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Imagine you are provided with a detailed brief outlining everything your team needs to know about a new product they have been tasked with developing; everything from the feature set to the software interface to the materials and processes to the way it will be packaged. Having read the brief, you promptly reach for a tissue and wipe the tears from your eyes because there doesn’t appear to be much opportunity to innovate; no one expects it and there isn’t even a budget for the most basic research.

In product development parlance, this type of project is sometimes referred to as “a refresh”, and it’s not at all uncommon. A refresh might seem like an activity limited to relatively simple items, but it also happens with automobiles and medical devices; even military equipment. And it can be a much more important topic than how I’m going to treat it here (e.g. academic articles on planning around lifecycle mismatches).

But for right now, think … buckets.

Tools used to create plastic buckets wear out and need replacing. Consequently, the company manufacturing these buckets needs to cut new steel molds to keep making these buckets; and not necessarily because these buckets fly off the shelves or contribute significantly to the business’ bottom line. Sometimes they’re just a product that gets manufactured because a retail buyer says, “I don’t want just that one product of yours that you desperately want to sell me because you make a lot of money with it. I have shelf space to fill. I have a strategy to increase sales per square foot. And I want that one product you’re trying to sell me and I want three or four products to go with it. Deliver them all otherwise I’ll find someone who can and you can take your buckets elsewhere.”

As an aside, I’ve never fully understood this approach, but I’m not in Sales or Marketing. However, I have been in meetings where important buyers from very big retail corporations have said essentially what I wrote above. I suspect this gets into consumer psychology and things like Tiered Pricing and Decoy Strategy and whatnot. Whatever the reason, the result is having to develop something incrementally better; “a refresh!”

In any event, management doesn’t want a category redefining Professional Bucket or a category-creating Bucket With Bluetooth that can connect to a smart phone and track how many times it was filled in a 24-hour period. No. They just want to replace the old, ugly, dumb bucket with something that maybe has a more comfortable handle and looks a little more current to make brand managers – and hopefully the buyer – happy.

That’s it.

For the experienced product developers out there, you can unclench your teeth now. We’ve gotten past the painful part.

For the newbies, sorry to break it to you, but this probably happens more often than you realize.

However, the other thing that sometimes “happens” – especially in the early stages of even the most seemingly mundane refresh – is that in spite of efforts to prevent it, genuine, out-of-the-blue, category redefining innovation occurs. Because when you give experienced, enthusiastic developers a product to design, you can’t really stop them from thinking about it in the shower, or dreaming about it at night, or connecting the dots between some other projects on which they’re working and what is now supposed to be a less engaging effort. You may as well tell a musician to stop tapping their toes. Ain’t gonna happen.

And when some unanticipated insight hits and the product development team suddenly has an innovative product solution on their hands, the question a team needs to then answer is: “Should we ignore this concept and bury it in the documentation, or do we spend time and effort to work it up and present this idea to the client even though it doesn’t fall within the scope of work or the budget?”

Rather than present different sides of this question, I’d like to share an experience that quite literally matches this example.

Shortly after receiving my Industrial Design degree and going to work for a small design consulting firm, I worked on my first refresh. The Statement of Work (SOW) was similar to what I outlined above: relatively simple product that needed new molds and a client who wanted the exact same thing, but prettier.

The first set of deliverables was to present ten concept renderings at the end of the Concept Development Phase. As this project was a simple refresh, the work was very much about generating those ten aesthetic concepts and only those ten concepts. No one was asking for and no budget considerations had been made toward doing anything more than ten nice renderings, and certainly nothing innovative or thought-provoking.

Being the new kid in the studio, I received my assignment to generate four of those ten concepts; the remaining six were assigned to two other designers.

This was back in the day when we used drafting tables and markers, and created drawings that were sufficiently large to post on a wall so that an audience could see them from a distance. Old school stuff.

We spent about a week working on the renderings for those ten concepts.

However, having completed my first three renderings and after reviewing the other six, I found myself struggling to generate something … exciting … for Concept #10. The requirements of the SOW coupled with nine completed concepts that pretty much covered the aesthetic trends of the day, left me dry and uninspired.

Not fully appreciating The Importance of Presenting Ten Concepts Exactly Matching The SOW, I decided to take a different approach.

I went outside, found a competitive product on the grounds, and put myself into the end user’s situation, trying to take user experience into account. To be sure,  I wasn’t looking to do anything innovative. I just decided to push ever so slightly against the boundaries of the SOW in order to come up with a minor change that would provide me with the purely aesthetic concept the boss demanded. No big deal.

