brand+design failures...

I’ve been thinking lately (I know, i start all my posts this way, i DO think a lot), about brands that were previously known for design, who have come to pass to have executed a less encompassing design philosophy (through a shift in company priorities, change in ownership, etc.).

First one, inspired by a recent core77 blog post is GM.

From this-

to this-

another good one, Braun

from this-

and this-

to this (thanks, in part im sure to a takeover of the company by Gilette)-

another one could be perhaps herman miller, going from Eames and George Nelson classics of design to yet another case-goods manufacturer with 100 task chairs and no difference from the average steelcases, and Global + contract mfgs of the world…

anyone have more examples of companies that have previously embraced design only to (seemingly) abandon, OR ,vice versa, companies/brands that have been historically design-apathetical only to embrace design later on?

also comments greatly appreciated on the WHY? as well… shift in company direction, changing consumer wants, change in overall social lifestyles or appreciation of design in general, price…?

The reverse I’m sure is also the case, where as companies like Umbra were previously stock parts mfgs than embraced design (K.Rashid and the like)…examples of this also would be good to hear of, but even more so if the change was drastic ie. from basic extruded part mfg to world renowned design company, (ie. not just no design to a bit better design like Dell or something)…

no real underlying reason for this post other that curiosity and as highlight of brands +design…


I think you could make a case for Sony. They seemed to get confused after they started buying music labels and movie studios.

Emeco is a pretty good example of going the other way. Not long ago they were in business primarily to make crappy government contract furniture, and failing at it. They sold the company to a young guy who realized that they were selling a lot of their old Navy aluminum chairs to famous designers and architects, and decided to hire some of them to design new product. Now DWR is their biggest customer.

great submissions. actually thought of both those earlier when i was initially thinking of the topics but forget them when i posted. SONY for sure, used to be the $hit in consumer product design, now, not much more than playing catch up to apple and the likes. Samsung, IMHO is the new SONY.

EMCO also has some hot stuff, esp. the Sotsass chair (though looks much better than it actually feels to sit in)


Man, that new Braun stuff is hurtful!

i like the first half of your question, but think a second half should be added to move this discussion from “curious” to “serious.”

first: identify companies that moved from design-centric to not-so-design-centric (or from design leader to design follower - attempt to arrive at some objective definition or criteria). then, identify companies that took the opposite route. next, put dates to these transitions.

the missing second half: then, track financial success before, during, and after this period, attempt to isolate various factors, and see if a case can be made for any relationship between design and financial outcome.

(perhaps the british design council has done this already. if not, should be a good project for any grad students out there!)

and a follow-up question regarding sony and samsung: what are the design icons that samsung has given the world? what are their specific names and memorable traits? which ones do you proudly display and discuss with an admiring audience a few years after launch?

Man, you guys love bashing successful design. I have a Braun electric myself, although not the one shown here. It feels more solid than its competition, is comfortable in the hand and I feel the design is well executed, even if I would prefer something simpler as well. So basically, I think we are arguing about their design direction and not execution (see Sony, GM, et al.)

Thinking of GM, I think they get it now. The new Caddy CTS is as good a design execution as BMW or Mercedes in my opinion. The new Malibu interior is very well done as well. I’m sure the exterior boys will catch up soon.

Sony is just a basket case. I think it was after their founder died that they went to crap. They canned their shortwave development too! Here is a company that has no design direction, unlike Braun and poorly executed their product. I have a newer Sony radio and it is an exercise to use any of the 14 million buttons on it. Completely useless. Then I bought one for my car…(I’m so bad).

Yeah, I’m with Mr 914. Personally I’m still a fan of what Braun is putting out (with respect mostly to their shavers). I think that P&G is still trying to figure out how they want to position Braun in the market with relation to their Gillette line, and so far I think they’ve done a good job of continuing to set a high standard of design+technology.

As far as GM goes, ahhh, yeah it’s a crap shoot sometimes but I think that they’re starting to get it. Case in point: the new Malibu. Maybe it’s a case of personal tastes, but every time I see one it looks better. The last 3 Generations looked like they were designed to be rentals, the 08 is just a classy example of American Automotive design: big, handsome, cushy, and unapologetic.

I think that is the point. Design. The new Braun stuff seems pretty far off their brand values. The fact that Gillette is trying “to figure Braun out” is scary… maybe focus on making a Gillette razor that is not a mis-shapen conglomeration of random shapes, and leave Braun alone.

