Design and its roots – yesterday, today, tomorrow

What is behind today’s “Ingenious Design” – functionality, ergonomics, and aesthetics?

Company | Design | Products | |

RECARO is a brand that is constantly evolving. Change also has an impact on the company’s design. What is behind today’s “Ingenious Design” – the perfect combination of functionality, ergonomics, and aesthetics?
And for wich future trends is the company already looking for answers today?

Head designers from RECARO met for a round-table discussion at the Holding offices in Stuttgart.

HARTMUT SCHÜRG (HS) — When I look back and think about my early days at RECARO some twenty years ago, it was a whole different game. The opportunities offered by craftsmanship and the ability to make things a reality are much greater today.

FRANK BEERMANN (FB) — You had to use your head more when you drafted things. I used to have to sketch out in my mind what I wanted something to look like. The more exact that picture in my brain was, the easier it was for me to share my ideas with colleagues. Today all I have to do is press a button to see a three-dimensional model.

MICHEL HEIMRICH (MH) — The understanding of design itself has also changed over the decades. In the past, design was still seen as elitist, sometimes even as “pretty but impractical,” but today, the efforts of good design are squarely focused on the user and the usage. Customers expect not only a beautiful form, but also a good user experience. This can be particularly challenging with everyday products like automotive seats, aircraft seats, and child seats, which have a long service life and multiple users with highly individual demands.

DJUNIANTO KO (DK) — The finished product is no longer a surprise. That’s definitely not how it was in the past. Computers today model things down to the last detail — including fabrics, leather, surface materials, and seams.

OLIVER FORGATSCH (OF) — That makes us quite a bit faster. And customers are used to this way of working, after all. They demand perfection — at the speed of light.

HS — Despite the time pressure, we have to force ourselves to think things fully through before we get going. In the past, that was a necessity, plain and simple. The process was so expensive and time consuming, you couldn’t afford to go through it several times. As a result of that, we didn’t even try to achieve lifeless perfection in the first place. After all, sometimes it’s the flaws, the imperfections, that make a product human. Today we have to fight for the freedom to be imperfect.

OF — Precision technology plays a major role today. The next step is definitely going to be 3D printing, which will open the door to completely new opportunities.

FB — There’s a widespread fear of making mistakes. People want to settle everything in advance. And what results is often a rather average product. But it’s different with us, and that’s always been the key to the success of RECARO, the fact that we don’t deliver just an average product.

OF — That’s definitely it. But we don’t just supply a seat — we supply subsystems that are built in elsewhere. Yet they still work on their own. It’s about giving a product a human scale.  I think doing exactly that is the main ability of RECARO.

HS — We are, of course, associated with much larger organizations and structures these days than we were twenty years ago. We have a global presence, and we have to contend with clients’ demands, which can vary around the world. The question is: how far can and should you go to meet the market’s current needs? To be a trendsetter, you have to go beyond what the market is asking for today.

Hartmut Schürg, Chief Brand&Design Officer RECARO Holding

MH — Innovation and Ingenious Design don’t come from simply asking the customer what he’d like, but instead from addressing a customer problem for which there had never been a solution before. Our customers are often unable to identify these problems, so it’s the task of the designer to discover them.

FB — Design has to be in close contact with the customer, even when defining the requirements for a new product. However, globalization is broadening the profile of demands being placed on products tremendously. That means we have to develop more and more parts for specific markets. There is still no such thing as the global taste.

MH — The possibility of developing a product for all markets is often precluded by differing approval regulations, which can sometimes contradict one another. On top of that, cultural norms also lead to different demands.

OF — In the aviation market, privacy is an example of one factor where everyone has a different opinion. Some people want everything to be totally open. They’re looking for contact to the person sitting next to them; they want to communicate. In Asia and the Middle East, privacy is very important. So we have to provide a platform that is modular and allows us to give everyone what they want, if need be.

FB — In any case, design icons can’t be planned or created on demand. Ergonomics is always an important factor for RECARO, regardless of whether it’s with automotive seats, child seats, or aircraft seats. It’s about both body support and functionality, achieved in a single shape. This is how we arrive at a distinctive design language. Then, when the customers later appreciate that they’ve acquired the best on the market, that’s when a real design icon comes into being.

HS — Our brand is well known. Designers from automakers and airlines don’t just come to us for solutions. We also deliver stories. It is stories that make products something that people can feel. What matters to me is not marketing hot air. It’s about depth and content. It’s always been that way throughout our history.

