Simon Enever is the head designer of New York based agency ECCO Design and the founder of byDEFAULT. Formerly a designer at fuseproject, Enever has focused on bringing iconic design to overlooked everyday products. byDEFAULT's first product, TOOTHBRUSH, is a truly customizable modular toothbrush that's as unique as the person who's using it. But the main focus of this daily essential was to choose simplicity over complicated features we may see with other toothbrushes. Enever takes some time to step us through the design process.
After taking my first trip to a dentist after moving to the U.S. from London, I was told that I was damaging my gums by brushing too hard. Among various other tips, I was recommended to try out a simple vibrating brush. On the way home, I popped into the pharmacy to pick up a brush—somewhat excited about this new, slightly "techy" sounding product I was about to pick up. I was presented with this familiar sight:
Sifting through shelf after shelf, it didn't matter if I was looking at manual, vibrating or full electric models, store brands or high-end brands; everything had that same gaudy look and cheap feel. Each brush was packed with gimmicky features and slogans in an attempt to lure me in. I gave up in the store and decided to look online. I had the exact same experience.
"Surely someone out there must have put some effort toward creating a well-designed, intelligent brush," I thought. Despite a few nice attempts in the eco-friendly manual brush market, I couldn't find a version that was reasonably priced (read: not $280 like some I came across) without the showy tendencies.
As a designer, these are the moments you wait for. I immediately got in touch with—what was to later become—the byDEFAULT team.
Finding the Gap in Toothbrush Design
Consumers are more tech savvy and design sensitive than ever thanks to nicely designed everyday products, such as the iPhone, becoming so ubiquitous and affordable. An incredible amount of money is now spent, particularly, on well-designed personal health and well-being products. The act of brushing your teeth is arguably even more important to your health than exercise and diet—damage to your teeth is irreversible. A majority of the world uses a toothbrush at least twice a day and yet we were amazed to find just how little consideration had gone into its design. We felt that it was the perfect time to address this.
Simply creating a more beautiful premium brush was never enough. Our mission as a team is to incorporate intelligence into any product we design. We quickly got to work on desk research and some rather sneaky field research. Beyond wading through hundreds of articles on the Internet and subtly discussing teeth cleaning with friends and family, the team began scheduling more regular trips to the dentist to try and get some insights and answers straight from the mouths of the professionals.
But after all of this research, we came to a frustrating—but perhaps not surprising—outcome. Every source we spoke to reached the same conclusion: Everyone's brushing habits, style and natural oral health situations are unique to the degree that there is simply not one perfect brush for everyone. Cost and features rarely made any difference and in some cases (my case, in fact) can actually damage the teeth and gums further. The one consistent message that we were getting was that people should simply choose whatever brush made them feel most comfortable and therefore encouraged them to brush to the best standards. And these standards were seemingly very simple and universal:
As a group of designers with limited resources, we knew we could not take on the big players in the toothbrush industry with a wild new technology or ambitious claims about teeth cleaning effectiveness. But after reading the list above, taking the dentists' advice and carrying out more market research, we were encouraged to start by creating a product that directly contradicted the rest of the market: making a more simple and basic brush.
Tweaking the Formula
On top of these given usage guidelines, we also identified a few other key areas that were clearly being ignored by the major brands, namely sustainable thinking or initiatives. As modern designers, we are brought up to "think green" with every product we work on. We were disgusted at the wastefulness seen in the toothbrush industry: entire manual brushes that need to be tossed every three months (despite the fact that only the bristles were worn/unhygienic); simple vibrating toothbrushes that have structurally removable heads, motors and batteries that are actually glued together to stop users from replacing the worn parts after three months and instead forcing them to throw the entire product away; and full electric brushes that follow similar habits of wastefulness despite being pitched as lasting "for life."
The second and final insight was cost. Much like the lack of sustainable thinking, the money-grabbing tendency of the industry was incredible. As experienced industrial designers, we can calculate the basic cost of the plastic brushes and brush heads and—even ignoring the overpriced offerings of brand name manual brushes and the extortionate costs of most full electric brushes—it was the electric brush heads that shocked us the most. High-end brand heads start at around $6 and rose to around $12 each. Even store brand heads were not much lower at around $5-$8. This makes the cost of these performance brushes far greater than using a manual brush while taking the option far from the budgets of the market majority.
Following a few months of extensive research, we finally settled on a general brief based on the various facts, figures, insights and inklings that we had to incorporate:
Designing Without a Client
The design process was somewhat conventional for our team, but with one major difference: This was a project for ourselves and on our own heads, not for a client, which actually had a noticeable effect on our approach. We had to have both our business and marketing brains on from the start—more than we usually might have—which was both challenging and stimulating. We made the early decision to use crowdfunding as our gateway into the test market and finance the first round of production pieces. This decision was made not only with finances in mind, but also with a desire to really try and keep the ownership of our unique—and hopefully fresh—perspective on the industry. We wanted learn from the real-time feedback of our fans as we tried to avoid diluting our vision with outside investment that may have had money on their mind instead of good design.
The other major difference was how early we involved our manufacturers. With team members who have had successful crowdfunding projects in the past, we were very wary of the issue of coming out of the campaign with a half-baked prototype or non-production ready concept/prototype. So after only two months of research and project planning, we identified our potential manufacturers and brought them in on the process very early. This had several advantages for both us and them. For us, they could bring in business by acting as our prototyping partners. For us, we could use their unique skills, experience and industry certifications to ensure that our designs were not only manufacturable, but would adhere to any regulations a toothbrush has to comply in order to be produced and sold around the world. This was the missing piece of the puzzle, allowing us to quickly identify and ensure the use of the same DuPont, round topped Bristles, 20,000 RPM Vibration motor and dimensional requirements of all other leading brushes on the market.
