see what I mean: smog-cleansing skyscrapers, bicycle paths that naturally glow after dark, and a self-powering dancefloor, to name just a few. But how does he, and his studio, get to these exciting, resonating ideas?

He reckons it’s by using the concept of MAYA: most advanced, yet acceptable.

‘It’s an old principle by [industrial designer] Raymond Loewy and I love it,’ he explains. ‘Because if you design something that is too abstract, too futuristic – like a flying saucer, for instance – then people are like “yeah, whatever”. They disconnect. But if you make something that is too easy, someone else will come and copy it and there’s no impact anymore. So you’re always looking for the edge of what is and what is not possible, and you push that.’

Loewy is regarded as the father of industrial design, and is responsible for creating the Greyhound bus and Shell’s infamous logo, as well as working as a consultant to NASA. He believed, according to his estate’s website, that ‘the adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.’

In other words, there’s a very fine line between making something exciting and making something that scares the shit out of people.

Google Glass is perhaps the most pertinent recent example. A product too far ahead of the game for people to actually adopt. The iPhone, however? Just similar enough to stick around.

But what does this mean for brands and agencies trying to innovate? Well, we think that there are a few rules that can help balance moonshots with Earthly sales targets:

  1. Understand

    What’s perfectly normal for one user might be completely mind-blowing for another. Roosegaarde points to the YouTube phenomenon of people trying out an escalator for the first time as an example. The video, showing people’s stunned reactions as they try to board the moving staircases, was filmed just a couple of years ago. It’s a product that is mundane to most – but absolutely insane to others. And our parameters of understanding are always shifting. In Roosegaarde’s words: ‘We’re continuously updating what is normal.’ Know your audience, know their normal, and innovate accordingly.

  2. Familiarise

    Making people feel at home with the new could be as simple as adding few home comforts. Self-driving cars, for instance, are being introduced looking remarkably close to the vehicle we currently steer. And when Net-a-Porter created its own fashion-focussed social network, it took its cues from existing sites. As Alexandra Hoffnung, creative director of Social Commerce at Net-a-Porter, told Contagious: ‘We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We kept those user journeys similar to those on other social networks so that they would be familiar. But from a design and aesthetic perspective, it had to feel and fit right into the Net-A-Porter brand… It had to feel fashion, but also had to feel like a new, forward-thinking app.’

  3. Iterate

    Small, frequent changes can be another way to slowly introduce the radical. Jim O’Neill, Creative Director at UX agency Above The Fold, urges designers to ‘deliver the future, gradually’. He cites the example of the iPod, showing how Apple evolved the product over time, slowly transforming it into more adventurous avenues, such as the somewhat mad iPod Shuffle. Making lots and lots of iterative changes can be one way to revolutionise products and industries that people are already au fait with, and also to make existing products stand out from the competition.

It’s tempting to shoot for the moon (just so shiny, isn’t it?), but the future needs to be anchored in the present. Perhaps not easy, but the best way to create products that aren’t just swoon-some, but are actually worth buying – and that you can actually sell. After all, as Loewy himself said, ‘the most beautiful curve is a rising sales graph’.



Daan Roosegaarde heads up Studio Roosegaarde, a design studio with offices in both Rotterdam and Beijing. He speaks to Contagious in Issue 45. The magazine is set for release into the wild in December 2015.