The word "protestor" probably brings a few images to mind: a hazy scene of conflict, throngs of angry bystanders with politically charged signs and the police. While creative repurposing tends to trump product design when it comes to civil unrest, a class at the School of Visual Arts was recently tasked with designing for protest culture in a class called "Product, Brand and Experience," for which the subtitle is the brief: "Consumer Products for Protestors." [Disclosure: Core77 partner and Editor-at-Large Allan Chochinov is the Chair of the Products of Design Program.]
Damon Ahola and Richard Clarkson were among the students who took the class last semester, teaming up to design B. Super—a collection of transformative tools (including a utility belt) that transform the wearer/user into a superhero in minutes. See what they had to say about their experience and the product series they created:
Core77: Was there an "a-ha moment" that resulted in the idea for this series of products?
Damon Ahola & Richard Clarkson: We were discussing possible brand values and product directions early on in the process, Richard introduced the idea of superheroes. He was exploring the concept of superpowers in his thesis, so he was already quite knowledgeable about the topic. Damon quickly picked up the idea and immediately began sketching product concepts to give protesters a greater sense of confidence.
Could you walk me through the different products and their uses?
Each tool aids the protester in a specific task and is branded as such. The respirator mask,""breath," assists in surviving airborne toxins. To elude authorities, "disguise" is a fake mustache kit at the ready. Duct tape, handy in any situation, is included as "repair." "Relieve" is a lemon juice solution applied to allay the sting of pepper spray in the eye. As a mask, "hide" protects the protester's identity. Embodied as "declare," a rewritable roll-out canvas and marker act as a necessary communication tool. The single-use items are encased in a reusable box as "revive." Finally, the starter kit including the belt system and three of the tools is "empower."
How did you conduct your research when it came to discovering the kinds of products protesters would utilize? Were any of the designers protest veterans with field experience?
We utilized both primary and secondary research methods. One of our classmates had been involved with the protests in Turkey last summer. She helped provide context and answered a lot of questions we had in regards to what specific things people brought to protests. For instance, she informed us about using lemon juice as a method to relieve the pain of pepper spray. This insight became the basis for the B. Super "relieve" product, which transforms a real lemon into a juice spray to alleviate the stinging in eyes.
Can you talk a little bit about how the product, brand and experience all tie in together? Was it hard to find a design that incorporated all of these aspects or was it a natural transition?
We became intrigued with the idea of superheroes very early on, giving the "average joe" or "average jane" confidence to speak out. Through creating numerous mood boards and a brand pyramid, we were able to lock in the brand language and message. We aimed at designing functional tools, but keeping it lighthearted and fun. We looked at the project as a platform, the brand and product should work together cohesively to create the experience. We thought, what is the most pedestrian packaging out there? A brown paper bag. But we designed a really nice brown paper bag featuring simple iconography and bold accent colors. The color on the bottom of the bag indicates what color B. Super product it contains. The colors were inspired by traditional superhero colors as well. The way the class was structured, lead to a natural evolution of product, brand and experience.
What was the hardest part in combing protestors and products? As the interview with your professors on Products of Design mentions, the two don't naturally match up.
There is an interesting juxtaposition of such a commercial product targeted toward protesters. The most difficult part was determining the right balance while looking at a serious topic through a light-hearted lens and maintaining that balance throughout the brand. We used our brand ethos and frequent critiques, to constantly gauge if we were heading too far off the mark and took actions to correct our direction.
What are you most proud of when it comes to the final product series?
The scope of the work. Initially we set ourselves very ambitious goals for the project. Envisioning three product scales each with its own product families. At one point the sheer number of SKUs became too much and we had to make the difficult decision of what to edit out. We both feel we made the right decision with the belt being the most "superhero-esque," even then we still had a large family of product to design, prototype and present.
Do you feel that being involved in a class that's so tightly focused on a specific series of products or idea is better or worse than classes covering a wider expanse of design?
Throughout the Products of Design program, we have had experiences working at both scales. In this particular case, having such tight constraints enabled us to flourish within the topic and think deeper about the entire product, brand and experience platform.
What was it like working with your professors, Rinat Aruh and Johan Liden?
Working with Johan and Rinat, cofounders of Aruliden, was an amazing and rewarding experience. Through showing real client projects, they illustrated what has worked well and not so well through their experiences. They were always enthusiastic and offered great insights throughout the development process.
Can you describe the perfect setting in which you hope to see B. Super?
While this is a speculative product, it would be incredible to see these tools in use at an actual protest. However more realistically, we expect it would exist as a lifestyle product—something you would have on display in your home. In that light, we envision the B. Super product line to be sold at fashion-forward retailers such as Opening Ceremony in Manhattan and high-end skateboard shops like Homage Brooklyn.