There’s a big dilemma in the auto industry, from the Economist to the Herald Tribune and all over the Internet, many recent articles all tell the same cautionary tale regarding the recent drop in car sales to “Generation Y” consumers also known as “Millennials”.
Although young American and European consumers are expected to be the main segment of car buyers for the next 20 years and are expected to make up 75% of car sales by 2025, they are currently buying 30% fewer cars than 5 years ago.
Athletic footwear is similar to the automobile in that it is a design object which combines the compelling combination of performance and style. I use the term cautionary because a drop in car sales today could happen to athletic footwear tomorrow.
Although the recent drop in car sales is a result of circumstances that might have little relevance to the athletic footwear market. I would argue that all design is in someway interconnected and that it’s important to have the broadest understanding of all product and design.
With increasing unemployment and more people in higher education, some say that the current decrease in car sales is due to difficult economic times with less disposable income. Others think that the “developed” world has reached a point of car ownership saturation. With more people living in cities than in rural areas, it might also be that cars are no longer essential in urban environments that have good public transport, greater traffic restrictions such as congestion, or limited parking and high gas prices. Cities where most areas are only cycling distances away and in a time when products are being increasingly purchased online making the car less necessary for shopping.
But here is some food for thought:- About 100 years ago the majority of car designs in the U.S were trucks. American trucks were designed to meet the needs of the large farming population, but gradually as more people moved to live in the cities and the their lifestyles changed, so did the design of their automobiles. Are we are witnessing a similar, albeit much faster lifestyle change today?
Could it be that in an increasingly digital age brimming with apps., advanced user interfaces and enhanced connectivity, that new car designs based on form and speed are no longer meeting the needs of younger consumers and are lacking in cultural relevance?
In a digital world with new channels for expression and experience, could it be that young consumers prefer digital leisure from their iPad to driving cars? What if aesthetic and performance were no longer the driving design criteria for new car consumers? What if digital connectivity is?
With young “Gen Y” consumers now spending more than $3,000 for in-vehicle connectivity, is it possible that automotive companies didn’t realize that young consumers were beginning to enjoy the digital experience on their iPad as much, if not more than driving their car?
As corporate giants, have car companies simply not been fast enough to react to the rapid social and financial changes of young consumers? Or have car companies been caught off guard, in assuming that aesthetic was still the biggest and easiest sale driver (after all form language is the primary focus of Automotive Design education). If this is the case I had a hunch it would happen earlier this year when I impulsively mentioned that much of the automotive inspiration and focus on form and sculpture had become unoriginal.
Maybe because I think that as much as it can be stunning, sculpture belongs to a traditional design direction, which will often guide designers along an archetypal and rather conventional thought process. But maybe not for much longer. In a consumer culture of touch screen, pinch-to-zoom, voice recognition, accelerated information access and navigation, has the conventional driving experience becoming antiquated?
It’s probably no coincidence that General Motors is planning to hire 3,000 Hewlett-Packard workers to bolster it’s in-car technology strategy. Somewhat reminiscent of the iPhone, iPad and iPod, BMW is developing a sub-brand of cars labelled “i”. This could possibly set up a perfect opportunity for Apple, a pioneer and leader of the mass market digital technology revolution to one day enter the car/mobility market with a buyout of privately owned BMW.
The BMW “i” sub-brand is a new electric mobility concept specifically developed for use in an urban environment and will be sold online. Presumably many of the new features of the BMW “i” sub-brand will meet the requirements of “Gen. Y”.
Autonomous, self-driving cars are also being developed around the world, most notably by Google Inc. and will soon become a reality in states like California, Nevada and Florida with recent legislations authorizing this new automotive technology on public roads.
Are we witnessing a design paradigm shift that will introduce new mobility concepts based more on impacting function than aesthetic? Maybe similar to this VW concept called 2057 Slipstream from 2007.
Intelligent product to connect with the digital culture of “Gen. Y” and improve our lives. New personalized technology mobility cocoons, to own, or to share. So how will digital innovation impact athletic footwear? The retro trend based on style and nostalgia was one of the biggest game changers in athletic footwear, but by comparison I think digital will make it look almost insignificant.