The Initial Sketches
One of the first sketches we ever made of the brush was actually on the final website. This may seem like a strange approach, but it's something I learned at fuseproject. If you have that end "advert" in mind, then you're more likely to produce something easily sellable. Easier said than done.
This strategy also helped craft our early business ideas. Taking inspiration from the (then) recently launched Dollar Shave Club and other subscription services, we soon landed on the idea of offering subscription replacement heads. Our subscription service will send you a replacement head at the dentist recommended three-month intervals. For $16/year (that's four brush heads), including shipping, the cost is well below competitors and on par with replacing a cheap manual brush every three months. The snap on head, containing soft nylon bristles and rubber tongue massager, makes replacement quick and easy while reducing toothbrush landfill by up to 80%.
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The other basic brushing rule we focused on early was storage and hygiene—a seemingly simple issue to solve. Current solutions were clunky and poorly designed, so our began by finding the basic form, designing around the replaceable snap-on heads and developing a cap that would help keep the bristles safe both in the bathroom and on the road. We didn't want to be branded as a travel brush as that title has negative connotations in terms of performance; rather, we were aiming for "travel ready."
Once we had an understanding about the type of features we were looking to develop (and electronic option, travel case, storage cap, snap-on heads etc.), we analyzed the market to see how existing products had solved some of these issues. We quickly learned just how complex the humble and overlooked toothbrush is. It was at this point that we engaged several toothbrush manufacturers to flesh out our ideas early and download as much information as possible from them about particular materials, dimensions and constraints we would have to adhere to.
With dimensional, material and other physical constraints—such as battery size, wall thicknesses and motor sizes—locked in, we quickly came up with a 3D rendering to complement our sketches. Initially, we considered around 50 different shapes, 50 different cross-sections and even more split line variations trying to find the brush's perfect form.
We couldn't help but keep coming back to the simple cylindrical form. This is where the idea for custom handles came into the picture. The initial idea was simply to supply one handle form with a couple of different color/material options. But through playing with hundreds of models and testing them on friends and family, we realized that everyone had different preferences. We would supply our default cylindrical handle in several materials, but we would design the entire handle specifically so that other users and companies can embrace almost any material or process to create totally unique handle designs of all shapes and sizes.
Once we settled on our favorite form and the overall concept, we started to work on the smaller details—bristles, snap connection and the tongue cleaner. We started to work much more closely with the manufacturers to ensure we were meetingindustry standards. There were months of back and forth ensuring our bristle design was not only effective but also could be manufactured and would hold up to the pressure of testing, entailing meticulously considering details such as bristle hole depth, diameter and proximity. We decided to start our line by creating a very simple bristle design that is approachable to all without overshadowing the entire product.
We carried out several rounds of physical and virtual testing using our prototypes and CAD programs, mainly focused on the pressures exerted on our snap feature, on the bristles and on the assembly of our custom handles. And as with the toothbrush manufacturers, we partnered with a team of electronic engineers early on. The initial focus was simply on being "as good as" the other products on the market by ensuring we could fit the same motor and battery system into the smallest package possible. Once we achieved the status quo, we started to really have some fun with the electronic design. Although we are not promoting it right now—mainly to keep the focus on the "bigger idea" of the brush—we've built in a lot of intelligence, future-proofing and unique features into our vibration module beyond the already unique use of a touch sensitive button. We will be announcing more on this soon, so stay tuned.
Last but not least, we had to curate the set of handles that we would supply at launch. With the concept of our open-source handles, we had to ensure it was easily manufacturable in almost any material possible. For our debut selection, we settled on aluminum and diamond wood as materials. Aluminum is widely available, recyclable and has great material properties and is also well known as a premium material thanks to companies like Apple. Our wood was chosen because it's nearly always the first request made for "custom" gadgets of any kind. We had to use a special variety that's used in the designs of wood handled pens, one that (unlike raw untreated wood) will not be affected by heat or exposure to water, which is obviously essential for a toothbrush. We found an awesome woodworker based in Brooklyn who collaborated with us to achieve an incredible level of accuracy and detail in these handmade handles.
Creating a Curated Network
One of the most fun and interesting parts of the process was with 3D printing. We realized that we would need to create a substantial library of 3D-printable designs with different forms, functions and patterns for users to choose from, but we only had limited resources. So we decided to reach out to our vast network of design friends and give each of them the opportunity to design one handle, name it after themselves and take a share of the profits from its sales, benefiting everyone involved and adding a nice bit of fun/competition. We are really looking to build on that foundation and have some exciting plans in the works for more public competitions and interactions.
After going through several months and three rounds of samples from the metal handle manufacturer, woodworker and toothbrush manufacturer and having ordered over 30 3D-printed handles, we finally had a complete set ready to photograph.
It took over a year of hard work and numerous changes in design approach and thinking to finally settled on a design—and the final product wasn't a single brush design at all, but a platform to build on and customize. We created a beautifully minimal brush that is designed to address as many of the simple, day-to-day problems we had identified as possible. It has been specially engineered to be kept for life and allow the user to customize and upgrade the brush as much or as little as they desire. The TOOTHBRUSHbyDEFAULT is an object that users can cherish and personalize to make as enjoyable and comfortable as possible, encouraging them to finally stop taking the act of brushing their teeth for granted.
With the basic "vibration ready" brush starting at just $19, an electronic upgrade adding $20 and head subscription only $4/cycle, we are easily competing with manual brush costs and are far cheaper than all electric brushes in order to offer a wallet-friendly premium experience at all price points.
TOOTHBRUSH byDEFAULT is currently available for pre-order here on Indiegogo.