Why are there so few truly remarkable products?

It’s quite simple really.
Our industrialized economy, founded on mass manufacturing and economies of scale spurred by consumerism, is the greatest enemy of remarkable products.
Of course many products will come close, in fact many will be hailed as fantastic or even great, but the truly remarkable will be few and far between.
People striving to create awesomely remarkable products can do so because it is actually quite straightforward. Unfortunately it rarely happens, as making remarkable products is a constant uphill battle against the basic machinery that makes it all happens.
Lets take a look and see why.
1) Manufacturing bland
The whole objective of mass manufacturing is to get economies of scale when you manufacture large volumes of product. So what does this means?
You build standardized products with as many common parts as possible. Or take this to the next level by making products with as many off the shelf components as possible. Take a look at the computer industry and you can see this glaring problem. Pretty much everything looks the same and differentiation ends up being very superficial.
2) Race to the bottom
One of the big advantages of economics of scale is a product made as cheap as possible by a repetitious and standardized process. Why is this important?
It is a big race to the bottom in terms of price. Contract manufacturers are pressured to reduce their cost by ensuring pricing efficiency and sufficiency. Products are built to a level of specification that most consumers are willing to pay. This is then balanced off with the cost and margin a brand is willing to accept.
This is to avoid situations, for example, where groups of people will not be interested to pay more for, say, a mobile phone with camera when all they need is a straight forward phone.
So in a product creation process like this, why then anyone go the extra mile for an awesome function or spec when it will be just considered a nice to have or not appeal to the market majority?
3) Products that do too much
On the other end of scale from the previous point, designers often get sucked into creating products, designs, forms, or shapes etc. that try to appeal to as many people as possible.
In essence, we end up with products that try to be everything and the kitchen sink. This is also often comes as a response to unfocused marketing stories that try to unsuccessfully satisfy as many consumers’ needs as possible.
4) We threw out the baby with the bath water
Gordan Ramsey said (via Contrast):

“It doesn’t matter how amazing the steak is, if it’s served on a cold plate it’s crap. If it’s served with a dull knife it’s crap. If the gravy isn’t piping hot, it’s crap. If you’re eating it on an uncomfortable chair, it’s crap. If it’s served by an ugly waiter who just came in from a smoke break, it’s crap. Because I care about the steak, I have to care about everything around it. “

These days it is getting extremely difficult for designers to manage the entire design development process because organizations decided (about 10+ years ago) not be vertically integrated and outsourced much of their (lower value) down stream development processes. This helped organizations reduce overheads, costs and increase efficiency, especially if the process moved outhouse was manufacturing.
The net effect of contract manufacturing or contract “everything” for that matter, is the loss of control. It is hard, not impossible, to regain this control and ensure the integrity of a design solution through out the development process, but you need extremely passionate, dedicated and persistent team that don’t come a dime a dozen
So I hope we can now see that the environment we design products in, leans towards encouraging the creation of watered down products with little innovation and poor differentiation.
What do we do now?
I’m not asking you to go against industrialization or the contract manufacturing process as it has many benefits, what we need to change is our mindsets and decide if we are happy with acceptable products that just meets everyone’s requirements, or strive to create remarkable products that go beyond what people expect and accept that it will appeal to fewer people.
If you ever had a doubt about designing fewer, focused, but exceptional products. Check out this quote by Apple’s COO Tim Cook (via Seth Godin):

“This is the most focused company I know of, am aware of, or have any knowledge of… We say no to good ideas every day.” Cook then pointed out to analysts that every single product the company makes would fit on the single conference table in front of him. “And we had revenue last year of $40 billion.”

Ahh…is it not great how design can do so much more when design is doing less?

  • Karen

    March 19, 2010 at 12:57 am Reply

    True, there are few smart people who really understand people; and indeed understand the very nature of real beneficial wants of both people and environment….

  • Warren

    March 18, 2010 at 6:20 pm Reply

    because my friend, there are so few truly smart people around who truly understand people.

  • Karen

    March 14, 2010 at 11:58 pm Reply

    Granted that product forms and function are done so because of a certain product / service culture; but latent needs that are yet to be founded depend on a mind that could spot the niche. Thus making products differently and making it an added value. Hope I’ve made sense.

  • DT

    March 14, 2010 at 11:36 pm Reply

    Hi Waikit,
    Indeed, I’m also saying that everyone is doing the same is because we are making things the same and partly have to because of how things are made. Good to hear from you btw.

  • Karen

    March 6, 2010 at 12:10 am Reply

    chipping in late at night: I think all the above factors could boil down to one main reason: hiring. Design is mainly dependent on fine thinking and wise hiring of the best minds. Probably this may sound pessimistic but I often feel that bad products are there because we have wrong hiring objectives. Worse if one takes in individual (politicking) objectives into hand.
    When inferior minds are hired, don’t expect remarkable products because one simply cannot become remarkable via unremarkable minds.
    Also remarkable products can only derived from an clear mind. Not a mind that is busy of how to get the best of just yourself and your peers. Its about getting the best into the team that counts.
    Hope I’ve made sense..

  • Waikit Chung

    March 5, 2010 at 1:25 pm Reply

    I believe that many companies are indeed looking for ‘new’ things, but what they should looking for is the ‘right’ thing, which is not necessary ‘remarkable’.
    The right thing is something that people want and that the company is capable to provide, and this does not mean it should include new technologies.
    To me ‘remarkable’ products are the ‘right’ products that are meaningful to exist. They probably become not remarkable(that’s why Brian is stating that there are so few of them), because everyone are doing the same thing.
    Hmm..does this make sense?

  • fred mendes

    March 5, 2010 at 5:41 am Reply

    I agree with most topics on this review/article.
    Something that gets to me when I’m designing something with my team is the huga amout of ideas like “so this is a stool that is also a coffe machine or whatever”… Of course this is an extreme situation, it hasn’t actually happened, but I reckon one thing that lacks (us) designers is the ability to get to the solution we’re seeking.
    And it’s tough!
    It’s tough because the company not always can produce what we design, but at the same time we have to design something that is different enough from what they’ve seen – otherwise there’d be no reason to hire us, really!!!
    And I quite ofter see designers saying “Yeah… that isn’t possible” when what we should be saying is “What can be done with the resources is this solution”.
    In other words, designers, in my point of view, have become a bit lazy and happy with the first solution that pops our minds. And we quite often lose ourselves along the way trying to enhance the product with assets that are not really part of a product and maybe shouldn’t be featured at all!
    I think one day customisation will be the key to success. And designers will have to actually talk to all consumers and learn what they really, really want and need and have very specific solutions – and happier customers.
    And that brings another thought to my mind… Years ago it took about 6 months to design a product and present all the solutions with hand-drawn sheets sheets and 1:1 models in clay, foam, or whatever. Nowadays things are just-in-time with 3D modelling softwares and not-so-much thinking products being designed. I mean, fast solutions for demanding clients and still a large number os unhappy consumers, buying second best products.
    I believe that when designers start to really listen to people, the development of a product will again take months to be finished, rush won’t be part of the development itself. But people will be happier – maybe?!

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