Formosa’s SmartGauge design for Ford. Photo courtesy of The Ford Motor Company.

Dwell on Design speaker Dan Formosa is accustomed to swimming against the current. When he co-founded the consulting firm Smart Design nearly 35 years ago, design was typically an afterthought, and the idea of “usability” more or less unheard of.

“We started with a point of view on design that was quite different from how most design was being practiced,” recalls Formosa, a specialist in ergonomics and biomechanics. “In the late 1970s and early ’80s, design was something that was applied at the end. It was totally superficial, like a surface treatment to add perceived value to products.”

Today the firm—which has offices in New York, San Francisco and Barcelona—works with a variety of clients to create “human-centered design solutions” in the healthcare, automotive, digital, and consumer industries. For OXO International, Smart Design has created more than 750 products, like the easy-to-use kitchen tools in the Good Grips line. For Ford, Formosa and his colleagues came up with the SmartGauge, an innovative instrument cluster that provides real-time coaching to drivers to help them save fuel.

He welcomes the “bottom-up” messaging he sees today. Whether through user feedback or Internet searches, consumers now get their information from one another, rather than through “top-down” advertising from the companies themselves. “Because of that, companies are realizing that products need to work,” he says. “You need to get five stars on Amazon. It’s about the experience and usability.”

Formosa laments that many companies still don’t put a premium on what he calls the “full spectrum” of design research. “A lot of product research is based on discussions and opinion-taking as opposed to understanding things like perception and biomechanics. But most people can’t tell you how their hand works or how their eyes work, and why should they?” he says.

Trying to form a composite “average consumer,” he says, doesn’t work. “It’s much more difficult to design for six or eight people that you know, because you’re not generalizing or averaging them into one perfect person. It’s super challenging, but it’s really rich in terms of information, of understanding the advantages and disadvantages of certain designs.”

The innovative instrument cluster he helped pioneer for the 2010 Ford hybrid sedan is a case in point. By understanding physiology and the way the eye works, the team developed an LCD screen that effectively communicates valuable information to the driver about fuel efficiency, namely via a vine on the far right of the screen—depending on driver style, the leaves on the vine will either grow or wither.

Says Formosa, “When you’re driving, your glance time on the instrument cluster can be .2 seconds, because you need to get your eyes back on the road. We designed the instrument cluster to work in your peripheral vision, so all you have to do is glance at it. People are now getting better gas mileage than they were promised.”

Don’t miss Dan Formosa at Dwell on Design Saturday, June 22 on the panel Designing for Real People: The Nuts and Bolts of Social Sustainability.

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