What constitutes good design? A discussion with Misch Sutter from the Helbling Ideation team

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Michael Sutter, industrial designer at Helbling, was for the second time nominator at the latest edition of Design Prize Switzerland. We took this opportunity to sit down with Misch to discuss his role at the award, and what, in his opinion, constitutes good design.

Can you let us know in a couple of words who you are, what your background is and what you are doing for Helbling?

My name is Michael Sutter, but everyone calls me Misch. I’m in the Ideation team and one of the industrial designers of Helbling Technik. At Helbling the Industral Design is integrated in the development processes of the engineering – what I am doing is “Integrated Industrial Design”.

I studied environmental sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Zurich (ETH Zürich) before studying Industrial Design at the Zurich University of Arts (ZHdK). After my studies, I worked for twelve years in a design bureau, where I was responsible for various design projects: furniture, home appliances, health, signaling, and so on.

Seven years ago, I left this position to join Helbling.

That’s interesting, you left a design company to join an engineering firm. What was your motivation for this move?

I was already in contact with Helbling from previous projects, and I knew I could work closely with engineers, especially since I’m very interested in technical products. I also firmly believe that design should be more integrated with the technical phases of product development. When working for a design company, you hand over a design to the engineering team and then have to hope it gets implemented the way you intended it. There is generally very limited opportunity to collaborate with the engineers on the design. In contrary, when design is integrated in the workflow from day one, I can follow the development from beginning to end. Often, one important design task is to improve usability aspects and facilitate handling steps for the user. This requires joint work between engineering and design. With Helbling integrated Industrial Design we have this very close and efficient workflow. We keep moving forward together until we reach a solution that is both technically convincing and well designed.

Such an integrated work is critical to have good design at the end of the day.

So how do you judge good design, personally? What constitutes good design for you?

There are many aspects to this. Good design should be beautiful, convincing, but it should also constitute a good product, durable, environmentally friendly, and successful on the market.

The most important thing in my work is to find the most appropriate design for the company. Every design should be credible, honest and understandable for the user, but beyond that the look of the product should show where the company is going. The appearance of each of its products shapes the image of a company.

What was your role at Design Prize Switzerland?

I was again one of three nominators in four categories: investment goods, consumer goods, lighting and young talents. Anyone with a project can submit it to Design Prize Switzerland, as long as the project has a link to Switzerland. Our role was to review these projects, and in each category select the five best, which we then presented to the jury.

You talked before about what good design means for you. Did you have additional criteria to judge the Design Prize Switzerland projects?

I was looking at three dimensions: the design process, the relevance of the product, and finally the creation quality. I was looking for innovative products, where the designer had a high impact and came up with a convincing end-product, all the while developing something important for society and with which many people will interact.

The hardest part with this contest is rating and ranking very different projects. In investment goods, for instance, we were comparing new materials with agricultural equipment, industrial machines and vehicles. We always end up comparing apples and oranges, which is a challenge.

You mentioned that there were two other nominators. Were you always in agreement? If not, were there recurring causes of disagreement?

Since we’re dealing with design, all judgments were personal opinions; we didn’t apply a score system. Disagreements came from different opinions on what constitutes innovation, what is relevant for society, or what is interesting at all. However, even though we weren’t unanimous on all projects, we managed to come to an agreement and present our top picks to the jury.

Are there any projects that excelled for you, on a personal level?

In the edition of 2017 I loved a metal lamp, whose lampshade also serves as cooling for the LED. It is a reading lamp, so a very simple, traditional device, however it is executed in a very modern way, with a very high quality while remaining minimalistic.

I also liked a lot the Giruno train. It is very functional, has a very high quality of realization while remaining simple and beautiful. In that, I think it is representative of Swiss design. Swiss design is not expressive. It is simple, factual, down-to-earth. The Giruno train is true to these values while still being a beautiful object.

I find there are similarities between Swiss design and other industrial design traditions, for instance Germany, Scandinavia or Japan. What would you say sets Swiss design apart?

There are a lot of similarities between these regions in terms of what we try to express through design. Each one is based on a separate artisanal tradition with distinct roots. Some years ago we were working with different techniques, materials. But it is true that the differences tend to get eroded in our globalized world. The fact that the same global players are known everywhere means that the design is also gradually converging all over the world.