The semi-professional blog of Albert Ciuksza Jr.

Category: Design

Actually, the New iPhones Are Awesome

Five colors to enjoy (plus a gold iPhone 5S)

Five colors to enjoy (plus a gold iPhone 5S)

I’m not an expert in technology and don’t want to give the impression that I’m capable of giving a careful analysis of the new hardware or software in the two versions of the iPhone that were launched yesterday. This post isn’t about the guts, or the new interface, or iOS7.

This post is about looks. And, from that perspective, I think this was a brilliant move.

The mistake that handset manufacturers have made, really since the beginning of time, has been that almost all phones look decidedly masculine. I remember a good friend of mine, Meghan Skiff of Mixy Marketing, complaining about how her then top-of-the-line Blackberry only came in masculine colors. “I’d pay serious money to get this in pink,” she said.

Until these iPhones were launched, the only way to make a mobile phone stylish was to add a case. Given just how long smartphones have been around, that is a pathetic record.

The books are right — when marketing to women, pink is not a strategy. But style is.

That is where Apple got this right. The gold tone iPhone 5S might have been widely panned and the multiple colors of the stepped-down 5C might be considered garish, but for the first time there is an iPhone that can appeal to both style and substance. 52% of adult women carry a smartphone. How has no handset manufacturer taken this into its design consideration?

Good design makes everything better. That means both style and substance. While there can be plenty of arguments about whether Apple has been as innovative in this generation of iPhones as years, they’ve clearly taken a step in the right direction in recognizing that style can be a competitive advantage in the mobile market. With so many women using smartphones, creating a line that appeals to various tastes is long overdue.

Why I Love the Steelers’ Throwbacks

Pittsburgh Bees or Jailbirds?

Pittsburgh Bees or Jailbirds?

After a day of hearing all of the complaining about the Steelers’ newly-unveiled 80th Anniversary uniforms, I figured I’d come out of the bumblebee-loving closet and confess that I unequivocally love the new unis.

Now, obviously, they’re an aesthetic disaster. Black and gold is a hell of a study in contrasts, and the inch-plus alternating stripes are tough on the eyes. Adding the self-contained black numbers in a black-outlined white box makes the top half painful (potentially only saved by the black logo-less helmet). It gets worse below the waist, with doesn’t-match-anything sand pants and striped black and gold socks. I mean, seriously. They’re horrible looking.

Barry Foster in '33 Duds

Barry Foster in '33 Duds

However, I love the fact that the team is celebrating its history in an honest way, showing off one of its earliest looks even if the uniform is hideous. At a time when NFL teams are releasing alternate uniforms on a regular basis in the name of revenue generation, the Steelers picked a look that they had to know wouldn’t sell well (as of today, the jerseys are not for sale at the team shop). And this time, they actually had a choice, unlike the NFL’s 75th Anniversary, when all teams were required to wear uniforms from their founding.

Sure, the Steelers have dabbled in the alternate jersey universe, wearing the black-and-gold classics from the late 50s and early 60s (which, by the way, were pretty sweet despite the gold helmets). But this time around, it will be great to see what the games might have looked like in the early days of the NFL, even if that means 380ish-pound Casey Hampton has to squeeze into one of these puppies.

So thank you, Rooney family, for having the guts to put your boys in these monstrosities. I can’t wait to see them in action.

Sephora is One Scary Place

Scarier than the boogeyman

Scarier than the boogeyman

I love the National Geographic Channel and its focus on wildlife. For some reason, I’m particularly drawn to how different species choose mates and the lengths to which they will go, from the plumes of feathers on a peacock to the amount of light a firefly will use to attract the opposite sex. I’m even more fascinated by the sheer number of similarities between us humans and the animal kingdom.

On a recent trip to Ross Park Mall, a female friend dragged me into Sephora for a time she described as “quickly”, which made me realize that the she might not know the definition of the term. While initially nerve-wracking, I decided to make this my own personal National Geographic special, using the experience to analyze how products were packaged and displayed, how lower-end products compared to premium products and what design theories were used to appeal to women. While I started in an area with a bunch of boxes and bottles, I ended up in a section with various items that resembled miniature lawn equipment, much of which made me realize that I am much less likely to injure myself using a table saw than an eyelash curler (Really? An Eyelash Curler? That’s necessary why?).

