Beauty and function lead to success by design

Beauty and function are not only compatible. They are the hallmarks of a profitable company and the ultimate tools of competition.

That was the message participants in the second annual Design and Business Conference at the Rhode Island Convention Center took home May 6.

A partnership between Bryant College and Rhode Island School of Design, the center brings together the arts, design and business communities in Southern New England.

Keynote speaker Sam Farber, founder of the OXO International (pronounced okso) line of ergonomically designed tools for cooking, cleaning, baking, barbecuing and gardening, exemplifies the “Success by Design” theme.

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A self-described proponent of “user-centric” design, Farber demonstrated how design is the focus, rather than the flourish, of his line of more than 400 consumer products aimed at making every day living easier.

Best-known for its signature line of Good Grips kitchen gadgets (with soft, flexible handles made from a processed rubber called Santoprene) “OXO is a hand company,” Farber insisted. “Not just a kitchen tools company.”

The retired chief executive officer of the Copco cookware company, Farber initially designed the tools as an aid to his wife, who suffered from mild arthritis in her hands. Identifying a consumer need is the first step in any design process, Farber said. It is done through “observation of the user doing the task.”

OXO products are designed to fall into one or more categories of motion: twisting, push and pulling, or squeezing. The handles are “geared to the task itself and what the hand does during the task,” Farber said.

Noting the deficiencies in the current product and setting goals for a new one are the other steps in a successful design process, Farber said.

In 1991, its first full year of operation, the New York City-based OXO generated $3 million in revenues. Sales have increased by 50 percent every year since, according to Farber.

Consumers will pay for “added value,” resulting in greater sales at higher prices, Farber said.

The right combination of design and manufacturing makes it possible to “become a leader in the field,” he said, adding that it’s the only way to keep “the competition always chasing you.”

TracRac of Fall River is an example of a company using a similar strategy closer to home.

Transferring the boom technology used on sailboats to dry land, the inventors of TracRac created a sliding rack system for pickup trucks. Later, they came up with a portable work station, called the TracMaster.

Michael Allio, the company’s vice president and a principal, summed up the business in the phrase “cool tools for contractors.”

Unlike a typical rack system, the TracRac doesn’t have to be drilled into the vehicle. As such, it is easily removable and more aesthetically pleasing.

The product – which sells at Home Depot and other commercial outlets – has since become popular among general consumers who use it for such tasks as transporting small water craft.

The TracMaster stem-med from the company’s own need to saw large materials in a small space. The result was a saw that moves back and forth on an aluminum track.

A major step in the company’s development was teaming up with DeWALT to sell the TracMaster. The company had to sacrifice some equity with the deal. But the division of Black & Decker made it much easier for the 50-person company to distribute its product.

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