Who plays the biggest role in making an object lovable

You know an object is well-loved when its absence is truly felt if it’s removed.

Designing a well-loved product is hard; producing and selling one is even harder. Donn discusses the various stakeholders involved in making an object that people love, and how big brands like MUJI and Apple are closing the gap between objects that designers love and objects loved by the general public. Donn also shares the approach he takes when designing products people love, and how to design something that people don’t know they miss.


  • It’s both the design and marketing arm’s responsibility to find a balance between human use and marketability, to ensure that the products are things people will love
  • Big brands have an important role in influencing and educating users to have a better discernment of objects that they choose to put at home (e.g. MUJI, Apple, Xiaomi)
  • There used to be a clearer distinction between objects that a designer and the general public would buy, but it’s slowly shifting closer together
  • Sometimes things goes in cycle, and people flip flop between wanting minimalist or simple and something more visually interesting
  • Minimalism isn’t just blind reduction, but it’s getting to a point of no more no less, and it’s very difficult to achieve because even the slightest tweak tips the balance
  • Even when a well balanced minimalist design is achieved, problems also arise in producing it in large quantities—simple is very expensive to make
  • In Donn’s approach to designing things that people love, instead of starting off on a rational problem-solving angle, he looks at possibilities by observing things that people tend to gravitate toward
  • For example, pain points of a coffee machine include dripping or ease of use (which may have already reached innovation saturation), but a possibility to push is whether coffee machines are social enough
  • When possibilities and tested, and then taken away, that’s when people feel the absence—in essence, try to design for something that people don’t know they yet miss
  • Sometimes these speculations don’t come to fruition, but when they coincide with a latent need, that’s where it resonates

Full Transcript

Doing products like Apple’s products, sometimes to a designer it’s like, oh, that’s just a box or that’s just a filleted square. And it seems almost easy to do. But to get it produced at that kind of perfection is what most companies don’t have the resources to pull off. When we are gunning for possibilities, it feels initially a bit frivolous until users get used to that new provision, then when you take that away, now it becomes problematic.

Is it up to the business side to determine or find a balance between something that is marketable and sellable, attractive in the sales space, and finding that balance with something that is appropriate in the home setting? Or is it the responsibility of the designer to fight for designing for something that’s appropriate for the actual use case?

Sounds like it’s everybody’s job, right? The designer always thinks that maybe the perpetual struggle of this is the designer feeling, why is the client like that? Why is the marketing team always asking us to make all these things so that they can shout better? But at the same time, the realities are, if the object doesn’t really shout, it doesn’t get sold. So you know, I always think that it’s both the responsibility of a designer to try to influence and educate the clients or maybe even users.

But I think brands and what they decide to do have an important role to play here. There are some brands that successfully do this, like MUJI is able to, over time, through its brand and philosophy, educate and help people prefer a product that is not shouting at you. But most others are not doing that. And this is a huge effort on their part right, to educate customers and to have a better discernment in terms of what they choose to put in their homes.

So yeah, so it’s a lot of work on everybody’s part, in order for this kind of thing to work, and that’s why you always see that like, hey, this thing ah the designer will buy, this one normal people won’t buy. So that’s the thing, right, but that’s because the designer is maybe slightly more attuned to buying things that are less designed. And then the public yet is like, I got to buy that because it’s calling out to me at the shelf.

I do see, slowly the shift, though, towards the so-called designer-esque product, that I feel like it has become a bit more commonplace. Like with brands like MUJI, right?


And even Xiaomi.

Even Xiaomi, yes.

And it’s all like very clean and something that like, oh, it looks very designer-ly, but actually it’s very mass market and buyable.

There is a shift. And I think that’s because, you know, different companies are doing quite a lot of work in this area to slowly educate. Apple is doing it a lot. MUJI is doing it a lot. I think they play a big part. As well as maybe sometimes things just goes a bit in cycles.

People are getting a bit sick of all the highly shouting-at-you things and then they kind of want to revert to a bit of a time of simplicity. Maybe at some point in time they’ll get a bit bored and they want kind of like, can we have a bit of interest in this?

For me, I always think that minimalism, for example, is not really a blind reduction. You don’t just reduce it to like a sphere or a square then it’s minimalist—it’s not, that’s just geometry right?

