It was a successful experiment: Two designers, from two internationally renowned companies in very different industries, got together to discuss product design for premium brands.
Bettina Hermann, Director of Design and Product Management at Rolf Benz Polstermöbel, and Oliver Forgatsch, Head of Ergonomics & Design at RECARO Aircraft Seating, met at the RECARO Holding premises in Stuttgart. In a moderated discussion about design, comfort and ergonomics, both agreed that seats and other seating furniture call for a very high design standard.
We wanted to know how important a designer’s signature is for a product and its acceptance…
Bettina Hermann: For me, good design has to please the user while being functional. With this in mind, you develop a signature for products over time which is recognizable. I personally am an absolute right-angle designer. At Rolf Benz, I am responsible for the design concepts. Even though we work with freelance designers, everything needs to reflect the brand. A clear Rolf Benz statement is important – also with regards to product acceptance.
Oliver Forgatsch: We live in a world that is ‘designed’, and of course, this has a great impact on products. This makes it all the more important to have a clear set of values which ensures that what we stand for is visible. To this end, RECARO developed a list of values, recognizing that we want to inspire and impress through more than just esthetics. Ingenious Design stands for a fusion of esthetics, ergonomics and functionality in a single product. A solution that focuses on people and their needs.
Bettina Hermann: That’s right. We cannot reduce design to just form and beauty. We need to place a real focus on the user. I always ask myself: How is the product manufactured? What technical possibilities are required?
What about the statement: “Good design should be timeless”?
Bettina Hermann: Yes and no. We have to adapt our furniture to the spirit of the times, and this has to work both internationally and interculturally. Living environments have changed considerably over the last ten years. For example, the dining table chair has become much lighter, and the sofa has evolved from a prestige-oriented object to the interactive family focal point and serves primarily for relaxation. This all has implications for design. If guests spend more time on the chair at the dining table than on the sofa, then the chair should enable different seating positions. In addition to the ergonomics and the shape of the piece furniture, I attach great importance to the seat cover – which should be breathable.
Oliver Forgatsch: We strive for a reduced design, which is as simple and streamlined as possible – with the potential to become a classic. At the same time, however, we want to give our customer sufficient scope for their strategy and individual requirements. This is why we want to know what the customer and the user need. This knowledge is then communicated to the product development team. If we succeed in creating this connection in an intuitive way, it’s a good prerequisite for timeless design.
We are sitting more today than…
Oliver Forgatsch: …and that makes it all the more important to sit well. More precisely: so that we can take on different postures while being well supported in every position. For example, in the business class on long-distance flights, electrically adjustable kinematics allow all possible positions from a flat bed to a working position with direct access to the aisle. On our new business class seat, you can work, sleep and eat in a relaxed manner. And that on an effectively exploited small space. Other innovations that technological advancement calls for, such as a tablet holder and a connection for the mobile phone, are effectively integrated into the seat.
Bettina Hermann: In the case of an aircraft seat, I think you have to make the functionality visible in the product. With us, on the other hand, a technical look is simply not required. No one wants to see buttons and levers on the product. The functionality has to be intuitive, but hidden. Comfort is clearly in the foreground in terms of the seat optics. The furniture should mirror exactly what the customer wants. Depending on their taste in seats, soft and welcoming or solid and compact, with options to raise the legs, or support the head.
So what is behind the professional fascination of designing seating furniture or an aircraft seat?
Oliver Forgatsch: For me, it’s the wide diversity of tasks and the different challenges you encounter with a broad product portfolio that are especially intriguing. From weight-reduced economy class seats to business class products with new wellness-oriented features, such as seat heating or the Mood Light. For the business class, we developed an intuitive panel with three main positions for quick access to key functions. We also try to mirror the character of the seat with its optics. We make comfort visible with contours and seams – and we call it visual comfort. In the end, esthetics also play a key role in terms of functionality, since the product conveys something to the user, creating a sense of well-being.
Bettina Hermann: We are committed to developing products that function well while being esthetically pleasing. That is why technological understanding is so important for designers. Longevity is also part of a product’s design. From this perspective as well, the Rolf Benz brand enjoys a high level of trust worldwide.
What do awards and prizes mean to you?
Bettina Hermann: As a brand, it is important to be able to document awards regularly. For customers, it contributes to creating a platform of trust and is often used as a sales argument. For this reason, I support the fact that we apply for design awards and prizes that are relevant in terms of content.
Oliver Forgatsch: The first criterion is customer satisfaction. But, of course, design awards represent great feedback for the entire team and reflect appreciation from the outside. But, all that aside for a moment: I would be very interested in hearing how you would design an aircraft seat?
Bettina Hermann: Hygiene is very important to me when traveling. When I see that surfaces are easy to clean, I have a better feeling about using them. Also, I would enjoy more ‘sensitive’ color worlds, as you experience in living areas. Oh, in aircraft as well, I find breathable fabrics important, so that sweating is kept to a minimum…
Oliver Forgatsch: … for this very reason, we include a high percentage of wool in our seat covers. And on the subject of hygiene, we have something for you: antibacterial surfaces that actually destroy bacteria. As far as interior cabin colors are concerned, we have very little say in this area. The airlines are the ones who determine them.