without strategy, DESIGN is JUST short-lived superficiality

In 2004, yellow design was responsible for designing the first mobile navigation devices. And for Japanese air-conditioning giant Daikin, the Pforzheim-based company developed a comprehensive product language. We spoke to the firm’s CEO Alexander Schlag about its three-axis design process, brand experiences and how design is changing in an age when digitalisation is causing products to disappear.
Interview: Armin Scharf

A discussion with Alexander Schlag is a real treat. The designer and CEO of yellow design is an enthusiastic advocate of multidimensional thinking in product development and has a talent for incisive comments that make you sit up and take notice. And he knows that, faced with digitalisation, design has to break away from the mere product and turn its attention to multisensory experiences.
Mr Schlag, yellow design creates both consumer products and complex analysis systems for labs. How do you combine the two worlds?
In both cases we’re dealing with the same users, just in different roles. That’s the link between the two product levels, because somebody who appreciates good design in their private life doesn’t want to go without it in their work environment. Because perception of the products is based on the same mechanisms, we don’t differentiate between consumer products and capital goods. In the latter case, we’re often dealing with very expensive, specialised products that are only made in small numbers. That rules out elaborate tooling for their production, so when we’re working on projects like that satisfying our own standards – and those of our clients – is particularly challenging.
So no specialisation despite the complex subject matter?
That’s right. If we were to specialise in a certain product area, we’d be too one-dimensional in our approach. Ultimately, we want to take a holistic view of people and see them not just as rational beings but as having emotions and five senses as well. However, despite our wide-ranging areas of activity, we obviously need an in-depth knowledge of the given subject; we get to grips with the often very specific use cases and need a good understanding of both the technical workings and aspects like production and profitability. That’s the only way to create really meaningful products. The more complex a device, the more important the expertise.

“Nowadays style guides that are reduced to purely formal elements aren’t that relevant any more because they’re too static. We create action guidelines and define goals, which then underpin the development of the brand.”

Due to their functionality, the analysis systems from Bruker are quite heterogeneous product lines. So how do you still manage to achieve some kind of corporate design?
That’s where our work gets really interesting! But seriously, the devices are highly complex in terms of their functionality, they’re based on different technologies and are operated not only by specialists but sometimes by semiskilled lab staff as well. Then there are the long life cycles, which generally extend well beyond 10 years. That means the design of the apparatus mustn’t be too typical of its time, otherwise the devices would look old-fashioned alongside newer models. So we use connecting principles like certain topologies that are expressed in the way the surfaces relate to one another, the corner radii and the joins. With this approach – a kind of evolving corporate design – it’s possible to integrate new devices into existing families and develop them further.
So no more style guides?
They’re not as relevant as they used to be because they were too static in their conception. But design has to be able to evolve, because the way we see things is changing all the time and there are a lot of changes in terms of the technology too. Let me give you an example: what are you supposed to do with a manual that defines dials or buttons as key elements when the product no longer has any? That’s why we think it’s far more important to formulate goals and guidelines that define an attitude – without which no brand development strategy can work, by the way.

You developed a navigation tool for Falk back in 2004. It was a totally new type of device at the time, and actually consisted of nothing but a display.
When we started back then, products like that simply didn’t exist and we created a new category, so to speak. The fact that it was reduced to a display format was because we took a user-oriented approach: it was supposed to be suitable for walking navigation as well, so it needed to fit into a pocket. That’s why, together with the hardware developers, we kept pushing to reduce the size of what was originally a much bigger concept.

On the one hand, the design itself wasn’t meant to be loud so that it would blend in with the vehicle interiors, but on the other hand it was meant to embody brand qualities like precision and reliability. Details played a major role in that – things like the transitions from one surface to another or the corner radii. After all, the devices were up close to their users. That’s a principle that’s still relevant today, even though navigation devices have largely been replaced by smartphones in the meantime.