As I sat there sketching ideas, the co-owner of the consulting firm – a mini-me version of Hartmut Esslinger (accent included) – drove up in his red sportscar, asked what I was doing, and nodded in approval, quipping flatly in his German accent, “At least someone knows what they’re doing around here,” as he turned to head for the entrance. Needless to say, whatever trepidation I had about trying to insert a little change into this refresh project evaporated. And so I proceeded to make what I thought was a small modification to the product component layout coupled to a potentially larger change; the former I could present in the rendering, and the latter I could explain during the presentation, as the small change was what made the big change possible.

Pretty sure I worked late that night, as we had our client presentation the next morning. And I recall that I got to work early because I remember being pleased with the last concept. Unfortunately, the day went downhill from there, as I received a stern lesson from my distraught boss regarding the sanctity of the Statement of Work and The Importance of Presenting Ten Concepts Exactly Matching The SOW.

I can still hear the poor guy:“Oh my God! I can’t show this. What are we going to do? We have to have ten … TEN! … concepts. We don’t have time to do another one. [Insert Expletive Deleted Words Here as he paces around the studio] Guess we have no choice. We’ll just have to show it.”

Our client was represented by a couple of engineers. I met them for the first time that morning and I guarantee you that had we shown two or ten or ten hundred aesthetic-only concepts, they wouldn’t have cared. The only person who cared was my boss, whose only apparent concern was having the contractually agreed upon Ten Concepts Exactly Matching The SOW without any deviation whatsoever. He yelled a lot that morning, up until their arrival; after which we all retired into a small presentation room.

The concept review consisted of these two gentlemen, my panicked boss, another designer (who, I now recall, was quietly amused at the events of that morning) and myself. The boss presented the first nine concepts and then, in an apparent effort to – I don’t know – deflect blame, I suppose, had me get up for the first time since I’d started working there and present [dramatic pause] Concept #10.

I’ll admit to having been caught off-guard, but without hesitation, I presented my concept. The concept that did not exactly match the SOW.

The aesthetic spoke for itself; it wasn’t especially different from the other nine. It was, after all, a small change. However, I also explained to them how the small change I’d made allowed for a bigger change: the reconfiguration of the product itself. By simply moving one feature (again, to give it a slightly unique aesthetic), part of the product could be collapsed such that in a “stored” configuration the product shrunk to almost half its size.


Thus ended the client review.

Our client departed and that was that.

“That wasn’t too bad,” stated my relieved but still fidgety boss. Apparently he thought he might have dodged a bullet in my not fully adhering to the SOW. Not only did he think things went relatively well, but throughout the remainder of the day he spoke as if he expected to hear back from the client within the next couple of weeks; at which point we would take their favorites, do another, smaller round of renderings, and then help them down-select to a final concept. After that, we would roll into a set of design control drawings, a model and some additional graphics and color work, followed by product photography. By the end of the same day, he was a happy camper.

That, however, didn’t come to pass.

Weeks and then months went by.


The client had seemingly vanished.

I’m guessing they paid their invoice because the boss never brought up Concept #10; but otherwise, there was no word on whether or not we were to continue the project.

Time passed to the point we’d actually forgotten about the project when, out of the blue, the client called.

“About Concept #10, we want you to…”

Mind you, I only came up with a solution to an end-user issue in an effort to generate a unique aesthetic. I wasn’t trying to be innovative. And I neither knew nor really cared at that point about other, non-end user issues, like shipping and inventory and patentability. And other than those two engineers, I don’t believe anyone else in the room had those issues in mind either. Until they called and explained what they wanted us to do with Concept #10.

You see, while my small change led to a bigger change that allowed their product to shrink to about half its size, their idea was to extend my idea further by making these products stack efficiently when in their stored configuration; effectively allowing two units to occupy less than the space previously needed for one.

Think buckets. Nested.

We completed that project shortly afterward; the down-select concepts based on Concept #10, the design control drawings, the model, the graphics, the color study. The photography.

My boss couldn’t have been happier. And the client went into production. Within a year, the offspring of Concept #10 were on store shelves, selling like proverbial hotcakes.

The end-user, for whom the change was originally made, bought it.

The buyer, for whom the change increased sales per square foot while reducing the amount of space it took in back rooms, bought it.

And the client, for whom inventory and shipping costs decreased dramatically, patented it and, based on copycat products from direct competitors, licensed out the solution and collected substantial fees.

It’s been on store shelves for 25 years.

And while they didn’t add me to the patent or send me my $1 check, the project left me with insight into the question; “Do you present an outlier concept that doesn’t quite fit the SOW?”

The answer is: Yes.

Because even if the boss yells at you, and even if the client decides not to pursue the concept, and even if you don’t get that $1 check and your name on a patent, if you love what you do, you have to give the client more than they expect and do it in a way that both respects the original effort but sometimes also challenges the decision-making guiding it.

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