Are Concept Products a Lie?

You can find a boat load of Concept Products everywhere on the Internet these days. Every second news article seems to be a new concept mobile phone, PC or even a car. But are we fooling ourselves with Concept Products and patting our collective backs with a liberal round of “Mental Masturbation”?
According to Kontra from CounterNotions, this is the case, and the main reason why he thinks Apple, BusinessWeek and Fortune magazine’s “Most Innovative Company”, do not believe in “Concept Products”. He says:

Why hasn’t Apple, the most innovative and visionary company in computing, produced a single concept product or vision in over a decade? Because, to paraphrase Jobs, real artists ship.
What’s wrong with Apple?
Why would a commercial entity like Apple produce a concept product? Apple is likely generating more concept products and visions than any other technology company for internal use. When Apple wanted to get into retail stores, for example, Jobs had Ron Johson build a fully-functioning, real-size prototype and tore it down at the last minute to rebuild a new one. Why didn’t Apple release the “concept store” to the then-deeply-skeptical press in order to “demonstrate visionary leadership”? In a similar situation Microsoft likely would have.
Product design, above all, is a bet. Apple understands this better than any other company. In iPhone: The bet Steve Jobs didn’t decline, I explained just what a huge bet the iPhone project was to Apple in 2005. It was a bet-the-company kind of bet. One that Nokia, which has sold hundreds of millions of phones over many years, never took. Neither did Microsoft. They would just as well release annual concept products to the public in order not to go through the pain of taking a bet.
Apple bet the company to single handedly change the industrial design of mobile devices, how we interact with them, the balance between carriers and manufacturers, mobile application vending, etc. Indeed, it simply redefined what a mobile device is to become. Apple did this not with a concept product, but by betting its own billions on a shipping product. This, of course, is nothing new to the company that also gave us Apple II, Macintosh, iMac and iPod…all without concept products.
Doesn’t Apple get it? Aren’t concept products the ultimate sign of getting and shaping the future?
Real artists ship, dabblers create concept products
Pretenders don’t quite understand that design is born of constraints. Real-life constraints, be they tangible or cognitive: Battery-life impacts every other aspect of the iPhone design — hardware and software alike. Screen resolution affects font, icon and UI design. The thickness of a fingertip limits direct, gestural manipulation of on-screen objects. Lack of a physical keyboard and WIMP controls create an unfamiliar mental map of the device. The iPhone design is a bet that solutions to constraints like these can be seamlessly molded into a unified product that will sell. Not a concept. Not a vision. A product that sells.
It turns out that when capable designers are given real constraints for real products they can end up creating great results. In Apple’s case, groundbreaking products like the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone. Constraints have a wonderful way of focusing the mind on the fundamentals, whereas concept products can often have the opposite affect.
Concept products are like essays, musings in 3D. They are incomplete promises. Shipping products, by contrast, are brutally honest deliveries. You get what’s delivered. They live and die by their own design constraints. To the extent they are successful, they do advance the art and science of design and manufacturing by exposing the balance between fantasy and capability.
Extracted from: Why Apple doesn’t do “Concept Products”

What do you guys think? What would you consider the value of creating Concept Products? What about Concept Design Awards? Is it healthy that our whole design education seems to revolve around the research and conceptualization of concept ideas? I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter.

  • gah

    April 17, 2009 at 12:37 pm Reply

    Hi DT,
    Thank you for taking your time to reply. Yeah i believe i mentioned the deciding factor is if the design is realistic, that definitely includes cost and demand for it. I’m sure someone will pay top money for Gina or Taiki if they decide to sell it (definitely not for the mass market).
    Well to be very straight ,your MP3 player is already outdated to date and thus not realistic to the market (even though it’s not going to cost as much as a car). But all things are relative and that design will probably be too “expensive” and unrealistic when compared to what’s available now.
    Anyway most companies come up with such concept so as to push the boundaries, to create something with no restrictions, hoping to gather insights on how things could be. They are not wasted as things learnt from doing those concepts will be valuable.

  • gah

    April 8, 2009 at 2:43 pm Reply

    Weird DT, u mentioned Mazda Taiki and BMW

    • DT

      April 11, 2009 at 10:00 am Reply

      Hi gah,
      I think you are getting a little confused. The difference is where you are taking the product and the extend of the possibility of taking a product into manufacturing. The objective of Un-p3 is and was to take it into a production. You make prototype, basically to test it before you get it made in numbers. The Taiki and Gina are one-off products that are probably too expensive to be realized. They are quite far up the food chain in terms of realization.

  • DT

    March 20, 2009 at 11:27 pm Reply

    @anon: Thanks for asking, yes it will. It was stuck in the back burner, for bit, because “real” life got in the way. Recently I have been bouncing the idea off a few people, and I am planning to pick it up again.
    Interesting that you ask, that project had 2 objectives. I challenge to myself how far I can take a design working only with a standardized PCB and real world mechanical constraints, and to understand concerns people would have buying electronic products online.
    Oh, I would not class them as “Concept Products” as discussed in this article, they are actually fully functioning prototypes.

  • anon

    March 20, 2009 at 10:58 pm Reply

    will the unp3 project ever progress past being a concept product?

