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Mechanical Engineering

Suck up ... tear down

September 10, 2015

A neighbor of mine left this stunning post-war (~1950) Electrolux XXX at their curb. I snatched it, immediately hoping to convert it to a table lamp. I was blown away by the industrial design and the workmanship.

It turns out this model was produced for 25 years, designed by Lurelle Guild. This design was probably his most famous design, echoing Art Deco trains of the era.

How does this legendary design stack up with the Dyson that’s sitting in my broom closet? The corded Animal from a few years back was the must-have vacuum created by the industrial design and marketing legend James Dyson.

At first, I bemoaned how consumer products have evolved. Knee jerk stuff really:

Then… durable materials
Now... cheap materials

Then… timeless designs
Now… forcing trendy ones

Then… selling an investment
Now… creating demand for the new model

Upon further review, I do still feel those things. It’s worrisome that the economy demands constant consumption where I “need” a new vacuum every five years instead of every 25. But fairness demands that I give each product a close look and consider how successful they are in achieving their goals.

Design

The Art Deco style of the Electrolux started in art and evolved into architecture and design. It uses symmetry and linearity and made a bold technology-first statement. It is strongly ornamented, which can become tacky. Ornamentation is at odds with “form follows function” seen in more modern designs. In the case of this vacuum, some of the embellishments could mar furniture legs and the nameplate is a difficult-to-clean dirt trap.

Dyson’s overall design is recognizable with its use of bright color and primitive forms (circles mostly). It has an overall toy-like appearance with oversized user touch points. But the design is mainly driven by spotlighting the technology (in this case the cyclone suction elements) and by dialing in the human factors (great affordances for doing everything from unlocking the vacuum to pulling out the wand to snapping in the attachments). Dyson recognizes that they want you to love your vacuum today so they smash as many trends into it as possible, but you will likely tire of it tomorrow so they don’t worry about picking a color you will hate in three years.

The branding is interesting to compare. Both companies want you to see their brand on the shelf. But the Electrolux uses the badge as a major design element, putting it in the main horizontal with a stamped out metal badge above a red field. Dyson simply pad prints their name on the plastic in a couple of spots, a sign that they were fighting for every penny to hit their price point.

It’s worrisome that the economy demands constant consumption where I “need” a new vacuum every five years instead of every 25.

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