For Daikin, a Japanese company, you developed a brand and design strategy specially for the European market.
Yes, that started in 2008. I should point out that Daikin was already a global leader in the air conditioning sector at the time but had little presence in Europe. So then we launched a socio-cultural research study to find out why the assimilation of the technology and appliances wasn’t working out in the European region. To put it in a nutshell, we soon realised that the Daikin brand was virtually unknown and nobody wanted to screw a box-shaped air conditioning unit onto the wall. That kicked off the development of a Daikin brand essence – only then did we set to work on the concept for a product language with a vision for the product portfolio. After that, it was immediately implemented in the first air-conditioning unit that isn’t shaped like a box and blends in with European interiors more sensitively. Then, starting from that anchor project – and in close collaboration with the Daikin design team – we began successively developing the entire portfolio beyond the European market. We also generated the company’s heating segment totally from scratch with a closely related visual language.
Speaking of Japan: you have your own branch in Tokyo. Why?
We work for clients who are active in both regions, so having an office in Japan makes sense. In fact, Japan is our most important overseas market, whereas we don’t do that much in China. The meticulous approach the Japanese take to things is similar to how we do things here in Germany, so you could say the way we work is a connection between us. Plus, at a personal level, I’m very interested in the country’s culture. And my wife Kyoko Tanaka, who’s an associate here at the company, comes from Japan as well.
“As a designer, you have to be able to get to grips with complex technical issues and understand them in depth. That’s the only way to create a meaningful product.”

Back to design – how deeply can you influence the technical structures of the projects you work on?
It varies, but in principle it’s true to say that the more we can intervene the better it is for the product. I’m simplifying a little, but essentially that’s how it is. At the very least, we work on all the areas that are visible and accessible to the user. But when we can start from scratch, it gets really interesting. Starting from scratch means we think about products that don’t exist yet, check out users’ expectations and explore the possibilities for implementation. Then we practise product design in its true sense, i.e. we take a holistic approach. Let me give you a relatively simple example: the Tobacco Maker. We designed the entire thing from A to Z, including the technical development and the difficult search for production technologies that can cope with the challenging injection moulding required. Speaking of which, we often turn to trusted external partners when product-specific expertise is needed. We’re lucky: here in our region, you can almost always find suitable specialists who are driven by the will to innovate. It’s an ideal situation for us.
Those partners also turn up in the design process that you’ve developed. What makes that process so special?
We put a lot of intense thought into how product development could be improved in general. And we soon realised that the classic, linear method in which one step follows another needs to be replaced by a parallel approach. That means we keep a constant eye on the three axes addressee/user, company/brand and production/profitability – all at the same time and at every stage of the project. Especially at the beginning of a development, that means more effort because we check out all aspects, but overall we save a lot of time and reduce the risks. After all, it’s hard to think of anything worse than getting to an advanced stage of development and having to realise that the implementation you’d envisaged either isn’t feasible at all or can only be achieved by making half-hearted compromises. By doing reality checks on a permanent basis, we identify that sort of problem area early on. It should actually be possible for a product to look just the way it did in the first sketch, otherwise you’re only selling hope.
Digitalisation will mean that products increasingly disappear, at least in their current form. Then what’s left for design to do?
We’ll continue to serve as a cog between companies and users. Our task has always been to create product and brand experiences, and that won’t change. The strategic side of design is becoming even more important, because without strategy design is just embellishment with a short-term impact. But obviously the levels at which our design begins are changing dramatically. If a device or service is controlled via an app on a smartphone, i.e. on a third-party device, perception of the brand changes. That effect is even stronger in the case of voice control via interfaces like Alexa. So in the near future, the brand might not be perceived via physical elements at all any more but in a multisensory way. That’s why we’re already thinking about how to distinguish between air-conditioning solutions based on the way they condition the air. Then the user experience will be defined via multisensory perceptions, which will in turn lead to brand experiences. It’s a complex subject, but an intriguing one. Ultimately, finding the most appropriate form for something is only one dimension of our profession. But then again, that’s always been the case.


Günter Horntrich founded yellow design in Pforzheim about 45 years ago. Since 2011 Alexander Schlag has been managing partner at the company, which has locations in Pforzheim and Tokyo. The yellow group also includes yellow design | yellow lab, founded in Cologne in 1992, as well as yellow too in Berlin. In principle, the three companies are independent market players, but they also work directly with one another whenever their different areas of expertise are required.