Speaking To Your Target Through Form

Indulge me for a moment. Think back to the last time you purchased a backpack or briefcase for work. Did you look at the number of pockets it had? What kind of material was used? Or maybe you even considered how people might view you based on what bag you carry?    

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We all do this. We buy based on a set of lifestyle associations we have about ourselves and use these points of reference in choosing almost everything we buy.

In the world of product innovation, understanding associations allow us to group these facets of liking to form new, highly desired products. Consumer-centric research offers insight into this segmentation, so that design attributes aligns more closely with specific target users. Understanding how to analyze these insights can be tricky, and they can ultimately impact how well the design is adopted by the market.

There are reasons why products succeed or fail. These vary in subject, whether it’s beyond an organization’s capability, the wrong messaging is used, wrong material choices are made, or the packaging functions are poorly applied. But much of these insights ladder up to how it speaks to the target consumer.

From my experience as an industrial designer, working in many industries and speaking with many different consumers from stay at home parents to Forestry Rangers, I can say that poor design choices stem from a misunderstanding of your target audience.

To understand this deeper, let’s discuss how subtle nuance form implies to specific user perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs.

The setup to get there is a well-written consumer “Story” and a “Solution,” which is built after thorough research immersions. While we won’t dive into these in this post, it is important to address as this informs the next step: the “Benefit Realization.”

The Benefit Realization describes the product’s “Design DNA” — that is, the features, size, formulation, form, performance needs, color palette, climate to be used, functional benefits, etc.

Semiotics drive the underlying values and concepts through design as well as the complex interplay between meaning and form. From the industrial designer’s perspective, it can’t be stressed enough just how important the balancing of meaning and form is to produce a concept that resonates properly with the target market.

To put it another way, form takes on metaphor within a consumer’s lifestyle. 

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There is a common practice in the industry where designers will go on a form exploration exercise. It’s a useful tool for creative divergence and can spark new and interesting non-sequitur forms. This step is usually all about how flashy and differentiated in the category it can look. Technology could also be a lead inspiration for this particular exercise. The challenge with this approach is that the resulting solutions don’t always tie back to any specific end-user insight, therefore remaining very esoteric without any payoff to benefit realization, aside from purely being aesthetic.

Above are some playful form explorations worked up for a well-known automated coffee dispensing company prior to research. No design is tied to any specific consumer attitude, belief, or perception, nor any benefit realizations. It was just an initial exploration in form, arrangement, and delivery methods.


Let’s look at a specific example and see how consumer segmentation can shape conceptual design.

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The Story (abridged)

This target segment was an aging female population who feel stronger than ever. They are looking for a simple and delicious product that can help them keep up with their active lifestyle—and do it in style. They know that their body needs extra nutrients for a full life, but they don’t want a drugstore solution that tastes like medicine.

The Solution (also abridged)

After the story has been written, the Skyscraper Team begins to outline acceptable attributes, keeping in mind the Benefit Realization, i.e. the key attributes, such as it has to be protein-based, portable, on-the-go, no prep, and no mess,  etc.  

 The Packaging

This, in turn, drives the packaging constraints in form, features, and attributes. Don’t forget the BLING! After all, this consumer loves to be seen using their branded products!

When these attributes have been identified, it becomes easier to stay within the guardrails of this particular consumer’s needs—and to stay on brand. Here’s an example concept that came under this segmentation. Notice how the semiotics match up and balance both meaning and form for this target consumer.

This concept was for the on-the-go woman who likes to be seen with her branded drink. Attributes like the integrated slide-straw make for a great no-spill solution. And it’s portioned size promotes increased portability.

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Notice the energetic color treatments. Specification around color translates heavily into the semiotics of fitness and active lifestyle characteristics.

The takeaway here is that not all products are currently designed from consumer insights, which is why so many would-be great products are underperforming. 

Having a specialized team like we do here at Skyscraper makes all the difference when it comes to translating consumer beliefs, assumptions, and perceptions into concepts.

This is why consumer-driven insight and research plays a pivotal role in the development of new and innovative products. Keep this in mind the next time you’re tasked with developing innovative product pipelines in your industry.


 Robert Irwin

Robert is the Industrial Design Director at Skyscraper, an avid outdoorsman, and ex-breakdancer.