No, they don’t. They may be making a few good cars, but on average they are below average, and their good product is not stellar. There are just many other better cars at similar price points from both a design and execution standpoint.

as someone mentioned, the rebirth of cadillac took them out of the “old man” slump. hopefully someone will do the same for Buick (i think they have started to with their SUVs). Cadillac was aging hard by pumping out those square deVilles and whatnot, stuck in the early 90s. then when they embraced their edge design language; they really stood for something, and i think it paid off. they have a unique look in the market, and are appealing to the younger crowd (i mean, the escalade alone made wonders, even though its a bit of a monstrosity).

Levi’s is another clear case of a market leader getting too comfortable and losing ground to newer and fresher brands. now they are playing catchup with their designer extensions and collaborations.

Motorola is the beaten dead horse. They milked that razor for all its worth and now are on their last limb.

I attribute the situations when a company loses their leadership and design innovation to 2 causes: lack of a leader with a vision, and the beancounters trying to keep doing what ‘works now’ to maximize profits. what they dont get is that it only maximizes profits just ‘now’.

i think there is an interesting case that seems unique in this scenario: B&O. They have had incredible design for a long time, but their pricepoints are killing them (i think theyre not doing so well). Any insights?

Motorola is so true. I liked a few follow up designs of theirs (although almost the same), but in addition to milking the RAZR for all it’s worth, they also spawned the awful ‘give every cell phone 5-letters-or-less name with a missing vowel’ craze. I mean I like names as opposed to model #s, but it’s getting out of control…

I’m also kinda worried about Nissan after seeing the new Maxima…but that’s the other thread.

From my perspective, it’s not just a question of good design or not, or one example of it from a brand, but an all encompassing design philosophy that is followed and linked to the brand.

The new Braun stuff, while maybe not terrible, is at best par for the course. Take off the logo, and it could be a Gilette, Phillips, Remmington, or XYZ no-name brand. It just isn’t distinctive and as well doesn’t link to any other products from the brand in a significant way.

The old Braun, you could tell without even looking at a logo, and the design rationale and approach permeated every aspect of the brand. The packaging, the advertising all reflect a cohesive design strategy and position. Not so anymore.

GM, the same. The old GM had a “house style” across all products, a more consistent brand presentation, and designs that were unique to each sub-brand. New GM? not-so much.

As for SONY vs. Samsung, it’s not so much about 1 product (thought the original walkman could be something to note), but again, like Braun, a consistency of design across all products. Samsung now has that. Great design in digital camera, phones, TVs, MP3 players, all done in A way that differentiates via design.

Bottom line, it’s not so much about the design of products only, (though its a big part), but more about a corporate strategy from the top down embracing design in all aspects (packaging, branding, product, etc.), and how that design strategy is linked to the brand’s DNA. I obviously don’t need to mention Apple.

Another good example might be Herman Miller. Originally they were a pretty standard furniture mfg, then came to embrace design and become a champion of it through the 50’s and 60’s.


as someone mentioned, the rebirth of cadillac took them out of the “old man” slump.

That’s what their advertising wants you to think… But I don’t know if its the truth yet. You see quite a few “old guys” rocking a XLR convertible, as well as plenty of them kicking around the STS & DTS. The Escalade is still pretty popular with soccer mom’s, even with gas prices.

Now Chevy introduces a 4x2 Hybrid Tahoe that claims to match the Camry’s city MPG. Great.

Keep trying GM. You’re still not winning me back.

Richard: Ah, now I see. My Braun is about 3 years old now. It was somewhere between Dieter and this new look. The packaging was quite nice. It had the same solid feel the product does. The graphic design was a little weak here and there though.

As far as more generic…yeah, I’ll give you that much. These new Brauns are less distinctive. Is that due to the market forces or the marketing department though? It seems many male hygiene products follow the same general trend of over-top, complicated Geiger-ish design.

Cadillac: It takes years to turn a brand around, look at Audi (20+ years?) Cadillac only took 2 product generations to catch up to BMW/Merc in both engineering and design. That’s not bad. I think the Malibu is an in-between car. The new one in 4-5 years should be a real trend setter.

In other divisions, look at what they’ve done to Saturn. That only took 2 years to refocus the brand. Success will take longer.

Pontiac, Chevy and Buick are mixed bags. I still wouldn’t be surprised if they kill off Buick (the one brand that knows its clients).


