Multi-Functional vs. ‘The Camel’


There is a famous saying in design – ‘A camel is a race horse designed by a committee’.  Let’s not discredit clever multi-functional gadgets.  A great example of this design approach is the Franklin Step ladder chair:

It’s a clever design of a chair that in one action flips over to become a step ladder.  It is multi functional yet still simple, with modest but clean graceful design, finished nicely, and suits its intended environment. It has two and only two uncompromised functions.

In a fairly recent episode of ‘The Apprentice’ (episode 9, aired 15 may 2013) a challenge was presented to both teams that reminded me of the Franklin chair, and how this simple idea could have easily gone so wrong.  Both teams were asked to produce a flat pack piece of furniture to be pitched to various distributors, local small businesses and large companies such as Argos. To be fair I must admit that the challenge struck me as mildly absurd from a designer’s perspective. The items had to be designed and prototyped in just a day and a night. This resulted in two clearly unfinished products. The item that reminded me of the Franklin chair was one team’s creation of a side table that transforms into a chair, by sliding the table top along and flipping it down to create the chair back. Lord Alan Sugar stated in the boardroom words to the effect of ‘This is the best product that I have ever seen while in this board room.’

The other team’s creation was a prime example of ‘The Camel’. The ‘Tidy Sidy’ was such an awful design that the name can only mentally stick. It was a box, originally intended to be some kind of multi-functional cube that could be rotated to allow for six different functions, including a seat, foot st0ol, table, drinks bucket and so on. Was this a clever idea? Well maybe it could have been, but the interaction between team members when developing the product quickly became a shambolic free for all. Starting off as a brain storming session for the purposes of generating a large collection of ideas, the project quickly became an ego driven battle between all team members who needed to get each of their ideas included.  The situation was confused even further when a small team was sent out to conduct market research, which resulted in the feedback that the item needed storage space and leg room. Even though this feedback was the opinion of just one shopkeeper it was decided that this information needed to be included into the design.  Quickly we can see how this concept design was quickly becoming not only a camel but a camel with three humps and six legs. Even after all that, the finished item became very little more than just a box. As time ran out, there was little chance left for and real design at all.

The fact is, the project manager, as the elected leader (due to her product design experience) may have done well to ask each team member to write down their two favourite concepts and then list them on the board.  She could have then shortlisted six ideas, picking the ones that worked best together, and had her final say on the concept development stage. Then there would have been time to get something designed and constructed. Still, even then, this product may have yet still ended up a camel. I can’t help think that a well-designed table with a champagne bucket and a little storage space under (i.e. taking only two or three of the brainstormed ideas) could have resulted in a better finished product with more appeal to distributors, than what turned out to be a grey storage crate with a detachable lid and a pillow inside. Can a multi-functional item escape the camel effect? Well the Swiss army knife was not designed in one day. It was incremental, developing over time with careful consideration that never took away from a simple design of a fold out tool.

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