I am attempting to invest the concept of product styling, but i have been unsuccessful in finding any academic article on it. Any suggestions?

What do you mean by the term, “invest?” Do you mean to invest in? Are you a venture capitalist? Do you mean to “digest?” Do you mean to “study?”

If you are looking for academic work done in the area of “styling,” and I assume you mean that in mostly the automotive sense of the word - because it is a somewhat dirty word in product design, then you should look into the Psychology of Perception. It is an actual discipline that looks at how people percieve objects, colors etc.

thanks, both for the advice and for correcting my grammar. I have looked into the field of consumer research (mostly based on psychology). Although it is interesting, it is not exactly what i am searching for. I am searching for work when styling is related to market/product succes. In other words, the conclusions derive from professional practise rather than from lab experiments with a set of test subjects.

Any suggestions?

Bob - I thought I had a small clue what you were interested in, but your explanation confused me even further.

Are you for academic sources that consider the impact of physical form and fashion (i.e., styling) on the sales of a product?

Any specific category?

I’d suggest you look at the Journal of the PDMA, the DMJ (Design Management Journal - from DMI), and stuff from HBS (Harvard Business School). I suspect all those organizations have searchable abstracts online and many of them have publications as PDFs that you can order and download right away.

Is this what you were asking about???

I am not sure you can really get a definitive answer to the question you pose. There is a lot of substantive research on styling, though it is generally referred to a product morphology. I’ve seen some studies that show people don’t get the designer’s intent at all – they thought a style was nuturing while the designer was aiming to create something jovial.

Okay, that is not the kind of information you are looking for, but if lab experiments don’t reveal a consistent response to a style, how can you expect the outside world to? If a product is successful, styling may have been a factor, but I would doubt is was massively so, expect for functionally undifferentiated products like clothing, shoes, and lamps. There are too many other things in the mix for consumers to consider: price, functionality, care, warantees, convenience, etc.

By definition, style is subjective, so it is mostly a factor at the margins of the general population. Consider the PT Cruiser minivan. A small group of people love it (enough to make it commercially viable), a small group think it is hideous, and most of the rest think it is either curious or weird. If you get a cult following for something (cults are minority tribes not majority ones) you might get a style driven market success. Maybe.

I am really appreciating all your help! I will attempt to clarify what I mean.

Product styling is often the activity that most people refer to the profession of product/industrial design. It has also been argued that product styling (product aesthetics) is an important factor for differentiation in mature industries where it is hard to compete on features, quality, price, and so forth. Consequently, product styling should be more important for cars then for mobile phones (where features, as cameras, games and mp3-players are still an important aspect of differentiation).

Although product styling often is considered important, little research (that I have found) outside consumer research has investigated what constitutes “good” vs. “bad” styling strategies. Consumer research provides some guidelines, e.g. that both novel and familiar design are often perceived as aesthetically appealing. But, I find very little research that address the topic from a business perspective (e.g. should a car brand X maintain consistency in product form over product generations or product portfolio or should they attempt to be truly innovate with each model?). I have looked into Design Management Journal but the “evidence” they provide is often anecdotes or at best limited case studies. I have also looked into product development journals (e.g. Journal of product Innovation Management). The problem there is that although the financial impact of product design has been measured, the measures of design are often very vague (design is often not clearly specified to a greater extent than e.g. an explicit effort) which makes it hard to assess the impact of different styling strategies.

In short, is there any published work on the relation between different styling strategies and company performance?

Userinnovation: the work on product morphology sounds interesting, any recommendations for basic reading?

Try looking at how the fashion industry handles style. (How they forecast trends, how they handle 5 year leadtimes on materials, etc.)

I think they may have a better handle on it because they are more defined by it.
Look up- David Shah, Li Edelkoort, etc.

Bob, the most complete source on product morphology I’ve seen is Wim Muller, Order and Meaning in Design, Utretch: LEMMA publishers, 2001. ISBN 90 5189 629 8. It will probably be difficult to find in North America, so I suggest ordering it from a bookshop or online service in Europe. Good luck.

