Accidental design language?

I’m looking for examples of products that “accidentally” changed the branded design-language of a company.

Call it “Ready, Fire, Aim,” or “evolutionary design” as opposed to “Ready, Aim, Fire” or “strategic design.”

Can you think of good and bad examples? What’s your thoughts on evolution vs. strategy?

63 hits and no takers? Here’s a few conversation starters:

1) The Apple iMac: Changed the direction of the entire company, but was it strategic or accidental? ie. Did they plan on applying that design language to everything, or did they just leverage it’s success? (Who knows the answer to this?)

2) The Iomega Zip Drive: Strategically designed by Fitch, included a complete company makeover.

What else??

Is “accidental design language” crazy, or a legit strategy?

no replies= hard question.

I can’t think of anything off the top of my head- have to dig around for this one. Almost feels that something may have to come from somewhere other than design to begin with.

… like camouflage, the Hummer H1, all of those commercial kitchen appliances that have made their way into high end homes like Viking ranges, and Sub Zero freezers…


  1. Renault Vel Satis: Completely different than previous Renaults, and it seemed at the launch that they wouldn’t continue the language:

  1. A series of JVC stereos from about 6 years ago. I remember being impressed with them because they were so different from the usual black or silver boxes of the day. Today, they look like another knock-off. They also made a set of speakers that had a wood finish, if I recall right. At the time, it seemed like no one had used wood finish on their speakers for a decade at least.

I apologize for the images, it’s all I could find.

It’s hard to know when the language was accidental. I’d say that the iMac wasn’t accident, but then I haven’t read that it was. I’d put that in the Deliberate category. I recall reading about the Zip and that sounded like a surprise, so put that in the Accidental.

Only one that comes to mind is Cadillac. From what I read about the CEO’s (whichever one it was) opinion of their chiselled look, the success of that aesthetic was a surprise. He really didn’t like it.

I think the razr changed radicaly motorola image , then later design language , i think they did the product then based the whole spirit and design language on a hero product that sell more than an i pod …not an accident but a happy u turn .

I think the iMac design was strategic. Within a year of its release, 4 Mac products were released with similar design language (iMac, iBook, PMac G3, and PMac G4). It is no coincidence that Steve Jobs’s return to Apple preceded these machines. In this case, I think Steve Jobs facilitated a change in the direction of Apple’s design, which then changed the direction of the company.

I think the recycling of Boxster elements by Porsche is an example. It seemed at the time like they took a lot of the detailing from the Boxster and applied it to the 911, most notably the headlights. It was a little like they were caught off guard by how overwhelmingly positive the reaction was to the Boxster and they had to find ways to capitalize on that with their more expensive model that all of a sudden seemed stale.

But with car design I think its always tough to try to guess a timeline for when certain decisions might have been made. Maybe the Boxster was based around the next generation 911, but the 911 wasn’t at the refresh stage yet so they introduced new language with the Boxster. Who knows?

In terms of knowing the design intent of “accidental” design language the question for the most part is unanswerable. Very few people (especially designers) admit mistakes like that in public. But I’m still interested on speculation of new products using an “evolutionary” approach. Maybe DMI has some case studies on the topic.

I heard Jonathan Hayes, the xbox 360 lead designer, speak a few months ago, and I seem to remember him saying that the first xbox was just kinda thrown out there. I think one could argue that’s what Microsoft was known for hardware design-wise for sometime. So instead of growing Microsoft’s brand xbox just stagnated it because there was nowhere for it to go; hence total redesign of the 360.

The “ready, fire, aim” method is definitely the old school information age way- design by SixSigma type stuff. Innovate first, ask questions later and ultimately risk something like a 90% failure rate. Where as “ready, aim, fire” is the new conceptual age. Ask questions and observe first, then innovate. I’m borrowing from the book “A Whole New Mind” here.

While I get the natural selection metaphor of “evolutionary design” I guess I do have a problem calling “ready, fire, aim” evolutionary design because it seems like good strategic design utilizes an evolutionary (as opposed to revolutionary) approach to experience and brand. But I’m at a loss for what else to call it. Any takers?

You’re right, it wasn’t an accident. The Razr was part of a strategy summed up by the word “iconic.” They were looking to recapture the success of the “iconic StarTac.” The Pebl was also in development at the time.

I think you’re right–the rapid release of those products proves that they planned to go that direction.

That leaves me with no examples! Isn’t that interesting?

call it what you will: language, ethos, style, paradigm, etc.

Examples so far are single products; rarely does a singular effort create a new language. Comes to my mind are the Sony transistor radio - the first 'hi-tech" personal electronics device with its black and silver skin replacing ~70 years of wood cabinetry. The electronics world, and Sony, changed forever following that radio. More modern could by Apple’s bold colour and transparent plastics, a strong move away from Robert Brunner’s term “the snow white” look.

But, I think the early-mid '90’s new CAD tools gave rise to a new design-language from the traditional tenet “form follows function” to something I’ve variously called “form is” or “form defines function”. I think it was these digital tools redefining design to manufacturing workflow, and some brave companies, that gave birth to curvaceous surfaced products in all genres. Recently we seem to be seeing a reaction to this, with somewhat simple rectilinear styles emphasizing the “interface design”, a fairly new term.

Igloo Cooler.

Goldsmith Yamasaki Spec in 1970 changed the entire company by suggesting in hindsite that the company change their name to Igloo to take advantage of the strong brand generated by keeping those six packs cold.

Was intentional to make a great new product. Was unintentional to modify corporate structure.

I think it is all a fractal crap shoot. Every buyer out there is presureing designers and manufactuers to nail in a home run in hopes to change it all.

cg: I think there are two strong factors to NOT finding these “ready, fire, aim” designs:

  1. Most of the design fail

  2. If they are a success, the brains behind them will try to justify the decisions in hindsite in order to convince the next employer that the sucess was more than luck

cg, what about the original volkswagon, it captured its brand promise in the shape of its profile

It doesn’t count because it didn’t break from an existing brand image.

The new Beetle comes closer–it shares little in common with the VW design language revealed in the Passat, Jetta, Toureg, GTI…

Now if the new Beetle came out of nowhere (no previous beetle) that would definitely count!

Also, the original Beetle only looks innovative to us Americans, because the predecessors have been largely forgotten. After all, it looks less innovative when you know about this Mercedes:

or the sadly forgotten Tatra:

Note, Porsche was a consultant for Mercedes, and he worked with Hans Ledwinka, Tatra’s head designer. If one wanted to do even more research, I would be willing to bet there exists some even earlier concepts of these first “aerodynamic” cars.