Friday, May 15, 2009

Kick Axe: the eulogy

The Kick Axe..I wish I'd come up with the name. So something that you learn as a designer of things is that rarely, if ever, does the actual merit of the design have much to do with whether it is successful in the market place. Yet, as you also learn, you are often blamed for that lack of success. Conversely, and predictably, you are rarely rewarded when it is successful. Since it is often the sales team, the marketing team, the company president, your immediate supervisor who takes credit when its being dispensed. We are often like Milton waiting for the piece of cake and getting to the end and having nothing left. But I digress a bit. This isn't about credit, this is about the failure of the development process with respect to getting good products to market.

My part in the kick-axe, as designer came after a false start by the design group where the first aesthetic and mechanical design did not resolve several key problems. As a result it was postponed, sent back into orbit until another development cycle began. That is when I jumped on the project team. The original aesthetic language was scraped. I fell back to a suite of design cues that had been established for the brand. I began again. Engineering was simultaneously working on solving and refining the mechanical and safety issues with the original design. In tandem we developed a new design. The design above was a push and pull between engineering and industrial design. Where I had very clear visions of what this would be like, what it would feel like to hold, swing, and fold, engineering had specific mechanical requirements, manufacturing requirements and costs that constrained their ability to meet my aesthetic vision. this is often frustrating as a designer. Most often, particularly if you don't work for Apple, or Ferrari, the cost constraint is often the most prominent, most pervasive, and constant drag on innovative aesthetic and creative use of material. I hate cost ceilings. By the same token, it is often the source of great creativity. When I was racing in Italy as a junior, my coach and I were riding past an old church steeple that had a modern, almost skeletal renovation that was a clear result of not having a deep budget. 'Being poor forces you to be creative' he told me. I knew exactly what he meant. Not only had the church steeple made the point, but my year of scraping, working and sweating every penny had been what got me to Italy. I knew what being poor would do to a person. And creativity is but one reaction.

The kick-Axe design team surmounted a number of design challenges; aesthetic, ergonomic, mechanical, and personal. Despite the doubt of some in the group the tooled sample pictured above made its way into the hands of product reviewers, magazines, PR folks, bloggers....everyone loved it. Everyone was excited and intrigued. This is the first really new look for an axe in a long time. The design itself isn't exactly a totally new idea, but in its current iteration it represents a step forward. We won an award from Adventure Magazine for gear of the year. It was placed in several publications like Men's Health, including blogs like Uncrate. There was clear demand for the product and it got canceled, by a corporate attorney who felt it was unsafe (news flash: we specialize in sharp pointy things). It was unilateral.

It is frustrating to be at the whim of others, no matter the situation. As a designer, in a corporate setting, I don't really get to pick what things I work on or don't work on. It is a challenge therefore, to find 'reason' to work on something. A reason to care, a reason to want to see an idea through to the market shelf. Besides the notion of doing a good job, I want good product out there. I want my hard work to result in something that someone really, really loves and cherishes, using it as it was intended, and owned proudly for years. That's the goal. So when a product like the Kick-axe is canceled despite what I believe to be a great design, it is galling.

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