Today’s Best Product Design Delights Users While Communicating Brand Messages

RKS’ Scott Clear on building emotional connections

Specializing is highly overrated. Burrowing into one specific area and staying there can lead to "breathing your own air," said Scott Clear, chief design and innovation officer at Los Angeles-based RKS.

That's why the design firm works on everything from children's toys and musical instruments to healthcare and aerospace projects. One of the company's early megahits came in the fuzzy form of an animatronic bear, Teddy Ruxpin, and its FloWater purifying systems are currently being used to provide clean water to residents in Flint, Mich.

"It's the designer mentality to be starving for knowledge," explained Clear, a Detroit native and embedded Southern California transplant who races motorcycles in his downtime. "We look at the world and wonder, 'Why?' or 'Why not?'"

Clear, whose clients include GE, 3M, Bose and Eastman, said that the best in the field today take design beyond a physical product and translate it into a business and branding strategy. "No matter what the product is, you're trying to figure out how it needs to function," noted Clear, who will serve as jury chair for Product Design, a new Clio Awards medium added this year. "Your goal is to delight the user."

Adweek: What kind of submissions will catch your eye?

Scott Clear: Most jurors say the best works they see are the things they wish they would've done themselves. So aside from the typical criteria of innovation, aesthetic qualities, functionality and usefulness, the Clios are charging us to evaluate submissions on creativity, meaning we can open up to the idea of looking for things we haven't seen before. I'll watch for products that celebrate passion and evoke an emotional connection, along with their richness in design, to positively impact lives. I'm hoping some really wicked stuff shows up.

What does product design encompass, and why is it important?

Product design fits perfectly into the current branding and advertising-focused awards because the product represents the brand. A brand is, in essence, a promise. Companies need to communicate brand messages through their products, and it's important for the Clio Awards to identify and increase awareness of the work and talent involved in these projects.

Talk about the democratization of design.

Twenty or 30 years ago, good design was only for people who had money. Now the masses—and anybody who shops at Ikea or Target or buys Apple—can have it. We live in a time where a 3-year-old can tell you about the design of a smartphone, and children of all ages know good design when they see it and experience it.

Give some history on RKS.

Ravi Sawhney, our founder, was at Xerox Park where they invented the touch interface, and he talks about the psychological challenges in those days. We were always taught not to touch technology—"Don't stick your hands into the black void!" Now we couldn't live without it. And pretty soon, he was developing toys.

What's your perspective on the wearables craze?

I'm kind of biased because I developed the first healthcare wireless wearable [the Sotera ViSi Mobile System, which has become an industry leader]. There are more wearables now than you can count, with things like wrist straps that tell you calories burned and steps taken. But if you're just creating data and throwing it at the user, what purpose does that serve? If it's connected to advisement and suggestions and makes sense of a bunch of numbers and charts, I'm all for it. That's more of what I call a "sensable" than a "wearable." And with the level of connectivity and the types of technology that we have now—like facial recognition and infrared scanning—why do we need to wear anything at all?

This story first appeared in the May 9, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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