DESIGN BY COMMITTEE:
Disney + Graco + Evo Design = what, exactly?
By Annemarie DeLuca
We thought we had it all: A dream team of clients—some of the biggest names in the juvenile products (Graco, Baby Einstein and Disney); a category in which we have had some of our greatest successes; a final product that's a runaway success, that's one of the best selling, award-winning products of its type.
So what went wrong?
This is the story of a design process that had the potential to be daring and exceptional. But at every stage, the design was driven not by creativity or innovation, but by a committee of staunch brand defenders, an uncompromising schedule, and budget police. Although everyone came to the table with the best of intentions, the limitations that were imposed upon the design process resulted in a product that, alas, fell short on real innovation.
Ironically, the Baby Einstein entertainer by Graco is a runaway success, and is one of the best selling products in its category. We're happy because our customer is happy. But the product is far from what we initially envisioned, and that's because ultimately, this really wasn't a design process at all. It was a negotiation process.
About two years ago, our design firm, Evo Design, based in Watertown, Connecticut, was hired by baby products giant Graco to design a new baby entertainer—a self-contained play station that tikes can sit in, spin around, and play with. These things are great for both babies and parents, and many manufacturers offer various versions at various price points. Graco, a division of conglomerate Newell Rubbermaid, was as big as you can get in this category—throw a pacifier into a crowd of parents and you'll always hit someone who owns a Graco product. They make strollers, cribs, car seats, activity centers...anything and everything for parents and little ones. All of us at Evo, designers and administrators alike, had incredible respect for Graco, and it was a bit of a dream come true to finally be able to work with them.
Graco presented a unique and interesting challenge to us: they had recently licensed the Baby Einstein brand from its new owner, Disney. (For those readers who aren't parents, the Baby Einstein brand is cult-phenomenon-legendary. It was started by a woman named Julie Aigner-Clark, who built the empire through videos and books, and ultimately—to no parent's surprise—was bought up by Disney.) So Graco had big plans for the license, aiming to incorporate the line's myriad characters into successful juvenile products. They charged us to innovate with the product, creating something new and interesting and leveraging the new license. And for us, this presented an opportunity to breathe some creative inspiration into what can be considered a pretty staid product category. The dozens of entertainers on the market, made by the likes of Evenflo, Fisher-Price and Little Tikes, all pretty much look the same, and incorporate the same things: bright and colorful plug-in "stations" that move, make sounds, and are fun to grab. (They're good at promoting eye-hand coordination; Evenflo goes as far as calling their's Exersaucers®.) Graco was convinced that there was a huge opportunity for innovation here, and hoped to grab market share with a brand new design.
"To innovate means to change," one of our designers noted. "How do they expect us to improve upon the product if we can't add or take anything away?"
That's where Evo Design came in. Graco came to us because we're experts in adding play and fun to products. We're known for our award-winning juvenile products, like the line of infant toys for LeapFrog including their Activity Table (which won the Parenting Magazine Toy of the Year award, and was a top selling product in that category for three years running).
But more than that, we're experts at being able to apply the real personalities of licenses on to products. This is a very specific skill; you just don't just simply match a basic play pattern and randomly stick it on to a product or character. It all has to make sense. Most importantly, you have to consider the personality of the license including both the appearance and the content. (An example of good license application is The Kids Next Door silly string gun, because it accurately reflects the personality of the license's characters in function and design. An example of ham-fisted license application is the Winnie the Pooh lamp, as the character, the story and the value of the license are in no way connected to the functionality of the product.)
Ready, Set . . . Stop!
We began brainstorming new approaches to the entertainer; everyone clamored for something new, something unique, something ground-breaking. Graco's design director, an extremely talented designer, wanted his products to be "spicy." But both Graco and Baby Einstein wanted to get a new product to market fast—so we knew spicy had to also be quick. And just as we were diving into the project, Graco revisited their bottom line and tightened the scope a bit. This is a company that's been in business for half a century, mainly because safety and quality has always been number one in their book. And although they charged us to innovate, it quickly became clear that they didn't want to take the time and effort to test a new design or to create a new manufacturing process. This was an alarming way to start: it meant that we were unable to change any of the main parts to the entertainer. "To innovate means to change," one of our designers noted. "How do they expect us to improve upon the product if we can't add or take anything away?" Regardless, we would have to work with the existing geometry of fixed posts on the existing model, and try to make the Baby Einstein brand come alive...somehow.
All the competitive products had completely separate stations, making for a fairly disjointed product. So we explored themes—such as Land, Sea, Sky, and Nature—that would bring the characters and play together. But what you don't know about the Baby Einstein characters is that not all of the cute and cuddly creatures get along together.
On the Baby Einstein side of the equation, it became clear that they believed its strong brand, coupled with the strength of the Baby Einstein characters, would carry the product. As far as they were concerned, there was really no need to innovate. What? No need to innovate? At this point, we muttered to ourselves, "where was this project heading?" Baby Einstein wanted to take the existing entertainer base that Graco was already manufacturing, and stick Baby Einstein elements on it. They believed that they would be able to go head-to-head with the competition solely on the strength of their brand. But this philosophy went against Graco's tradition of success—to compete directly, but to make products that are better, safer, and higher quality—so we knew we were going to have to find a middle ground between these two players. And we knew there was bound to be some sparks.