The entire experience went from fascinating to traumatizing when I came upon a box with this grooming machine that included three different attachments. I looked at the first one, which looked much like the trimmer you’d find on the back of an electric razor — that’s not so bad. Next down was a tool that looked just like an electric razor with little holes to cut hair — that was just a mini Norelco razor. Finally, I got to this dangerous shark-toothed looking thing. I looked at it, tilted my head like a beagle hearing a harmonica for the first time, and tried to figure out what the hell an “epilator” was. Then it hit me. Completely by reaction, I hunched over a little bit and protected certain areas of my anatomy, subconsciously afraid that the damn thing would jump out of and attack my nether regions. I also made a very loud oomph/ouch sound, causing my friend and two sales associated to run over to make sure I was ok. They found me standing there, completely blown away that anyone would use such a disturbing device. While they were laughing, I was still in shock. I believe I’m now one of the first diagnosed cases of epilatorphobia.

The lesson learned, beyond the fact that I will never feel entirely safe being in the same room as that devil machine, is that men and women really do have completely different shopping experiences and expectations. There was a shocking amount of white used in graphic design, as well as pastels (compared to the blues/browns/darker neutrals found in men’s products). I also saw a loose correlation between product shape and price — the more unique and feminine the shape of the bottle, the higher premium on the product. Another observation involved typography — while men’s products usually feature bold/black fonts, most of the products in Sephora used type that was thin or ultra-thin. Finally, I realized the motivation women have to achieve beauty is beyond what I had ever expected before (I’m an only child with a decidedly non-girly mom who has usually dated women who could get ready in 20 minutes or less). The point? For this category of woman, appeal to the need to be beautiful, make the packaging as much of an experience as possible, market the product in a way that it feels luxurious and price it such that the product feels rare (now with “hydrokryptocyanide!”) rather than eerily similar to what is in a Suave bottle in Giant Eagle. While it is a very crowded market, there seems to be a niche for a multitude of similar products — invoke those feelings of beauty and exclusivity, and you’ll carve out a niche.

Heinz Proves That it is Good to be the King

Heinz Packet

New Heinz Ketchup Packet

After years of watching people fumble with the little packets tossed in fast food to-go, Heinz announced yesterday that it has invented a new packet with three times more ketchup that can be opened for dunking or squeezed onto a hot dog bun. Really? After more than 50 years (the original patent for the ketchup packet was issued in 1955) and years of customers cursing the design, the company FINALLY came up with something better. It made me realize that, while there might be start-up companies that can supplant technologies, there are still industries that have market leaders with legit competition.

This reminded me of the story of Alcoa, the multinational aluminum conglomerate, and the Fridge Pack. As one of the largest providers of aluminum to the world, it obviously sees the soft drink market as important to it’s success. In 1999, the company saw that cans were sort of hard to keep in your refrigerator, as evidenced by all of the “can storage” as-seen-on-TV items in the early 90’s. So, the company decided to rethink the way cans were sold and stored, and invented the 12-can fridge pack. Stacked 6×2 (as opposed to 3×4 or in 6-packs with the soft plastic carriers), people learned to just throw the box in the fridge and forget about it.

I think the Heinz example is reinforced by a Malcom Gladwell article about ketchup. In the article, he talks about how there are a gazillion different mustards, but really only one (Heinz) ketchup. Despite many attempts to make the “Grey Poupon” of ketchup, none of them have succeeded. People like Heinz and, according to taste tests, pretty much consider it perfect.

So, what does this mean? First, it’s pretty awesome to be considered an irreplaceable product. Heinz has no legitimate threat and, as a result, no need to push the envelope too hard with respect to ketchup innovation (purple ketchup, anyone??). Second, you have to be able to anticipate your weaknesses/threats and gauge whether or not to do something about it. In the Heinz case, there might have been a consumer demand for a new packet, but the threat wasn’t such that it made a change a top priority. For Alcoa, not making an adjustment could mean a shift of consumer behavior to other soft drink containers (could prove disastrous for the company).

Companies always need to be on the lookout and figure out if they’re in a Heinz position or an Alcoa position. If the former, it’s really not worth spending the money on R&D when you could be dedicating resources to other, more profitable projects (Heinz’s restaurant squeeze bottles are a good example). If you’re Alcoa, you have to be able to recognize if there’s a threat to your business and, if so, you might need to innovate on the margins of your core offering to shore up your relevance in the market. In the end, you have to listen to the customer and do the strategic math. If your customers are willing to put up with your inadequacies, good for you! If not, get working on a solution before it’s too late.