FB — Our products always tell the important stories. The unique personality of our car seats, for example, comes from the fact that we mainly make shells. That means we don’t have a metal structure that we have to pad with pounds of foam to keep people from feeling the sharp metal frame. Instead, it allows us to design an ergonomic supporting structure and use very thin layers of foam.

OF — Space is an issue in every car and on every plane. Our slim seats are always designed with the human body in mind. That saves space and foam, and always provides optimum support.

FB — If you have a seat that doesn’t take up as much space, then you could theoretically make the car smaller. Our design saves up to 80 millimeters (3 inches).

HS — For Aircraft Seating, we optimized the slimline backrest with a high seat pocket for the BL3520. As a result, Lufthansa was able to add two more rows of seats to the A320. Instead of buying twelve A320s, they expanded their capacity by using our slimline seats, adding nine thousand seats to their fleet and giving passengers more room at the same time.

MH — It’s the same thinking behind child seats: to lighten the load for parents, we have to offer innovative solutions that save weight. With the Zero.1 Elite, this is solved by having an infant carrier that is taken out alone for transporting the baby. The rest of the safety apparatus remains in the car. So when the mother takes out the infant carrier, she has less to carry, saving about one kilo (2.2 lb).

FB — We look at how people use a product, see what’s good and what isn’t, and then we start developing the product based on function. That’s the difference to just basing everything on style, where all that matters is how something looks. Industrial design is more than that. We try to reinvent seating with every project. That forces us to think about what we’re doing all the time. What happens when someone is sitting, how does it happen, where does it happen, and how can I improve it by going through the whole chain of evolution over and over again? That brings me to all the little solutions that make a product special.

HS — Ingenious Design starts up front, that’s essential. And Ingenious Design isn’t just exclusively the responsibility of the designer. That’s a company-wide capability. A lot of people are involved in this. Ingenious Design is a company goal. Our design stands for the combination of functionality, ergonomics, and aesthetics. Designers play a certain role in this process, and that role has a lot in common with that of a generalist, of course. But it has to have an impact at the start, at the very start. The concept phase of the development process is responsible for 90 percent of a product’s success.

FB — In this process, designers are also interpreters. We listen to and collect ideas, regardless of whether they come from upholsterers or engineers. We have to translate these ideas into visual images, and that, in turn, has an impact on the development process.

DK — We often end up spending days discussing various alternatives in the early phase of a project. As soon as we have a sketch, each department quickly starts to understand what’s going on, and there’s an objective to the debate. Before the sketch, it’s often highly theoretical.

HS — This element of craftsmanship, from the sketch to the model, is highly crucial to the further development process, and therefore to success.

DK — That’s not going to play less of a role in the future, especially seeing as how the demands being placed on our products are going to change in part or in whole in an aging society.

FB — The task at hand in that case is to have a vision for the future. As we already discussed, designers always have to think far ahead, anyway.

HS — The digital transformation is going to mean more assistance systems, even in the world of seating. We’re talking about the Internet of things here — how individual elements communicate with each other. One example: sensors in fabrics that are capable of transmitting information and informing the cabin crew about the health of a passenger, or that can remind drivers to take a sip of water now and then.

MH  — Of course, at RECARO Child Safety we’re also focused on the solutions offered by digitization. Here, the technical possibilities are often still met with skepticism among apprehensive parents, but also with curiosity. In this fascinating field, there’s often a fine line between meaningful improvements and technical gimmickry. At RECARO, our goal is to offer digital solutions when they provide a tangible benefit for the customer. Another aspect — perhaps unexpectedly — is the aging of society. We learned that in China, it’s primarily the grandparents who take care of small children. This means that the operation of our products needs to be even easier and more intuitive. A third aspect involves new structural materials that allow us to minimize accident impacts, along with textiles that greatly increase comfort.

FB — In automotive seating, our concerns are similar to those in aircraft seating: weight reduction and space efficiency, combined with ever more functions. On top of that, a seat that conforms to the human body even better. A major challenge will certainly be autonomous cars. Then there will only be passengers, presenting us with new requirements.

DK — We also have to make sure that we retain our focus on people — that’s what has made us successful. Passengers still have to sit well, even if airlines are looking to sell more seats. We have to live up to both these demands.

HS — First of all, we want to remain the leading player for mobile seating in the future. Of course we see capabilities that we could also leverage elsewhere. We can use ergonomics to promote posture and support the body while increasing the user’s ability to perform. We can protect people in extreme situations. We design aesthetic products that are highly appealing and functions that keep our aesthetic promise in the long term and in high quality. The main thing is that the brand must never be watered down. If we can guarantee that, then I can imagine that we will be able to provide relevant, credible solutions outside the realm of seating, too.

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