Read Don Norman’s “Emotional Design.”

Among other things, it references a psychological study that proves that “better looking products work better.”

The entire book is dedicated to the psychology of styling.

Del Coates “Watches Tell More than Time” is another excellent resource on the subject.


It would be interesting to see the scientific community, i.e. research firms, to start to really study this issue with the same vigor as people do with other market indicators or even as they with pharmaceuticals for efficacy etc. to understand the true affect on the ‘bottom line’ that styling can have.

What is obvious, and needs no further study, is the great need for all products and services to be well designed, and continuously improved through good design and business ethics. Styling is a part of good design, but as said in earlier posts, it is not the only reason a product or service does well in a market space.

Product styling is often the activity that most people refer to the profession of product/industrial design. It has also been argued that product styling (product aesthetics) is an important factor for differentiation in mature industries where it is hard to compete on features, quality, price, and so forth. Consequently, product styling should be more important for cars then for mobile phones (where features, as cameras, games and mp3-players are still an important aspect of differentiation).

I completely and utterly dissagree with your assertions/connections. First off, ID today has more to do with true innovation research than it does with styling.

Your comment about styling as a differentiator when it comes to commodity products is flawed. That may work in the short term, but in no way is sustainable. Consumers are smarter than that.

I suggest your read books like The Innovators Dillema, The Innovators Solution and The Art of Innovation before you go further down this path with a erroneously formulated objective.

Great comments, they really helps me a lot in my literature search. The comments also help me a lot in specify and describe my research topic and question more clearly. Something that this discussion has showed me that I really need to do.

The idea to study fashion design seems to be an interesting path, which I so far have not looked into. Does anyone have any suggestions for which scientific journals that cover this field?

I am also curious about what guidelines people have thought. For instance, what determines if a branded product should maintain product form over product portfolio or product generations?

Userinnovation: I have already looked a little at Order and Meaning in Design. It provides some basic background for my topic.

Cg: Do you remember how “better looking” was specified in the psychological study, was it such away that one could derive styling guidelines from it?

Nydesignguy: I am sorry that I have formulated myself unclear. I do not want to go into the discussion about styling vs. innovation in general. What I wanted to say was that product styling is one way of many that one can differentiate a product on the market and that the importance of styling seems to be more important with the age of the product category (maybe because it becomes harder to innovate?).

You could not derive styling guidelines from it.

It was a Japanese test later validated by an Isreali. The test took two ATM machines, identical in function. One was attractive, the other not. The test showed that the “attractive” ATM was proven or regarded-as easier to use (I don’t recall the specifics–check out the book!)

If you’re looking for “guidelines” for styling, there is other research available on the subject. Much has been studied with regards to our predisposition to “beauty” and nature.

For instance, research has proven that infants (having not yet been influenced by culture or environment) respond more favorably to “attractive” faces. Further analysis showed what made someone attractive, and it had to do with proportional features etc. Not surprising given that we know that we’re predisposed to “the golden rectangle” 4/4 beat music etc.

In other words, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, it’s prewired.

What I wanted to say was that product styling is one way of many that one can differentiate a product on the market and that the importance of styling seems to be more important with the age of the product category (maybe because it becomes harder to innovate?).

Nonsense. An organization that uses that excuse only makes themselves more vunerable to disruptive innovation.

If a product category is mature. The organization that caters to that market should put in place a strategy to understand new markets and stop cramming unnecessary “features” which overshoot the consumer’s needs.

That’s what people “should” do, but look at cellphone industry, especially in Asia.

I don’t think Bob would be posting if he already knew everything.

IMO it’s very hard to discuss the aesthetics of a product independently. The aesthetics of a product is always related to its functions and limitations. If not, it’s just a useless piece of sculpture.

Even for cars, the size and proportion is limited to the chasis, as seen on different cars with the same chasis.

