[Editor's note: Popfoam is an advertiser with Core77]
As a designer, you can probably picture a finished product in your mind long before the specs are finalized. But even if that mental image is crystal clear, significant questions linger regarding how it will all come together—not the least of which being what materials you should use.
In my 30 years of designing products, I've found that choosing the right material is one of the most daunting processes I deal with. Luckily, materials are a lot more versatile than they used to be. What was once impossible can now be achieved with relative ease. Additionally, surface treatments have a huge impact on the user experience, and even three decades ago, our options were much more limited. Today, we can print onto almost any material and produce graphics with amazing quality and complexity.
Photo via Popfoam
But with fewer limitations also come more difficult decisions. Beyond simply sorting through all the amazing surface treatment options available, I have to balance multiple concerns at once: designing the proper product features, while creating an appealing aesthetic, as well as ensuring that the ultimate cost of goods can support all these design decisions. The right material to accomplish one of those goals may actively work against another.
So in an ironic twist of events, the process of deciding on materials has actually become more complex. But it's also one that many designers love—myself included. Picking the perfect materials is tricky, but when you get it just right, almost nothing compares.
Drilling Down on Materials
Rather than talking about material selection generally, I want to explore it in the context of a specific material: Ethylene Vinyl Acetate—or EVA—foam.
Historically, it's been used only in the footwear industry, but its applications have expanded rapidly in recent years. This is largely because EVA foam excels in impact and vibration absorption, water resistance, and chemical resistance. It also floats, is highly durable, and comes in many different durometers and colors.
Photo via Unsplash
Part of what's driven the popularity of EVA foam is its versatility in terms of surface treatments. This material is suitable for a number of techniques, including cubic dip printing, flatbed 3D printing, laser etching, silk screening, pad printing, molded-in textures or logos, and co-molding. That wide range of options gives designers a lot of flexibility. With all the available options, how can you know which direction will perform best on your product?
While EVA is a great material with lots of great attributes, that doesn't mean it's ideal in every application. That decision is ultimately the designer's call, and the way to narrow down options is to think about the end consumer—the person who'll ultimately pick the product off the shelf.
The Elements of an Eye-Catching Design
Consider that the surface of a product is often the first thing a shopper sees. And with a quick scan, most shoppers will assign a value to the products they see. Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether their assessment is accurate—shoppers' snap judgments often guide their purchasing decisions.
The first thing to determine is how the product will look. If the design is meant to appear innovative or upscale, the graphics must reflect that. The same is true of products that command a high retail price. You must choose materials and graphics that project the value of the product.
Photo via Popfoam
If product cost is the most important factor driving the design, high-quality or more costly surface treatments are probably not an option. That doesn't mean that there aren't creative ways to make a low-cost product pop with a simple, low-cost graphic element. Sometimes, a beautiful, colorful pad-printed logo on a product can make all the difference. This is where you get to be creative!
Performance is the final consideration. You want your graphic treatments to hold up under use, not wear off or fade. Some materials do a better job of preserving graphics than others. These days, there's no excuse for graphic treatments that don't hold up. Either the manufacturing process was poor or the wrong treatment was chosen for that particular usage and environment.
Photo via Popfoam
If you've selected the right materials and complementary surface treatments, your product will practically jump off the shelves and exceed expectations once it's out of the box. This all stems from an understanding of who that product is targeted toward and why. If you understand your target market's needs and desires, you can figure out all the design details.
Selecting a Surface Treatment
It's tempting to settle on a material and select a surface treatment based on just one priority, whether that's looks, cost, performance, or complexity. For a product to be successful, though, it must incorporate all those priorities and balance them carefully.
Ask yourself the following questions to ensure you're not overlooking or underestimating anything:
How bold do you want the product to look?
If the goal is to be as bold as possible, techniques like cubic dip or printed graphics could be a great option. The cost is higher, but the finished product really pops. For a subtler look, consider molded textures. They help products be distinct without being loud. Injection molded EVA foam is great with molded surface textures. It's an amazing contrast to have a soft material with a very detailed molded texture. You can have contrasting textures molded adjacent to one another in order to break up a surface or to provide better grip or tactile feel.
How important are product graphics to sales?
Some products sell themselves based on looks alone. When this is the case, it's justifiable or even essential to invest in more expensive surface treatments. For example, you can use EVA foam in conjunction with another material to create a rich surface texture and product look. EVA can be designed to shrink around another material. It also bonds extremely well to certain plastics. These manufacturing options can create a stunning piece with color, texture, and even durometer contrast. That said, if the appeal is tied more to the brand name or product features, expensive surface treatments would likely just unnecessarily inflate costs.
What unit volumes do you have to meet?
This does not mean the number of products in the initial run. It means the number of products necessary to produce for it to be considered a sales success. That figure reveals a lot about how total production costs change with more or less expensive surface treatments.
How durable do the graphics need to be?
For products like toys or sporting goods, it's important for graphics to endure a lot of use. Techniques like molded-in graphics or laser-etched graphics are some of the most durable. Laser etching uses a laser to create a logo or other graphic onto the material, creating a nice tone-on-tone contrast that's both subtle and elegant. Molding graphics is great because it is free once the mold is made. Raised molded graphic can even be combined with pad printing to get color on the tops of the letters or shapes.
What does your manufacturer think?
No one knows how well a material handles surface treatments better than the manufacturer of that material. Consulting with the producer reveals what is possible and where costs or savings exist. If and when you have questions about graphics, material manufacturers are the best source of insights and expertise. You must be very clear about how you want your surface treatments to look and perform. At the end of the day, as the designer, you're responsible for making sure you get exactly what you want. And if your manufacturer is unwilling to supply that information, it's time to work with a different manufacturer.
It's very difficult to pick just the right material and just the right surface treatment, but it's very easy to identify the wrong choices—they're the ones that compromise quality, unnecessarily inflate costs, and disappoint designers and consumers alike. Ruling out the wrong options takes time. Once the process is complete, however, only the perfect option remains.
Victor Lazzaro is the resident product development specialist of PopFoam, the leader in the injection molded EVA closed-cell foam process that specializes in complex geometrics. As an independent designer, Victor has been consulting with PopFoam for 16 years and has worked with the company in a number of different applications.