Why? Because not since the industrial introduction of Crude Oil, which determined the mass production of the combustion engine, plastic and many medicines, has there been such a “disruptive innovation”, with the potential to displace more technologies than any other innovation in history.
Just like plastic can be molded into infinite shapes and printed for multiple uses, digital technology can be applied to almost everything. It’s versatility and pervasiveness probably makes digital the “Crude Oil” of the Future, which is why it’s important for every brand to begin surfing the digital wave and prepare strategies to leverage digital technology in as many ways as possible.
Consider where athletic footwear companies would be today had they not adopted plastic, and where will they be tomorrow if they don’t embrace digital? After all digital technology is all about enhancing performance of product, manufacturing and sales. There are signs of the digital adoption everywhere; the question now, is not if a product will go digital but when and how.
Look around and see how traditional print is being replaced by on-line subscriptions, or books and maps by digital e-readers and navigators. How the flood of digital cameras has re-energized the industry.
Not to mention the telephone that was once digital and is now “Smart” and the similar transformation which is happening to watches (which were displaced by the cell-phone).
Digital technology appears to be adding value to almost all traditional products and user experiences.
So what about footwear design? With shorter lead times and fewer legal performance requirements and restrictions than cars, the big athletic footwear brands have already been able to quickly meet the new emerging consumer needs in this developing digital age.
It’s already been many years since athletic footwear and fashion brands began reaching the new digital consumer online through digital platforms such as social media sites, or offering interactive consumer experiences such as Nike iD. Even luxury brands such as Burberry’s have recently introduced digital technologies to their fashion line, bridging the gap between software and hardware by using RFID (radio frequency identification) tags that allow consumers to learn more about their product by scanning it past an in-store interactive screen, their iPad or iPhone.
Following the path of music players started many years ago Adidas miCoach and Nike + has already developed many generations of digital hardware transmitters for their footwear. Chips which allow footwear to be connected to the Internet, or smart phone with applications providing interactive training plans.
So what other directions will footwear design take to stay culturally relevant in this digital age? Additive digital technology such as 3D Printing is the most likely option. Additive digital technology would bring a new level of consumer experience with enhanced interactivity, allowing consumers to easily design and customize their own footwear designs. Not only, but 3D printing and knitting could create localized production and eliminate costly and polluting product shipping.
Short of an energy crisis happening, all product will be inevitably adapted and designed for a place in the digital age. Every thing will be interconnected to a digital interface and probably the Internet. Sports Equipment, Fashion Accessories, Furniture, Eye Glasses, Clothes, probably even Food, the only question is when and how? For Eye Glasses the digital innovations already range from variable focus electronic lenses by PixelOptics
to Google’s Project Glass augmented reality eye wear.
With vast applications, Digital Technology is becoming an enormous all pervasive tsunami of disruptive innovation and although surfing it will be exhilarating, will our lives ultimately be easier and freer and a what cost?
“Every action has its pleasures and its price.” ― Socrates
As with other disruptive technologies such as plastic and the combustion engine, do we have enough control, or understanding of the social, environmental, heath and political consequences of Digital Technology?
Will our use of energy and natural resources increase in order to sustain our digital consumption and will there be increased negative environmental impact. How much digital innovation will be iatrogenic (create more problems than it solves), and can we expect a hangover after this frenzied party?
With “I” and “Smart” becoming the 2 most common terms used to describe digital product, we should be careful to ask ourselves if the products we design and buy are ultimately as “Intelligent” or “Smart” as they should be?
In this incredible journey of digital discovery, I would argue that we must not lose sight of the fact that intelligent product is not just digital, but all products which offer additional benefits.
A pragmatic design approach, conceiving products which are created intelligently and which exceed the needs of consumers.
For example holistic design directions, creating product with added benefits such as being environmentally friendly to sustain nature, or which also benefit marginalized groups outside of the traditional brand-consumer circle.
Social Entrepreneurship fashion brands like TOMS Shoes and Inkkas have shown that good design is also compatible with social benefits.
To stay culturally relevant in this digital age brands will need product that is not necessarily digital, but above all it must be intelligent.