interview

 

The Itinerant Expert
Product designer Philippe Guichard

 

On a crisp spring morning in 2004, in the glass-enclosed auditorium of the Savoie Technolac, a large technology park at the southern tip of Lac du Bourget in southeastern France, a middle-aged couple approached a young designer named Philippe Guichard with an attractive proposition. Guichard had just completed a presentation of his portfolio—he’d been one of three featured presenters for the early program. From the audience, they had listened to him describe his work in a polished, succinct manner, setting a professional tone for the gathering. Afterwards, he took his seat and remained silent. His colleagues, by contrast, baited each other competitively, jockeying for dominance; the two quickly lost their audience when they descended into an embarrassing public quarrel. Contests of the ego had never appealed to Guichard, but good design and respect for his audience did.

The couple watching was impressed; they had a complicated project on their hands, already halfway developed, and needed help to complete it. This confident industrial designer from Chambéry, now drinking coffee in the wings of the auditorium as his co-presenters continued to bicker, seemed preternaturally wise and perfect for the job.

Guichard, now 42, is a tall, rangy fellow and his face shares some of the weary sagacity as that of the French movie actor Jean Reno. When wrestling with a design challenge, he has a habit of knitting his fingers together and pulling them back tightly through his hair. Though his mind is perpetually sharp, he often appears short on sleep. Today, recalling that serendipitous meeting in 2004, Guichard views their collaboration as a success—an elegant execution of his clients’ needs. “But,” he added, without a trace of arrogance, “They should have found me sooner.”

Guichard then described a perennial obstacle for those of his professional ilk—the nearly universal misunderstanding of what an industrial and product designer does. “Typically, clients call designers because a product doesn’t sell,” Guichard said.  “So they expect the designer to apply a bit of “make-up” so that it sells better. But that’s not design. It’s style, which is just part of design. There’s a misconception that a product designer hasn’t a clue about engineering; I may not be an expert, but so many times I have proven them wrong. They get so focussed on the details they can’t see the big picture. ‘We have to build a car,’ they say, ‘so we’ll work out the frame and engine and the gears and the wheels. When all of that is done, we can call a designer.’” Like a surgeon delivering bad news to an anxious family, he shrugged. “At that point, it could be too late.”

The husband and wife had been operating a prosperous mechanical engineering studio. They’d developed a new scheme for a therapeutic rocking recliner, inspired by a device from the 1960s that helped Russian cosmonauts reacclimatize to Earth’s gravity after prolonged missions in orbit. The science behind the therapy was proven, but the couple felt the chair had untapped potential as a luxury health instrument for use in upscale salons and spas. They had already worked out the mechanism, but their expertise, such as it was, ended there. They needed Guichard, they said, to design what covered it—the materials, surfaces and controls that would make it beautiful and on par with the calibre of its intended surroundings.

“The product was sound from a technological point of view,” Guichard said, “but from the standpoint of marketing—of the product design and the consumer—it didn’t make any sense yet, and they were aware of that. That was good. What they hadn’t discovered, however, was that the rocking mechanism—the heart of the device—would work even better if the components were inverted.”

Even so, the end result was nothing short of extraordinary. Guichard’s design for the “Swave” chair is sleek, elemental and subtly futuristic-looking, like concept furniture from an early-era James Bond film; its undulating form prompted industry comparisons to the work of celebrated designer Philippe Starck. That aesthetic simplicity, however, belies a lengthy series of painstaking, iterative sketches and calculations. The design is unique and utterly new—to a good measure, the rule by which Guichard calibrates his own creative expectations.

“With any product, I do my own market studies,” Guichard says. “I like to spend time with salespeople; they’re on the ground and have close contact with customers—the people who use things. There’s the intended use of a product, but how do people really use it?” He illustrated his point with a bottle of water. “I might design this vessel to be grabbed here,” he said, pointing to the bottle’s midsection, “but you picked it up at the neck—so what does that mean? As a designer, I may have my own ideas about how an object should be used, but often the customer does something completely different. You don’t get that information from the typical marketing study.”

Guichard used a metaphor to elaborate: “I drive my car while looking forward, to see what’s coming and anticipate what may happen. It’s been my experience, however, that a lot of marketing experts focus on the rear-view mirror. In struggling to look forwards, they look only where they have been. There is a time in the design process when you have to do that, but if that’s all you do, you won’t be innovative or have any breakthroughs. As a designer, I look forward.”

Guichard was lucky to be given a commission early in his career that involved him from the very start of the creative process, giving him the broad latitude he believed necessary to guide the design. In his mid-twenties, he was entrusted with the design of a bicycle that would eventually be integrated into metropolitan public rental systems throughout France. It thrived from the start, and was adopted by nine different cities, including Bordeaux.

In reviewing Guichard’s portfolio, one is struck by its diversity of products and professional roles: a pistol-grip spectrophotometer device for accurate matching of dental implants; an aquarium with invisible filtration and lighting mechanisms; a handbag design for the luxury brand Louis Vuitton, and a consulting role as a design trainer for Salomon, the French sporting equipment manufacturer.  The variety of the projects may be impressive but, according to Guichard, this is largely the consequence of what his clients have in common—a willingness to embrace the full spectrum of resources a product designer offers.

“The industry really doesn’t matter nearly as much as the client,” Guichard says bluntly. “Some of them will be bold, and respond well to my design strategies and new ways of thinking. That is exciting to me. But I am happy to provide my expertise to all businesses. At this point in my career, and with the experience I’ve developed, I have complete freedom to choose.”

 

–Peter Sackett

 

Check Philippe’s resume here.

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