On Prototyping: The Simplest Solution Never Comes First

When we use a break-through industrial design product – the iPod, for example – we don’t necessarily spend much time thinking about the extensive development process that went into achieving such a simple solution. But the long journey from visionary idea to intuitive product is a trajectory worth contemplating. In the case of Herman Miller’s new Setu chair, designed by Berlin outfit Studio 7.5, the numbers are telling: 18 months of self-financing, 5+ years of development, and 40 fully functional prototypes.

We sat down with 3 of the studio’s 4 partners – Claudia Plikat and siblings Carola and Roland Zwick – to talk about the deceptively simple design of Setu, which debuted at NeoCon this summer and snagged two prestigious awards. The multipurpose chair boasts a “kinematic spine” – the first of its kind – which seamlessly joins the seat bed to the chair back, allowing the chair to adapt to the ergonomics of individual users without a single adjustment. The group also designed Herman Miller’s award-winning Mirra desk chair.Studio 7.5 has only 8 employees, and 4 of them are partners in the firm.

They all went to school and received their industrial design training from the same professors, and they’ve been “married,” as they put it, for almost 20 years now. But it’s not their shared history as much as it is a shared mission that holds the group together. Their mantra is “the best idea should win,” and as a result everyone is in constant pitch mode. “If you cannot convince the others – and paper is not that convincing,”says Carola, the project won’t happen. “If you have something in your hand that does something, that’s way more appealing to everyone here.”

We never start with this nice-looking picture of our vision, of how something should look at the end.

In short, the group thrives on the challenge: Put your model where your mouth is. “If you are really serious about what you are doing, and not only delivering napkin drawings that some engineer at a company is executing,” as Claudia says, prototyping must be at the core of the design process. Fittingly then, the studio is outfitted with a small, but incredibly robust, model-making shop, replete with a CNC milling machine.

As die-hard believers in transforming idealized visions into pragmatic realities – and the sooner the better – the Studio 7.5 team has little use for drawings. Carola: “We never start with this nice-looking picture of our vision, of how something should look at the end… At every iteration of the prototyping, we try to update ‘What would the product look like?’ if this would be the final stage of development. And during this iterative process, the details get carved out, and evolutionarily develop. And, of course, you have to be very patient.”

In their opinion, if they are outsourcing prototype development, they are also outsourcing learning. By being able to develop fully functional prototypes in house, “The learning from building prototypes stays here and we can be faster, more agile,” says Roland. “The simplest version works the best, and the first version is never the simplest.”

Patience and taking the long view seems to be the order of the day at Studio 7.5. The group self-financed the first 18 months of Setu’s development because they needed to protect their creative process in those fragile, early days. Claudia says, “We think as designers, we are authors of something. We don’t think of design as a service… With some projects, it is like a growing plant. It is so small and vulnerable that you don’t want to expose it to really harsh critique.” Though they had worked with Herman Miller previously, 7.5 didn’t even give the company a peek until the design had already evolved through 35 fully functional prototypes.

The simplest version works the best, and the first version is never the simplest.

“The question from the beginning was, if we wanted to achieve this, what we would call solid-state kinematic, we would need to prove and verify that living hinges (now only used on Tupperware boxes) could work and last for the [Herman Miller] 12-year warranty,” says Carola. “And that meant internally ‘a million cycles’ – these living hinges need to move a million times. That was the part we were most nervous about. And that could only be proved by a real prototype and then Herman Miller would test that.”

During the process, small rituals help the team sustain momentum and keep in touch. Every day, all of the studio’s employees gather at a long, oak table, which doubles as a workbench at other times, for a meal served up by resident cook, Katja, and a daily conference. Despite the success of their Setu and Mirra chairs, Carola still calls their family-style lunch 7.5’s best invention: “It sounds silly but that’s the best way to ensure that everybody is on the same page.” It’s also the best way to relax and refuel for more prototyping.

More insights on: Achievement, Iteration

Jocelyn K. Glei

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A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with understanding how work gives our lives meaning. She has authored three books about work, creativity, and business, including the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.
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