I think it’s about just getting to a point whereby it’s enough to delight, and no more no less.

So that’s hopefully where we trend towards in that swings of going a bit more expressive to a bit more subverted—or not subverted, but subtle—we hopefully swing towards something that is a calm but not boring.

I guess with this so-called minimalist products right, and designing just enough. When something is just enough, then do you think that there’s still space then for other products, like new innovations or new designs? When something’s already, okay it’s designed to be just enough, then yeah, is there still space for creativity and innovation in the same product line?

Woah doing the just enough is very difficult to do.

So actually, usually when there’s less to design, less to work with, you’re dealing with nothing decorative that tries to catch your eye. It’s all in balancing that proportions or that small little curve, or even the texture, or even the edge, or even the finishing that causes it to feel nice. And that is actually a lot harder.

Sometimes it’s so hard that it’s even beyond the designer. What I mean is this. It’s easy for a designer to say, let’s keep it very nice and neat. But to try to produce that in a factory is another challenge altogether. And that’s why doing products like Apple’s products, sometimes to a designer it’s just like, oh, that’s just a box, or that’s just a filleted square. And it seems almost easy to do.

But to get it produced at that kind of perfection is what most companies don’t have the resources to pull off. So actually simple is very, very expensive to make. And the creativity shifts from decorating, it shifts from decorating to figuring out how to solve this so that it’s makeable. Or how to invent new ways to make things so that these simple things can be derived.


On the key steps on creating a lovable product.

Maybe in terms of the design process or approach, are there any key ingredients or key steps that you take as a designer in first approaching a project where you want to make products that people love? Are there any key steps you take?

Yes, I do have. Maybe I’ll try to say some things that other designers might find relevant to consider. I started off, maybe like a lot of designers, trying to find rational anchors for the reason that we do something. And sometimes we’re hoping that we can find a problem that human beings face or a pain point or frustration. And then it feels like that’s where to begin to design something delightful for people. So I’ve done that for many years, and limited my processes to that somewhat, because it felt like only that was justified.

But then I realised, you know, after encountering more work and learning from more people, and maybe just the last eight, nine years, that the issue is users, and even designers sometimes, they don’t see the problems that are not obvious. Meaning that they don’t see possibilities. And many times, when we are gunning for possibilities, it feels initially a bit frivolous. Until users get used to that new provision, then when you take that away, now it becomes problematic.

So I think, for me, I try to start with that point where I will see what normally people gravitate to, even if it’s an object that it’s not supposed to deliver that aspect. And I’ll ask myself if—an example might make this clearer. Like, a coffee machine, right? If you take a coffee machine, and you try to figure out what’s the pain point, then people will start to deal with things like drips or clarity of usage. And I think that, yes, we can work on that, but sometimes actually, some things are really evolved so much that they are quite good. You don’t have to further push this.

But if you ask another question, instead of going from pain points, and say is a coffee machine social enough? Does it promote friends and friends drinking together? This is a dimension that you will never find by talking to people saying what’s the problem you have with your coffee machine? And maybe it points to a new way to see such an object. And if we extrapolate to the future whereby indeed there’re coffee machines that are so good for friendship chats, or like a shared cup, for example, then now if you take it away, now it feels like this coffee machine is a bit cold.

So problems and possibilities are actually two sides of the same coin.

But for a start, like myself in the earlier years and also like many other designers and students that we see, they may feel like a certain kind of assurance and confidence by sticking to what feels like rational, obvious problems. So that’s where I would say, I usually try to start first so that I don’t fall into the usual, to me boring, approach.

From what you described, it sounds like kind of finding a thing that people don’t know yet they miss.

Yeah, you have very sharp words. I mean, it’s also kind of like that faster horses thing, right, it’s back to this thing. You sometimes need designers to purposely play this role, to ask the question. But no, we’re not naive about this. When we ask these questions, many of the times, the speculation is nonsense, you know, it doesn’t land anywhere that’s resonant with people. But I think it’s a more interesting way to do things.

And if you think enough in this area and explore enough, we could find ways that are potentially resonant, where it meets a latent need that is not very obvious.

Desiree Lim, Kevin Yeo, Matthew Wong


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