Robin Roy is our latest Routledge Featured Author. Read our interview to discover more about his recent book, Consumer Product Innovation and Sustainable Design: The Evolution and Impacts of Successful Products.
Robin Roy is Emeritus Professor of Design and Environment at the Open University. Since joining the OU in 1971 as one of the first lecturers in Design, he has chaired and contributed to many OU courses on design, innovation, energy and environment, most recently Design Essentials; Innovation: Designing for change; and Environment: Journeys through a changing world. In 1979, he founded the Design Innovation Group to research design and innovation management and sustainable design. He has published many books, book chapters, papers and articles on topics ranging from design creativity and the successful management of new product development to environmentally sustainable education systems and consumer adoption of low and zero carbon technologies. He is a Fellow and Council member of the Design Research Society, a former Director of Carbon Connections Ltd. and a Trustee of Powerful Information, a local international development charity.
I have always been interested in design, and as a child I was fascinated by the old washing machines, cookers and lamps in London’s Science Museum. As a teenager I wanted to be an architect, but decided to do engineering, which spanned my interests in design and science. This led me to study mechanical engineering and then take a master’s degree and PhD in design technology at Manchester University under Christopher Jones, one of the originators of systematic design methods and a broad systems approach to design. I was fortunate to be recruited in 1971 as one of the first Design lecturers by Jones, who had become Professor of Design at the then recently founded Open University (OU).
The OU pioneered teaching home-based students via specially produced books, radio and TV programmes. The Design group at the OU developed an innovative project-based approach to teaching design at a distance, which it has maintained to the present, but now using online multimedia as well as printed books. In my over 40 years at the OU I contributed to almost all its courses on design, innovation and environment. For my research I founded the Design Innovation Group in 1979, which focused on investigating the successful practice of product design and innovation and on developing the new field of sustainable design. On retirement in 2012 I was appointed Emeritus Professor of Design and Environment, which allowed me to continue producing OU course materials and finding time for writing.
I had long wanted to write a book which used my collection of Which? – the magazine of the Consumers’ Association. Which? – whose idea, like the OU, was Michael Young’s – provides a unique written and visual record of how consumer products available in Britain have evolved over almost sixty years. My idea for the book to was use my Which? archive going back to 1957, together with the more recent Which? website, as a way of tracking the invention, design and evolution of a number of consumer durables, such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, television equipment and mobile (cell) phones. I quickly realised that, although Which? was a useful source, tracking the evolution of such products from their invention in the 19th and early 20th centuries to the present required a considerable amount of additional research in libraries, museums and online. Arising from my work on sustainable design, I also explored how environmental concerns and regulations influenced the design of these products and the products’ impacts on the environment and society.
A key finding of the book is that innovative products follow similar innovation cycles; starting with technical experimentation and design diversity, followed by convergence on one or two dominant designs, followed by further diversity as new technologies and components are introduced. For fast evolving products, like mobile phones, this cycle may have occurred more than once. One of the lessons drawn from the book for designers, engineers, marketers and manufacturers is to know where their products are in this cycle to avoid being overtaken by competitors. Other lessons are drawn from the successes and failures of the different products and how environmental legislation, pressure groups and champions foster, and sometimes force, companies and designers to develop more sustainable products. These lessons are explored further in three short articles accompanying these Q&As.
A common misconception is that consumer products, such as vacuum cleaners and TVs, are relatively simple devices. The book shows that such products are usually based on major scientific discoveries and/or inventions followed by decades of experimentation and design improvement.
A lesson I’ve learned from writing this book is that each consumer product has its own extensive technical, design, cultural and social history and often specialist museums, collectors and websites dedicated to preserving it.
I’m planning a new book that will use the same empirical approach to identify the sources of creative ideas and developments in invention, design and innovation based on the writings, interviews, etc. of highly creative people in the arts, science and design.
While many innovations and new products fail, others have become highly successful in terms of widespread adoption and/or profitability. What do the case studies suggest distinguishes these successful innovations and new products from the less successful ones?
Many new products and innovations fail to reach the market, or if they do, are not sold in sufficient numbers to provide a return on investment, or be adopted widely enough to be considered a success. Lack of relative advantage has already been mentioned, but what do the case studies suggest are other main reasons for product failure?
Making, transporting, using, maintaining and disposing of products all have impacts on the environment. With increasingly tough environmental legislation, how have manufacturers shifted their attention from trying to clean up their products’ environmental impacts during or after manufacture, to designing out as many of the impacts as possible during product development?