Designing for the modern human

When Bret Recor was brought in by Away to design a new suitcase, he wanted it to be more than mini storage on wheels. To Recor, the founder and creative director of San Francisco-based design firm Box Clever, the product also needed to be functional for living as a human on the move in our modern world.

In 2015, with the help of Recor and his team, Away launched a line of luggage that was not only sleek and durable but included portable power for charging mobile devices and lockable flat-fold zippers. It addressed two critical needs for travelers — staying connected and secure. 

Since its launch, Away has become one of the most successful modern luggage brands on the market, achieving unicorn status — a term given to companies that reach valuations over $1 billion — by the end of the following year.

“We didn’t try to reinvent the suitcase,” Recor says of his company’s work with Away. “it was more about looking at what the needs are today and adapting.”

That’s the lesson for companies of all sizes and across all industries. Consider the changing needs and behaviors of end users — whether it’s a customer, client, or employee — and design products, services, and spaces to adapt. 

Flexibility has become especially critical in an era where work, home, and playare more intertwined than ever before. Designers are now being called on to create products and spaces that can be both customized and personalized for today’s modern demands.

Why configuration will be critical

Recor’s firm operates at the intersection of industrial design, brand strategy, and investment. Much of his work has been designing products, but his award-winning design agency has also undertaken projects in furniture, lighting, brand experiences, structural design, and a range of digital initiatives.

The pandemic forced people to think more about their surroundings: Doing a cardio workout in the living room or hosting a work video conference in the garage has given people a new perspective on how to use their space.

As a designer, Recor is interested in that balance of work and life, and believes space plays a significant role. He says configuration and flexible work settings will be increasingly important for people who spend the majority of their day in a workplace environment.

“A lot of it has to do with being able to perform in a wide range of environments. That’s where we’re seeing a need to have more hyper-flexible configuration.”

– Bret Recor

“Once you make a rigid structure, unless you’re constantly monitoring and trying to fine-tune it, it gets difficult for employees to flow and evolve and modify for certain activities, like teamwork or isolated work,” Recor says.

Configuration options are also key to improving user experience. In 2020, Recor’s business-to-consumer design company launched the July air conditioner. The window-mounted unit can be adapted to fit different window sizes, and comes with changing faceplates to hide the mechanics and match a user’s home decor. 

The design solution made a traditionally cumbersome product adaptable to be beautifully and seamlessly integrated into people’s homes.

“We wanted to take an inactive object and turn it into something that is more of a celebrated piece of decor,” says Recor. “With July, we said, ‘You have to have this thing in your window, so how do we improve the experience?’ We improved the installation … and made the front face interchangeable so that you could put whatever material or color you want on it so you’re not looking at vents in the middle of your precious space. For us, it was not just trying to solve a problem, but instead thinking about how it could be made to live with you better.”

The push for personalization

Configuration may be the foundation of designing a product or space today, but personalization makes it successful and sustainable. It’s about giving people what they want and the ability to change when they want. 

Recor says the challenge designers have is bringing personalization into their work to provide a high-quality experience and build customer loyalty over time.

“You don’t just design a solution; you design a relationship. It starts with a product or service, but it’s going to grow over time. And that’s how you succeed. You have to continue to move the relationship forward.”

– Bret Recor

Consider retail as an example, says Recor. When customers buy a product that eventually needs support, how the brand plans their support engagement dictates the overall product experience. In cases where companies automate help using robotic dial-in options that are difficult to use, the relationship with the product changes because the customer can’t speak up and feel heard. Organizations should think about the entire lifecycle of a product or space, and think about every touchpoint a person has with it.

Recor is bullish on opportunities with the workplace and suggests it’s time to rethink how things have been done historically. 

“Take what direct-to-consumer brands are doing with customer engagement and flip it on its head with the office,” he says. “If the product is flexible, rather than buying it, maybe you subscribe to it as a service. Then when you want to change something out, or something breaks, it becomes a little bit more circular.”

For designers, that means really understanding what gets used and what doesn’t in a space, and then swapping components in and out on the fly. “Maybe you need more storage and fewer chairs because people are standing more,” he says. “Or maybe you need more lounge areas because a lot of people want to sit, but you didn’t originally configure it that way from the onset. You should get more active engagement versus hearing ‘I hope we get this order right and everyone likes it, and if they don’t, we’ll tear it out in a year and do it over again.’”

Recor says global issues like the pandemic and climate change — and the need for organizations to respond — are a call to action for designers to create products and spaces that are both functional and sustainable.

“Designers, in general, want to figure out how to make things better,” he says. “With everything that’s happening in the world lately, it’s pushed us to rethink a lot of things at once. It’s given us a lot of freedom to make larger strides. I think what we’re seeing here is the beginning questioning of established methods and the lifestyle that we’ve had for a long time. It’s pushing people to rethink and to try to find ways to solve different problems.”

Bret Recor, founder and creative director of Box Clever, is one of six design Iconoclasts DIRTT interviewed on why adaptable design matters.
Bret Recor, founder and creative director of Box Clever, is one of six design Iconoclasts DIRTT interviewed on why adaptable design matters.

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