Dan Black and Martin Blum, the duo behind the London-based product design firm Black + Blum, have been gaining attention in the press for their food containers and other everyday items that incorporate low-tech traditions with sleek shapes or high-performance materials. In February alone, their newest offering, a re-usable water bottle designed in a slightly lopsided way to accommodate a “filter” that really is a stick of charcoal made from carbonized tree branches, was covered for its uniqueness in a variety of publications, from the Wall Street Journal to Gizmodo.
They’ve been gathering coveted design prizes, having won the Global Innovator Award for product design at the 2011 Chicago International Home and Housewares Show, as well as a Best New Product award at the Home 2012 trade show in London, to name a couple of recent honors.
Having noticed their increasing visibility, I reached out to Black and Blum to ask them about their winning ideas. They sent me an email with joint answers to my questions–an unexpected approach that illustrates the strength of their shared creative vision, which focuses on the idea of humor as a key design strategy. It’s a concept they take seriously.
Here’s our exchange.
Often, it’s “simplicity” that designers say is a key element in excellent user-friendly design. Your products are simple, but they’re also humorous. Why is humor important in the usability context?
Incorporating humor is not something we do intentionally. It results from having fun during the process of the design. When we first started, we knew that creativity will need to be the tool for us to compete against the larger manufacturers. Humor in design proved also to transcend age and class. Getting a smile as a reaction tells us that the person is connecting with our products, which is the best feedback you can get. It is important that people are not intimidated by design.
You’ve been getting attention for your Eau Good water bottle/filtration system, which is both very inventive and also incorporates a rather old-school “technology” as well: a charcoal stick, known in Japan for generations as Binchotan. Is your innovation strategy to look for traditional yet under-the-radar ideas, and then packaging them in a sleek and contemporary way?
With the Eau Good bottle design, you are correct. This is exactly what we have done. When we witnessed in Japan how people filter their tap water at home, we were fascinated by the simplicity of this process. As industrial designers this insight intrigued us, and the fact that the Western world has hardly any awareness of this sparked off the beginning of Eau Good. The [design] brief became to house this simple system into an object that has the look of something people will trust. The look had to have a mixture of beauty and tradition, hence the cork and traditional-looking stainless steel locking clip.
Can you discuss what products have been your biggest sellers and why you think they were so commercially successful?
We think our designs have had the best reactions when they have really challenged the market norm by bringing something completely fresh to the table. Our door jam, “James the Doorman” [pictured at top, in the designers' hands] was our first real international success. We witnessed how James’ mixture of functionality and humor somehow managed to connect with people and demonstrate to people that door jams/wedges can have personality as well as function. Our lunchbox range was also a real break from standard food containers on the market. Children have had fun lunch boxes for a while, but the adult market had been neglected. It is always exciting for us when we can find a product area where design has been underutilized.
In your opinions, what is the most urgent challenge that product designers face today?
The most common issue is to process raw materials in a responsible way with longevity and eco-impact in mind. We also believe that products should make people feel good far beyond its purchase. A product should never end up in the bottom drawer with the outdated phone charger.
How, as product designers, do you overcome the design challenges you mentioned?
We try to make our products charming enough–and useful enough–that you keep then in use for as long as possible. We constantly research new materials and work with experts. For our lunchbox range, we worked together with Eastman USA who advised us on its new transparent BPA free and foodsafe polymers. We also worked closely with a manufacturer that has prepared new materials for Apple. They developed a polymer for us that has a more ceramic feel for the lunchbox base. In the future we will always embrace new materials and processes. The ultimate goal is to come up with a design idea that can be manufactured locally. But nothing can beat designing a product that has soul and gives the owner enjoyment every time they use it.
Images: Black + Blum