For the past year and a half, I have been working to formalize and advance product design across HOK’s worldwide network of offices. It has been an exhilarating experience. To date, HOK Product Design, LLC, has reviewed 350 product ideas and secured business arrangements with manufacturing partners for 35 HOK-designed products. We have 15 more products in different stages of development.
HOK’s designers tell me that creating new products is an extension of what they typically do every day: solve problems as elegantly as possible. “Designing products gives us a new way to express ourselves,” says Tom Polucci, director of interior design in HOK’s Chicago office, and a designer of rubber and carpet tile for Mannington. “The process involves fewer people and moves much faster than our projects for the built environment. Yet it takes the same level of commitment required to deliver excellent service and design for our projects. We can’t just sketch a product and send it to a manufacturer to build.”
Market Research in a Box
HOK’s clients are best-in-class corporations and institutions. They also are our manufacturers’ clients. We provide value by providing best-in-class information about what our mutual clients are looking for in the marketplace. In addition, we can bring direct feedback about how a client views a product’s performance.
Our designers also can identify gaps in the market and develop ideas for filling the void. When an experienced designer like Tom Polucci, who has specified thousands of acres of flooring in his career, says the market needs a new flooring product, his belief comes from empirical research. HOK becomes an informal but extremely valuable research arm for the manufacturer. We are “market research in a box.”
Our goal for every product is to add value by improving on what currently exists or to invent a new idea that doesn’t exist in the market, which is what we have done with three patent-pending ideas. We want to help our manufacturing partners succeed by offering them valuable new ideas that add to their existing product line and may give them added depth in a market or access to a new market sector such as healthcare.
Into the Hearts and Minds of HOK’s Designers
We’re working diligently to instill product design into the hearts and minds of the firm’s designers. Steps we have taken include:
• visiting many HOK offices to give face-to-face presentations about HOK Product Design
• posting Product Design policies on HOK’s intranet
• naming Product Design ambassadors in individual offices
• creating a Product Design section in our offices’ materials libraries
• establishing an HOK Product Design advisory board that helps shortlist ideas. This board includes senior HOK people and an outside advisor who is a venture capitalist by trade.
• designing a “Product of the Month” series of posters displayed in each office
• publishing an hokproductdesign.com Web site
In addition to familiarizing myself with the decision-making process of our manufacturer clients, I have engaged HOK’s legal group to get up to speed on the intellectual property aspects of the business and have learned how the manufacturing process differs from architecture.
Submitting an Idea
We have developed a Tier 1 and Tier 2 template form for submitting new product ideas. First, our designers can click the “Submit an Idea” button on hokproductesign.com. As the first set of eyes, if I believe an idea has merit, I request that the person or team provides a Tier 1 submittal on the idea.
In Tier 1, we ask for an outline of the idea, a list of competitive products and an explanation of the market viability. We also request basic design concepts. A few times a year, we develop a shortlist of ideas and ask participating designers to develop a Tier 2 document. This is a robust business plan that provides a detailed description of the product and an analysis of the market and competitors. If this looks good, HOK Product Design invests in that idea.
Ideas that Impact the World
Once our people fully understand the product design process, it will get easier for them to apply design thinking to product.
“It feels good to have the potential to get more value out of something we create rather than participating as bystanders and using products developed by others, says Paul Wilhelms, an architect in HOK’s St. Louis office who was a co-creator of the FRENO Rain Garden system, a kit-of-parts, patent pending urban rain garden for stormwater filtration and groundwater recharge. “We have the ability to make such a large impact on the world with just one strong idea.”
HOK Product Design’s royalty sharing program also offers HOK designers potentially lucrative financial incentives. A good product could pay dividends to the designer for years to come.
Susan Grossinger heads the year-old HOK Product Design Group. She has held key positions with HOK since joining the firm in 1994. Prior to launching the new HOK business unit, she was director of interiors for the HOK Los Angeles office and was a member of the Los Angeles management team. She is a former member of HOK’s Board of Directors.