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Is innovative product design a help or a hindrance? New research from Imperial College Business School looks at how a product’s design can help consumers understand its function 

Why does an electric car still have a grille if it’s no longer needed to cool a combustion engine? It’s a relic of a previous design and its purpose is more than aesthetic – it signifies the “car-ishness” of the new model. It makes us trust that an electric car is still a car, by referencing the look and feel of the recent past. 

But in the realm of design, we also value originality and creativity. As social animals, we like to express ourselves through clothes and consumer products. As a rule, we don’t want to turn up to a party in the same clothes as each other or show off the same tattoo; when too many people possess the same design, or something becomes a fad, its value diminishes. 

Design, as years of research have shown, is pivotal for commercial success. The look of a product affects consumers’ choices. Corporate design budgets are vast, and design awards are coveted – design is now a strategic resource. 

A product can be at once similar to the past and different from the contemporary – and items which possess both these qualities will be deemed more valuable

And products jostle for our attention: go into any large store or look online, and you’ll see a huge range of functionally similar but aesthetically distinct products on show – from toasters to chairs to garden tools. There is a bewildering choice. 

Every designer wants to create a beautiful functional product that consumers and the market will value. But here’s the dilemma: should designers go for creativity and newness, or echo the look and feel of previous models? What exactly do consumers want and how do they value new products? Academics have come up with conflicting theories about the importance of similarity, i.e. how much new designs should resemble what’s gone before and how much new designs should be different from what’s on the street now.   

Corporate design: innovation versus familiarity 

We want to better understand how consumers are informed by a new product’s design, where is the balance between standing out from the crowd and familiarity? Our research seeks to show how corporate design can aim for the best of both worlds. 

To find this out, we looked at what happens in the real world, as well as conducting our own experiments. And after examining thousands of design patents granted in the US over more than three decades (from 1977 to 2009) and carrying out our own experiment, we spotted a couple of interesting trends.  

We asked 400 consumers to look at a selection of lawnmowers and assess their designs according to their originality or similarity to the recent past. By observing design similarities and differences – and crucially, how the market reacted to them – we learned consumers like products that stand out from other contemporary product designs on the market and those that resemble models and designs from the recent past.  

The more expressive and less functional a product is, the more it’s a disadvantage for it to resemble current designs

From our examination of design patents, we found that the more functional a product the more consumers value similarity to recent products. It gives them a reference, an understanding of what the product is for, and boosts their trust in the design. If there’s no reference to the past look and feel, it might make people uncertain how to use it, and diminish trust in the product. 

But the more a product is visible, the more consumers appreciate the fact that it’s not the same as other contemporary designs.  

In fact, the more expressive and less functional a product is – fashion for instance – the more it’s a disadvantage for it to resemble current designs. If you walk down the road in a particular dress, then seeing people wearing similar dresses will make you feel less individual and special. In this instance, consumers value what is novel and unique – it allows them to express their individuality.   

Anchored differentiation 

This provides an important pointer for firms and their designers: it helps them understand better from whom and how it’s good to be different – and thus how to stand out in the market. Similarities are more effective if designs resemble those from the recent past rather than the present. And differences are more effective if designs stand out from other contemporary products. It doesn’t pay to resemble contemporary designs and follow a fad – it signals a lack of originality.  

A product can be at once similar to the past and different from the contemporary – and items which possess both these qualities will be deemed more valuable. In our research, we call this “anchored differentiation”.  

Our work shows designs that meet these criteria are about 10 per cent more valuable in terms of market valuation than those that don’t. New designs must be carefully curated – and customer research might mislead designers in understanding what exactly the consumer wants. It doesn’t necessarily pay to fall in line with the latest trend. 

This article draws on findings from “Anchored Differentiation: The Role of Temporal Distance in the Comparison and Evaluation of New Product Designs” by Tian H. Chan (Emory University), Yonghoon G. Lee (Hong Kong University of Science & Technology) and HeeJung Jung (Imperial College London). 

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Heejung Jung

About HeeJung Jung

Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship
Dr Jung is an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Imperial College Business School. Her research involves the study of how founding conditions shape ventures’ performance and future strategies with a particular focus on founding team dynamics and inequality.

She also acts as jury member in major startup competitions in UK and in North America, including ShellLiveWire and the Queens' Entrepreneurs' Competition.

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