Play patterns and pecking orders
With these almost impossible design constraints, we nevertheless embarked on design development, enduring countless rounds of revisions. We watched helplessly as our attempts at innovation were slowly whittled away until our product started looking as tired and old as the current devices on the market. So we decided to try something new: innovation through play pattern, the recognizable and intentional interaction between the child and the toy. Specifically, an innovative play pattern that has an attachment to the Baby Einstein characters. All the competitive products had completely separate stations, making for a fairly disjointed product. So we explored themes—such as Land, Sea, Sky, and Nature—that would bring the characters and play together. But what you don't know about the Baby Einstein characters is that not all of the cute and cuddly creatures get along together.
As in the real world, there's a social hierarchy at play in the Baby Einstein universe. Some of the A-list characters wouldn't even think of appearing on the video screen together—never mind sharing space on a baby product—with others below their level of cool. (That would be like the popular kids hanging out with the geeks in the chess club.) We tried countless combinations, spending a lot of time going back and forth with the clients. In the end, navigating the waters of social order and trying to match that with quality, themed play proved too rigorous for our committee. So we were left with the Ocean's Eleven approach of dropping famous characters on the product, and calling it a day.
Fabrics on toys go through especially rigorous testing, so you can't blame a company for wanting to stick with the pre-approved lineup. (Or can you?)
Colors and textures
Then we had an epiphany. Since the Baby Einstein brand is about learning through the senses, we thought there was an opportunity to bring innovation to the product through the tactile sense. By offering new fabrics in new colors, we could introduce something that had not been available through the Baby Einstein videos. At first, everyone embraced the concept and we thought we really had a direction. After about six weeks of extensive research, however—one that resulted in a huge range of fabric and material possibilities—only two very basic cotton fabrics were approved. There already existed a menu of approved fabrics, and we found that there was little interest in expanding that menu to include tactile stimulation.
If you know anything about fabric testing, this isn't all that unexpected. Fabrics on toys go through especially rigorous testing, so you can't blame a company for wanting to stick with the pre-approved lineup. (Or can you?) But on top of that, the Baby Einstein palette was primarily composed of primary colors. These were fine for video, but primary colors made the new entertainer look severely outdated.
After the agonizing time spent devising new themes and researching new fabrics and materials, it became clear that it was all for nothing. The folks at Graco and Baby Einstein found the manufacturing and budgetary details more compelling than the desire to break new design ground, and as business people ourselves, we understood their rationale. But as design people at heart and soul, this was a tough verdict to handle.
By the eighth or ninth month, we were reaching our limit. Giving it one last try, we thought, "Okay, maybe we can cut our losses and at least add play to each station." And here, we were finally able to make slight progress by adding a puppet station to the product. It was part of an attempt to move the entertainer from a product children are left alone in, to one that invites parent interaction. A small step forward, but significant nonetheless. But in the spirit of give and take, we had to watch on the sidelines as a "globe station" appeared on the product. Out of nowhere. We have no idea where it came from or why it appeared. As we scratched our heads and looked around in confusion, our lead designer said it best: "Looks like China was having a blue-light sale on globes."
Based on the final design, we could have done this work in less than half the time, with half the frustration and anguish. How did this happen?
The wrap-up (minus 3%)
So what exactly went wrong? On paper, there was no better team assembled to create a fun, juvenile product. When you bring in the vision of Disney, the quality of Graco, the intellectual integrity of Baby Einstein and the design skills of Evo, there should have been all the potential to create daring, exceptional design. Despite the fact that at every phase we were encouraged to go for it, to be creative and add those spicy design details, we felt that there was actually very little design work in what we ultimately delivered. Based on the final design, we could have done this work in less than half the time, with half the frustration and anguish. How did this happen?
From a business standpoint, all the players in the process represented their interests well. Everyone seemed happy with the final result. Ironically, the Baby Einstein entertainer by Graco is a runaway success, and is one of the best selling products in its category. We're happy because our customer is happy. But the product is far from what we initially envisioned, and that's because ultimately, this really wasn't a design process at all. It was a negotiation process, played out in the visual landscape by staunch brand defenders, an uncompromising schedule and budget police.
On top of all this, we had quoted the job based on a fixed-fee basis. However, with the 10 months of myriad unplanned and unexpected rounds of research and negotiation, we lost our shirts. We also discovered at the end of the project that Newell Rubbermaid automatically deducts 3% off vendors' invoices—simply because they can. It's like a customer-imposed sale, and there's nothing you can do about it.
From a design perspective, we can't help but look at the entertainer and see all the things that could have happened, all of the design innovation that was squandered, all the form details that were lost in execution. We're proud of our role in the development and the relationships forged from the success of the product, but are a bit worse for wear after the grueling path to get there.
Annemarie DeLuca () is the Director of Business Development at Evo Design. She has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Connecticut College and is limping slowly through a masters degree in liberal studies from Wesleyan University. Thank you to publicist Deborah Spence Helman of Houston Texas for her kind assistance on this piece.