  • DT

    March 20, 2009 at 10:34 pm Reply

    Honestly I’m in two minds on this.
    On one hand @Kontra you make valid and strong arguments. But for every failed company trying hard to get ahead with concepts, I probably can give you examples of successful companies that have also launched concepts or even done well because of concepts.
    I’m sure you have seen the Mazda Taiki, that was inspired by nature? What about BMW’s Gina? You mean to tell me BMW got to be a leader in luxury cars a fluke? Lenovo’s recent “PC in a back pocket” spells the end of the only brand to lock out Dell in China? @Steve asks “what is the thrust of this question?” A balanced view, I think is required and to discuss this from all angles.
    I wonder, sometimes, if we should not be so blinded to think that the world revolves around Apple, though I have to admit I am starting to love my Macbook. Apple is not the only company that is good at what they do.
    Personally, I am in agreement with @Steve, there is a place for free conceptual thinking. Concept products have a lot of value in “recharging” designers, or even a good means to test market sentiments. I also think in certain situations, releasing well conceived Concepts to the public, has a lot, I mean a lot of value to upcoming brands (like mazda) looking to uproot market leaders too comfortable being top dog. Even up and coming students can have an opportunity to shine.
    The challenge here going forward and the key is quality. The problem is much of the concept products out there are not really that good, and is the crux of the problem.

  • js

    March 20, 2009 at 2:18 pm Reply

    I think concept awards are great, at least they give the rest of a chance to win a recognised award, a little something to add to our resume and portfolio. Also, doing concept products is a good way to stimulate the mind, and keep busy. But in terms of big companies showing off concepts, I think it’s up to them. Not all companies are ran like Apple. People like Naoto Fukasawa and Kenya Hara all do great concept products that are inspiring.

  • shane crozier

    March 20, 2009 at 6:34 am Reply

    I can’t really see the value in a company publicly releasing concept products. To me it simply announces to the competition what you are working on and that you’re not confident that you’ve got it right yet. If everyone in the company is competent at their profession then why bother?.
    Of course if your internal design department is small and marketing is clueless…

  • Kontra

    March 20, 2009 at 6:27 am Reply

    @ Steve Portigal
    “Because I can imagine a design process that suspends constraints at times as a method for dealing with constraints.”
    Sure. But again, I have nothing against prototypes whatsoever. I just have a hard time seeing the value of releasing them to the public at large.
    “I guess one might want to validate some of the things that people claim that concepts do”
    Hell, yes. Don’t be surprised if there’s a negative value correlation.

  • nahmyq

    March 20, 2009 at 5:49 am Reply

    As a designer i witnessed concept design activities in a consumer electronics company. i just wonder if this is not a scheme to sedate the design department by management and marketing. if your company is knwon to be cautious, yet you have a strong design community, concept designs can be a vehicle for channeling the “revolutionary” forces in your company. it makes your designers happy, while keeping you on seemingly solid ground.

  • Steve Portigal

    March 20, 2009 at 5:46 am Reply

    @Kontra – I read the excerpt here and not the full piece…although I just re-read it and I’m pretty sure I saw it when it first come out – it was widely blogged and discussed – congrats!
    “Concept products grant designers a break from constraints, economics and, ultimately, reality.” I guess this approaches the binary stuff I’m not comfortable with. Because I can imagine a design process that suspends constraints at times as a method for dealing with constraints. That’s certainly how we work when trying how to connect research insights to opportunities.
    So if we agree that constraint-free ideation is part of the process, then the concepts being released could more of a marketing issue than a design competency issue, unless, of course, you start to believe your own PR. Where your marketing comes back to your own culture/process.
    I guess one might want to validate some of the things that people claim that concepts do (boost the brand visibility, maintain thought leadership, attract top talent, etc.) before dismissing them and weigh them against the shortcomings that you raise.

  • Kontra

    March 20, 2009 at 5:34 am Reply

    @Steve Portigal
    “Low-fi concepts are good for the ideation process.”
    Doesn’t sound like you read the original article I wrote. I make a distinction among company-internal prototypes, released concept products and actually shipping products. It’s a binary issue because you either release it into the wild or not.

  • Mike M

    March 20, 2009 at 4:57 am Reply

    Shuffle, not nano.

  • Steve Portigal

    March 20, 2009 at 4:31 am Reply

    Not sure why this needs to be a binary issue. It depends on the fidelity of the concept, the point in the design/development process, and the purpose.
    Low-fi concepts are good for the ideation process. Hifi concepts can be used for some sort of testing, or for getting people excited about it (investors, managers, the press, partners, etc.) before it can be made real.
    Maybe I’m missing the thrust of the question.

  • brian t

    March 20, 2009 at 2:38 am Reply

    I have to agree with Apple on this one, even though I’ve never bought any of their products. Just what would a concept version of e.g. the new iPod Nano actually do? Just sit there looking pretty? A pretty exterior is nice, but to produce a “concept” version of such a product’s real working functionality… you may as well produce the product itself. Until it’s been used, abused, and kicked around, we’re not going to know whether it’s any good, anyway. (
    The new iPod Nano sounds like a nightmare, you can’t even use your own favourite headphones adequately. There IS such as thing as “too small” IMHO.)

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