As part of the twentieth anniversary to mark my first book on materials I felt it was a good time for us at Chris Lefteri Design to launch our materials and design manifesto. These are our recommendations based on the many projects, across multiple sectors of how designers can apply materials in the best ways to bring about innovation.
Inspired by Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design and our experiences working with over forty brands across technology, automotive, appliances, retail and apparel, we have developed a material-centric approach to design.
From enhancing the design process to providing organisational value, here are our ten recommendations for using materials in more sensitive, innovative and powerful ways:
1. INTRODUCE MATERIALS AT THE BEGINNING
Materials are often relegated to the later stages of design, considered only when form and colour have already been decided on. By using them as a starting point, you could resolve or even avoid issues that may appear in later stages of development or uncover new ideas that would otherwise be missed.
Make materials more than an afterthought. Begin your design process with an exploration of material properties to resolve or avoid issues that might appear later, such as trying to apply a material once the design has been finalised.
- How do you usually start your design process?
- What material would you use as a starting point?
- How can you onboard material suppliers early on in the process?
2. USE MATERIALS IN NEW PLACES
Being innovative doesn’t always mean inventing new materials – you can discover fresh pathways for product development by using existing materials in different contexts. It requires openness and courage but delving into cross-industry opportunities can enable you to stay ahead of the curve.
Think about how your product requirements have been addressed by materials in other industries, or even in nature. Be receptive to possibilities – ask yourself why not?
- What are the requirements for your product?
- How can you use materials to fulfil these requirements?
- What other materials with these properties are available outside of your industry?
3. USE MATERIALS IN NEW WAY
Forming, finishing and assembly processes all provide an opportunity for material innovation. Experiment with replacing one process for another to create new interpretations from existing materials. Take plastics for example – compression moulding can be used to produce large scale textures and patterns that would not be achievable with processes such as injection moulding or extrusion.
Allow time for exploring processes when researching materials. Sometimes it will take you in completely new directions, like foamed metals or woven ceramics.
- How can you experiment with processes during the different stages of design?
- How can you create inherent finishes in materials, instead of using secondary finishing processes?
- Like the marks of a chisel on stone or wood surfaces, how can imprints left by large volume manufacturing processes be highlighted to celebrate imperfection?
4. FUNCTIONAL, SENSORIAL, EMOTIONAL
It is important to consider ‘why’ when selecting materials during the design process. Materials are more than surface decoration – their functional, emotional and sensorial qualities can be valuable tools in developing and elevating user experiences.
Determine the user experience that you would like to provide and evaluate the qualities of your chosen materials accordingly.
- Who are you designing for? What experiences are you creating?
- What functional, emotional or sensorial qualities are required for your project?
- How does your material selection benefit the user’s experience?
5. LET MATERIALS DO THE TALKING
In an oversaturated market, savvy material selection and application can go a long way in storytelling, helping your product and brand stand out from the crowd. Embedded within every material is the potential to be part of a bigger narrative, waiting to be brought to life.
Consider how your material choices can help you tell your story, and how their qualities can be utilised or communicated effectively.
- What is the story you want to tell?
- How do the materials you use enhance or communicate your story?
6. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH MATERIAL SUPPLIERS
Materials are often accompanied by data sheets containing technical information such as physical properties and manufacturing capabilities. These are certainly useful, but designers can unlock further opportunities by looking beyond the numerical data, digging deeper and asking the right questions of materials and their suppliers.
Be curious. Ask, not assume, when engaging with suppliers and materials alike. Read between the numbers and be open to discovery.
- What information do you have on this material?
- How else might the data be interpreted?
- How else might you be able to work with the material? Have you tried…? Is it possible to…?
7. WORK COLLABORATIVELY AT THE EARLY STAGE
Many materials have great potential, but the process of applying them can reveal obstacles that designers can’t overcome alone. Working closely with external manufacturers, or other internal teams such as engineering and marketing can increase your chances of success in bringing new innovations to market.
Find ways of bringing different business areas into the conversation, such as inter-department brainstorming. Consider working long-term with suppliers as a means of developing bespoke outcomes.
- Which teams in your business should be involved in the project?
- How can you collaborate with these teams to further material innovation?
- How might a long-term partnership with a supplier impact your business?
8. MAKE SUSTAINABILITY VISIBLE
It’s crucial in sustainable design to be able to trace the life cycle of a material from origin to disposal and recycling. Using materials that are renewable, salvaged or recycled is a good starting point, but it may be more engaging for consumers if such origins are immediately visible to them.
Beyond utilising materials with sustainable qualities, think also about how these can be harnessed for visual impact. From growth rings in wood to flecked particles in composites, these properties should be celebrated.
- How does your material’s origins reflect your brand’s narrative?
- How can you prove your brand’s commitment to sustainability through your products and the materials you use?
9. BE HONEST
Material descriptions can vary widely, with inconsistent definitions and meanings that can be misleading – especially when it comes to sustainability. Designers have a responsibility to make informed decisions to mitigate their environmental impact, whilst remaining honest and transparent about the positives and negatives of their material choices.
Make it a priority to understand the implications of your material choices. Be clear and truthful about material benefits so consumers can make educated purchasing decisions.
- What terms are you using to describe your material choices? Are they clear or ambiguous?
- How can you validate any sustainable claims that you have made?
10. HAVE FUN!
Rather than immediately selecting a material from a database, take some time to play with samples. Lay them out on tables or display them on shelves – instead of out of sight. A hands-on approach allows for spontaneous, freeform experimentation, resulting in creative outcomes that could otherwise be difficult to express or envision.
Embrace the process of playing with materials. Use textiles in place of metal, foam instead of concrete, glass instead of plastic. Give yourself space to set aside conventional knowledge for the moment and think about ‘What if?’
- What if…?
- How can I make the impossible, possible?
- What would a child do now?
Originally published in 2021