As another example how about Rubbermaid? They were on the cover of magazines for emphasizing design in the late '80’s early '90’s. Now they are just another importer.

I do like the new Malibu, but I agree that GM still doesn’t get it. The cars from the nineties, all look like various sized Luminas, what a piece of crap those were. They may as well have been Japanese cars, cheap in design, cheaper in fit and finish, and run forever, just not very well. Everyone talks about how a Toyota will run forever. But who on earth would want to drive one for that long, warning lights on, interiors falling apart, strange engine noises.

GM is totally still following, and they don’t even really pick the right trends to follow. They still think everyone still wants huge cars. Seriously I heard an interview last year where they actually said that they didn’t really see a market for more fuel efficient cars. And they always follow other failing car maker’s trends, Chrysler put out the PT cruiser, they came out with the HHR. Then Ford jumps in with the Mustang, Dodge tosses out the retro challenger and GM starts talking about a retro styled camaro again. Its like the blind leading the blind.

Saturn could be good if they make their cars worth having and work to make themselves the sustainable brand they are saying they are. Volkswagen makes really cheap cars, but at least the panels don’t have huge quarter inch gaps and the upholstery isn’t coming undone in the showroom like an American car. The Japanese car companies know their fit and finish sucks, once you admit it you can play to your strengths. GM needs to figure out what they are good at, and do that. It isn’t making ultra efficient cars, and it isn’t making high end European style luxury cars. So what is it?

I think Rubbermaid’s problems have to do with Wal-mart. I thought they were one of the first companies Wal-mart went to and told to cut prices or else.

specific car models aside, what does the brand stand for?

BMW- Ultimate Driving Machine. The design, the ads, the showrooms all reflect this. Fast lines, ultra modern materials, a bit of Bavarian Teutonic restraint.

Mini- Fun, different, young, hip.

VW- Friendly, affordable, The Peoples Car. (though the design of late seems to be going off track, with the new Passats and Sirocco design straying into Audi’s territory…)

Saturn- had a strong “alternative” brand to start with I think, but has been more and more dilluted over time. I don’t think it has any meaning now. They’ve abandoned the whole plastic door thing, are bringing over badge engineered Opals (Saturn Astra is a Opel Astra with a new face), and I don’t see anything about the whole “community thing” they were previously known for.

GM- ? Again, take the badge off a Malibu or whatever and it could be a Camry, heck even a new Hyandui.

Toyota- ? Though “green” might be the new thing, I don’t see it as something that deep into the companies DNA.

Ford- ?

Chrysler- ?

same thing can be done with other brands. My test is in general, you should be able to take the logo off anything from the brand (product, ad, instruction manual, packaging and still know who is it). Apple is like this. Nike is like this. BMW is like this. Braun was like this…


I totally agree. I’m not implying they were getting rid of their existing loyal customers, just adding new demographics, ie the young professional that now rocks the new models. I wonder if any old die hard cadillac fans got upset at the new design strategy?

Playing devil’s advocate here: with Braun (just because its the brand that the discussion seems to focus on), would they survive if they hadn’t ‘kept up with the times’? Its all clear in retrospect, but say you keep seeing the same design language, never changing, while the market moves to something else. would your sales hurt? I think its a double edge sword here, and its not a simple issue of ‘sticking to your design strategy’. you can have a clear design language and strategy, but you have to leave some room for evolution. if you dont evolve, you die. do you think apple would be making millions if they stuck with the aesthetic of the original imac?

granted braun moved too far away from their original ethos, but comparing to the old dieter rams stuff i think is a bit limited. they couldve evolved to what apple is doing (which would be a great evolution, and they should’ve done that instead).

were braun products lagging in sales when they decided to change their design language? what was the reason?

with Braun (just because its the brand that the discussion seems to focus on), would they survive if they hadn’t ‘kept up with the times’?

Well, lets look at Leica. They haven’t changed their design language much over the years.

This one from the 40s-50s

And a newer digital model.

Still as gorgeous as ever. Still as popular as ever (albeit more of a niche market for photography buffs, but still popular) and they don’t appear to be changing any time soon.

Forgot to add my main point:

There is room for success in keeping a clear design language and “refreshing” but not re-inventing it over time. In most cases you are going to find yourself with a devote consumer and not attracting too many more at once. The other side of the coin is Apple with the original iMac.

Another success while staying the same company would be Brooks bicycle saddles. We don’t need to get into it about them again, but it fits my point.