The $100 Identity Start Up Kit

I don’t need to delve into the importance of a good marketing plan — it’s been said a thousand times by people far more talented than I. However, tactical implementation gets tough on a very limited budget. Folks in startups often believe that people (potential funders, customers, etc.) will look beyond design/collateral because the product/service is so superior, so they decide that creating a professional image is very low on the to-do list. However, the short-term cost savings can severely cost them in terms of funding and sales.

Having worked in a startup environment with very few resources, I was able to create some identity pieces and collateral that looked very professional for not a lot of money. I have incredibly high standards with respect to graphic design and print quality (true story: I will use a magnifying glass to look at how a piece is printed), so I have experimented with many solutions in order to maximize look on a dime (or penny, even). Here are my thoughts and some do’s and don’ts… Continue reading

Inventors Should Learn From The Green M&M

Green M&M

Green M&M

During the Spanish Civil War, Forrest Mars, Sr. saw some soldiers eating little chocolate pellets surrounded by a sugar shell, preventing the little pieces of chocolate from melting. He perfected the process, patented it and, along with Bruce Murrie, began production in 1941 exclusively for the military. The candy hooked thousands of GIs and the company began selling to the general public after the World War II ended, establishing M&M’s (Mars & Murrie) as one of the best-selling chocolates in history.

In nearly 70 years, the product has grown from a treat for soldiers to one of the most extended products in the world, with multiple fillings, flavors, customization options, colors and sizes that are sold in stores ranging from gas station stop-and-gos to the massive M&M’s Store on the Las Vegas strip.

What can entrepreneurs learn from Mars and Murrie? The customer’s vision (and money) drives product direction, not the entrepreneur. If Mars had stuck with his original product vision, the product would be relegated the memories of those who fought in World War II. There never would have been the addition of peanuts in 1954, peanut butter in 1990, the blue M&M in 1994 or a wall of “My Color” M&M’s anywhere. Certainly, there never would have been a customer-driven rumor that green M&M’s are an aphrodisiac, which has led to product extensions itself (bags of green M&M’s sold on Valentine’s Day, the sultry female M&M character featured in much of the company’s advertising). While there’s market research behind the moves that M&M’s makes, customer demand drives the vision of what the next M&M innovation will be.

One of the greatest challenges that inventors face is internal. Many inventors, who have invested countless hours and dollars perfecting their product, become so closely aligned to their own innovation vision that they lose sight of the customer. They restrict the vision of the market that they’re creating, which turns off potential customers, investors, champions and referrals. This eventually leads to game-changing technologies dying on the vine because the inventor thinks they’re smarter than the market.

Inventors and entrepreneurs must realize that they lose control of their product the minute they develop it. As soon it goes from concept to execution, the customer dictates whether or not the product is viable and what improvements should be made. Customers are smart. Follow their lead. And always remember that it was the customer, not the inventor, that created the green M&M.

Can you ‘Six Sigma’ a New Product?

I was reminded of my short-lived exposure to Six Sigma this weekend when I came upon an article in the New York Times called Welcoming the New, Improving the Old. It touched upon a challenge that had concerned me when I was going through my green belt training (a level of Six Sigma certification) at the time.

Six Sigma is an incredibly rigorous process focused on statistical measurement in order to make improvements in the delivery of a product or service. I was originally drawn to it as a way to solve some of the process problems I had faced in my own area, expecting that it could be used to address nearly any challenge.

What I learned is that, as powerful a tool as Six Sigma can be, it is also easily manipulated to measure the wrong things to solve the wrong problems. There were countless examples of companies applying Six Sigma to problems customers didn’t care about, which, in the end, wasted gobs of time and money. The point that our instructor hammered home was, “define what is a defect based upon what is important to customers.” This, frustratingly, is often not something easily quantified. Why? For two reasons: sometimes the customer isn’t very forthcoming about what they want; and sometimes the customer just doesn’t know until they see it.

For these very qualitative challenges, enter Design Thinking, defined as a process for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result. The goal (improvement) is the same, but attacks the challenge from a very different perspective. I see Design Thinking as the methodology that creates the “aha!” moment that converts the prospect into a customer.

My favorite quote from the article: Continue reading