Ah, I’m afraid it is not at all that simple. Yes, some perceptions of beauty are “hardwired”, but these things are very high level proportional relationships such as faces or spirals that we have encountered in the course of our evolution and some experts speculate were favorable to our survival somehow. We aren’t hardwired to like one product over another, however. We may be hardwired to like certain proportions, and a product may draw on those proportions (think Greek temples) and so we might like them. But, some cultures don’t think the Greek temples are intrinsically beautiful, which shouldn’t be if beauty is hardwired. Much of the hardwired theory of human behavior falls apart when one does cross-cultural comparisions.

A lot of our conceptions of beauty are conditioned by other people, notably the fashion establishment. It is why there are such industries as color forecasting, for example. Why do people suddenly like a certain color one year, and drop it in another. Or consider auto design. Auto makers often don’t introduce a radical design suddenly to the market. They gradually soften up the public’s acceptance by revealing elements of the radical design in measured doses year-by-year, so the progression gets where they want the design to be, without frightening people. The same goes for clothing.

A good discussion of this topic can be found in an Italian book called the Fashion Engine.

Sorry, I mis-remembered the title of the book I just cited. It is called the Style Engine, produced by a research organization called “the Fashion Engineering Unit” (published by Monacelli Press 1998)

I think the results of the ATM machine study can serve as an example to explain more clearly what I am interested in. The study showed that beautiful products are perceived to work better. Consequently, companies would strive to produce products with a style that is perceived positively by the target group.

In this process, the designer will generate multiple ideas for how to style the product. A selection must then be made among these ideas. What I am searching for is if there are any general guidelines that these ideas can be evaluated against? If not, the process of selecting the “best” styling becomes a rather random event (or at best a decision of a senior designer). But how do one justify/discuss the styling of the product with individuals outside the design team? Or the other way around, how can a company, which have ordered a product, decide if the product form delivered is suitable? The company could of course do some consumer testing, but this is not always possible, which leaves the managers to take the decisions based on some sort of judgement? A judgement that I believe could benefit from some sort of guidelines.

So far, it is possible to derive some general guidelines from consumer research and from product form theory. The problem with these is that they often have studied the issue in isolation. I am curious if it is possible to distinguish a positive impact on company performance from these general guidelines. In other words, do the findings from the “laboratory” work in the real world?

So I am interested if there exist any general guidelines for how to evaluate/design a product form (create a style for a product). If so, is there any studies done that have shown that the results are positive related to product success?

Userinnovation: Thank! I will start searching for the book immediately. Do you have any more references on books or articles that talk more about the automaker example?

Molested_cow: I agree with you that a product should not be seen as a useless piece of sculpture. Your example with the car also helps clarify my topic, because even within the limitations of the chassis, the car manufacturers need to decide what the cars should look like and how (and if) they should relate to previous models and to competitors. What are the guidelines to follow in this process?

Nydesignguy: Once again, I am sorry that I formulate myself unclear. I believe my shortcomings in English makes it hard for me to precisely communicate my idea (and I can see my high school teacher in English smile J ). I do not want to diminish the importance of product innovation in the creation of product success. I do neither see the profession of design as a simple an issue of styling products. But I do believe that the styling of a product might increase in importance as a product category evolves. This does not mean that I do not see the importance of innovation, simple that the styling becomes more important.

I am realizing that my English limits my ability to discuss the topic clearly. So I am very grateful to you all for having the energy to try to understand what I mean.


you might be interested in whats called DFSS, or design for six sigma. this process scares industrial designers becasue at the base of it is engineering, in that everything is measurable. it gos so far as to dismantle the ‘fuzzy’ industrial design process of user centered development in broken out very measurable tactics that literally step a team through the ID process with measurable results. It even has a method for judging styling perception through the customer’s eye. It’s called concept engineering, and it is about as ‘in the box’ thinking as it gets. but very measurable in terms of hitting a such a ‘fuzzy’ target.

also. kano methods, pugh methods of analysis… on an on…it’s sort of sad really that the art of ID is dying…but it never really had a place in business, where everything is managed. art is not managed, it is nurtured.

Here is a link to the Israeli confirmation of the original Japanese ATM study that was mentioned earlier:

It seems to be concerned primarily with user interface design and not with 3-dimensional objects, but one would presume that its findings would hold true for 3-D as well as 2-D.