3/1/2001 | 8 MINUTE READ

All In a Day's Work

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Whether it's a motorcycle, knife, bra, or tea kettle, industrial designer Richard Seymour works to shift paradigms, exclude none, provide solutions, adapt machines to man, challenge expectations, tickle the senses... and make life better.


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Designer and futurist Richard Seymour, principal in the U.K. firm Seymour Powell, does not attempt to reduce his philosophy to the level of dogma. Instead he questions why certain products appeal to us, what makes us imbue good designs with reverence, how people respond to them on an emotional level, and how to use this knowledge to make designs better and–yes–more popular with the mass market.

His definition of good design is simple: Making life better for people. However, Seymour believes this is much easier said than done because human beings are adaptive organisms. "We put up with the most unbelievable crap everyday," he says, "including those of us involved in the automotive world. Niggling, everyday rubbish we probably don't even realize we're adapting to."

Feelings of respect

Seymour is convinced that humans are very sensitive to their surroundings and environment. So much so that a person who is not particularly interested in a product can sense when something is wrong with the design, even if they cannot say what it is that bothers them. Conversely, when something is right, they know it immediately. And this subconscious understanding has an effect on their feelings toward it.


"Can you tell me why an automobile courtesy light that fades slowly makes you feel good?," he asks rhetorically. "It has nothing to do with letting your eyes adjust to the ambient light. I believe it feels good because it feels like something else, something positive." That something, in Seymour's estimation, is the dimming of the lights that precedes the start of a movie or a play. And this good feeling affects the customer's confidence in the product.

An example of tapping into human feeling is found in his design of an unusual knife set for the Japanese firm Kyocera. A combination of ceramic and carbon fiber, the knives have a cutting edge "about five molecules across" and are perfectly balanced. "If you rest the knife on a tomato, it will cut the tomato with its own weight," he says. And the combination of their look, balance, and cutting ability, "cause the user to treat them with respect." This "imbued reverence" is the reason Kyocera doesn't include a warning to keep the knives away from the dishwasher. "There's no need to," states Seymour, "because the user recognizes the special characteristics of the product implicitly."

Thinking, like research, has little to do with it

Psychologists, says Seymour, say this emotional tie is made in the first 25 nanoseconds, before the mind even registers what the product is. In this pre-cognitive moment a product that carries this "magic", as Seymour calls it, causes the viewer to subconsciously make three statements in a specific order. They are: "I like it. I want it. What is it?"


Take his design for the Nexus motorcycle as an example of this process. At first glance, it is easy to mistake this vehicle for a bicycle. And this response affects the things associated with this design. The type of clothing you would wear. Expectations of its safety, cleanliness and speed. Whether or not you'd place it in the front hall of your house to keep it from being stolen."That's where the tough stuff is," sighs Seymour. "If we blink at something and give ourselves no time to do more than make an emotional response, our bodies will deliver an answer. You feel it, you don't think it. Thinking happens later."

Designed to run on butane (Seymour expects European city centers to institute a ban on cars and be stripped of gas stations, leaving tobacconist shops as the only easily accessible refueling stations), the Nexus weighs just 20 kg, and runs counter to what traditional research into the problem would have suggested. "Trying to create a motorbike for people who don't like them rarely works," explains Seymour. "As Einstein said, you can't solve a problem within the context in which it was created. You have to shift paradigms and move outside the traditional routes to achieve success."

An uplifting example of good design


"We had to step outside of the problem in order to solve it," says Seymour. "We had to shift the paradigm. And to develop successful products, designers have to do this everyday." At times this means having to make a product more complex in order to make it easier to use.This willingness to attack problems from a different angle brought the firm of Seymour Powell to the attention of a U.K. brassiere maker looking for a breakthrough product. During the research phase of the project, Seymour discovered that underwire supports come out during washing and scratch the washing machine drum, the garment is notoriously difficult to put on, and "82% of women–and allegedly 2% of men–are wearing the wrong size bra." Not surprisingly, he threw out the existing design and started over. By copying a chicken's two-piece breast bone, Seymour created a ventilated support that replaced 24 separate pieces, could be sewn in place so it didn't emerge in the washing machine, worked within the current manufacturing culture, and would fit 94% of women. Within a matter of weeks it became Britain's top selling bra.

