Global Practice, Local Experience

Continuum’s Gianfranco Zaccai on the need for a new understanding of product design


Since Gianfranco Zaccai cofounded its Boston office in 1983, Continuum has grown into one of the giants of the design world. The consultancy, which won last year’s National Design Award for product design, has added four offices (in Los Angeles, Milan, Seoul, and Shanghai). In addition to designing some very high-volume consumer goods—if you use a Swiffer, you have Continuum to thank—Zaccai’s team has taken on systemic problems in the fields of social design and health care, including Daktari, a low-cost AIDS testing kit for southern Africa, and the Insulet Omnipod, which helps diabetics administer medication. Recently, Metropolis’s assistant editor, Avinash Rajagopal, spoke to Zaccai about Continuum’s long journey and why he thinks design should model itself on theater.

How has Continuum changed over the last 29 years?
In some ways, we haven’t changed at all, which is significant. We started off with the notion of collaboration and the idea that design happens across different disciplines and areas of expertise—hence the choice of the name Continuum. There was also the idea that designers, if they’re good, don’t just have the ability to create something out of nothing. They have a sensibility, seeing what others can’t see, empathizing with people’s aspirations.

That’s our basis, and the way it has changed is that we’ve learned how to look for insights in a way that’s more rigorous, by being deeply embedded in people’s lives in different parts of the world. I remember doing a project years ago where we put a video camera in people’s bathrooms to see how they showered. Now we’re using Skype to do observational research in South America.

We use a variety of techniques to create a kind of social network of people who can help us understand an issue. We want to be able to go out in the field, physically or virtually, and then share that with the team working on a project.

You’ve always had an interest in social design, especially in the developing world. What are the biggest challenges with that work?
The challenge has always been to design something that actually gets produced, and therefore can make a difference. We’ve worked very hard on becoming a good partner to our clients, and sometimes part of that is disagreeing with them and opening them up to the opportunities that exist in doing something meaningful not only for the wealthiest in a market, but also for the poorest. And it’s not just a question of designing products with recycled material or bamboo. It’s about solving tough problems using very sophisticated technology, but doing it in a way that it is accessible.

So the role of technology in social design has changed?
Absolutely. People everywhere have the same desires and aspirations: they want something that’s cool. Just about a year ago, we developed a product for AIDS testing that can be carried in a backpack, based on technology that came out of MIT. So you can take it to remote locations, and it can give results in about two minutes instead of in two weeks. That’s really high technology, and the whole unit costs $500 instead of $30,000. Really sophisticated technology can make a difference. But on the other hand, we can also find simple solutions to complex problems using very little technology—looking not just at products, but at the whole service model.

Continuum received the National Design Award for product design, but in many of the projects cited by the awards committee, the product is just one part of the solution. Is it time to redefine what product design means?
We haven’t been just product designers for a very long time. One of the things that I have been pushing for is that we shouldn’t be thinking of ourselves as industrial designers, but as postindustrial designers. We are living in a postindustrial world.

A product is just a means to an end. Sometimes, the more the product disappears, the better the design is. The Omnipod is an example of that. When you start to think about sustainability, you’d like technology to become transparent, so you don’t have to deal with it, and ubiquitous, so it’s there when you need it. The more reductive you can be, the better the experience for the person using it, which probably means a better financial model for the producer.

Does that understanding of systems design also come from Continuum’s experience in health care?
Yes, our work with Herman Miller is a great example of that. For Compass, we looked at the whole ecosystem of health care in order to design a hospital room. We realized that hospital rooms sometimes get planned four years before the hospital is built. When the hospital opens, the rooms are obsolete because technology has changed, and the way people interact with patients has changed. It was impossible to design the ideal solution, because it would no longer be ideal the next day or the next year. The design is not just something that works for now, but something that can live over time and react to changes that we cannot anticipate.

Looking back, why did you choose to do product design?
Well, I actually started off studying architecture. I switched to industrial design because I saw an opportunity to have a much more intimate relationship in the design process with people. The way architecture was taught then was more about the grand scale. But when you put your hand on the doorknob, the contact you have with architecture is at street level, at eye level, at hand level.

I’ve started to think that design, in what-ever form, should be much more like a theatrical production, where you’re manipulating, in a positive way, all sensory experiences.

Is that closer to what product design is now?
Yes, we’re becoming choreographers and directors as well as stage-set designers. Increasingly, we’re also starting to design the relationship between the producer and the consumer, the way an organization works internally with its own stakeholders to become more creative and more sensitive to its customers.

What do you do to keep that sensitivity alive at Continuum?
First of all, we hire really great people. We also remember that our clients might have a really deep knowledge about something, so the process of collaboration becomes important.

Lastly, front and center, it’s not us or our clients, it’s our clients’ customers, the people we’re trying to serve. We have their pictures on this 14-by-50-foot wall, and it’s not just symbolic. They’re real people that we’ve observed, learned from, and worked with over time, in many different parts of the world. We’re not a nine-year-old boy. We’re not a 92-year-old lady. So we need to have a tremendous empathy with them.

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