Design for everyone

"Our kettle design for Tefal has two pieces. When you lift it up from the base, the plug and base stay put. It's more complex than a more conventional kettle, which leaves the plug and everything attached, but ours is easier to use," he claims. Launched 10 years ago, the design initially moved off the shelves slowly. Today, however, Seymour claims more than 70% of all the kettles sold in Europe use some form of his firm's two-piece design.


His thoughts on automatic teller machines, for example, provide an interesting insight into what drives his thoughts on adaptability. "If an ATM was a human being, it would be educationally subnormal," he says matter of factly. "It is too difficult to use for those who have never used one before, and irritatingly, monotonously, and stupidly repetitive for those who use one all the time. Do you know how hard it is to change this? It's not hard at all." Seymour says manufacturers should modify ATMs so that they learn the user's patterns. If the user has a regular usage pattern, the ATM would default to this setting automatically. If some other form of transaction is desired, the user can request the regular menu. "It doesn't take much to make an ATM do that," Seymour sighs, "but it does take a leap of understanding for the designer to make it important enough for the machine to do that."This principle of "simple complexity" also produced a garden shear everyone could use. When cutting thick or tough stems, a device inside toggles over so the shears work like a jack. "I didn't do this so they could cut through steel," explains Seymour. "I did this so our mothers could continue to trim their roses as they get older." Unfortunately, says Seymour, not all products are as adaptive.

Ranked even with ATM design in Seymour's book are manufacturers that put arthritis medication in child-proof containers their customers can't open, and VCR manufacturers who still can't design an easy-to-program unit.

"This isn't funny," he roars. "This is a bloody obscenity! Who said this was OK? Design must be inclusive. And this inclusiveness, at worst, costs very little."

Forget about political correctness Which brings us to Seymour's most, um, interesting design yet. Driven by the simple principle that anthropology comes before technology in the dictionary, Seymour set out to redesign the most common bathroom fixture of all, the toilet. The result was a design that looked familiar, but met the needs of its users.


Seymour admits he could not have done this in a politically correct atmosphere. "I abhor political correctness," he says with disdain. "We have to be willing to talk openly about problems if we are going to have any chance of solving them. Being PC does nothing more than stifle both conversation and potential solutions to problems in a misguided attempt to eliminate discomfort and hurt feelings." Yet despite all of his successes, politically correct or not, Seymour also has had his failures.Seymour began by shaping the back of the bowl like a urinal, altering the shape of the bowl itself to more easily accommodate male and female users, and removing the flush function from the rim. He transferred the flush capability to the naturally disinfectant pine seat (it has to be down to work), and took this opportunity to create a very accurate flow vortex that used less water than even low-flow designs. Finally, his firm discovered an anti-bacterial coating in Japan that uses a photocatalytic layer applied to the ceramic to kill germs on contact for the life of the unit.

Never, ever give up East German motorcycle manufacturer MZ sought out Seymour Powell just after the Berlin Wall fell. With the East German Ost Mark and West German Deutsche Mark suddenly in parity, it became prohibitively expensive for Eastern manufacturers to continue building their dated designs. Seymour was given six months to deliver a fully engineered design.

He started with a Rotax air-cooled engine, a known quantity, and created a new motorcycle around it. Dubbed the Scorpion, this design relied on innovative design and new technologies, and produced a 600-cc motorcycle that weighed a scant 290 lb. wet.

The frame used hardened acrylic adhesives from the aircraft industry instead of welds to hold it together. This structure also acted as the oil tank and provided rigidity for the battery box. The seat was not only the rider's perch, it acted as the engine's intake plenum and airbox. And the list of innovations goes on.



Introduced to applause at the Birmingham Motor Show, Seymour described the Scorpion as, "The best thing I have ever done." But the joy was short-lived. MZ, a company that had been denied access to technologies of the sort found on this design, reverted to the safety of tried-and-true production methods, replacing glue with welds and substituting more familiar materials. The result was a disaster.

"This was the biggest lesson I could ever learn," says Seymour softly. "You must never, ever give up. You have to be the father, mother, and midwife to an idea to get it to be as good as it can be. You have to reach further and further to get the excellence out of it. This was a massive lesson to learn."

This lesson, though painful, focused Richard Seymour's thinking about design. As a result, he strives to put people first, adapt machine to man, acknowledge the subconscious triggers that make a design delight the senses, ask questions others are afraid to ask, and implore the design community to do the same. It was a lesson well learned.