15th International Bicycle Design Competition and Principles of Design

by Sabinna on December 31, 2010

Well here we are at the end of 2010 with production in Taiwan’s bicycle component production in absolute overdrive for the 2011 model year. Holiday time is still some way off since everyone is racing to meet deadlines before Chinese New Year which will fall on Wednesday February 3.

This marks the start of an official 5 day holiday break although everyone starts to go home the day before New Year’s Day. Production will come to a halt for this period, with pressure to meet deadlines for some factories resulting in them cutting the break short.

The New Year period for me marks the final countdown to the Taipei International Cycle Show (Taipei Cycle) which is due to start on Wednesday 16th March. I have two models to be officially released then and have been working closely with the graphic and color designer to complete the designs for both. With that done, the next step is a visit to the decal company and get these produced ASAP so I can get a painted prototype done.

With design uppermost in my mind, in this post I want to consider design issues in broad terms and then in specific terms.

The famous designer Dieter Rams has put forward 10 principles which go into a good design across the board. Lets consider bicycles generally from this point of view and then, since the final phase of the 15th IBDC is coming up — as part of  Taipei Cycle 2011 — the design criteria to be applied in coming to a decision in that case.

The 10 principles (+ 1)

Dieter Rams’ 10 ‘commandments’  are that good design:

  1. is innovative with technology being key here, although innovative design and technology are very closely linked.
  2. makes a product useful
  3. is aesthetic
  4. makes a product understandable–the product explains itself to its users in a sort of intuitive sense
  5. strikes a balance between # 2 and # 3 ie well designed products dont make themselves the center of attention but strike a balance between being useful and being beautiful
  6. extends #4 where a product say nothing more or less about itself than it simply is
  7. is long lasting
  8. is exhaustively thorough
  9. is environmentally friendly
  10. is minimal, simple and pure

There is, potentially, an 11th category possible here — the market. If a product sells like hotcakes, can it be thought to, therefore, satisfy these design principles? For example, how could the mini-(folding) scooter craze of the late 1990s be interpreted according to these principles? Was good design behind this, or incidental to it?

The scooters themselves could be seen to rate highly on each criterion. But then again, it would depend on what sub-criteria apply for each of the main criteria — each is general in its overall scope and separate scales of value could be seen to apply for each. Lets have a look at this taking the basic safety bicycle design as the subject.

The 10 principles and bicycle design

1. The bicycle was innovative since it led to the Fordist factory model which defined much of the 20th century mass production model. It provided the incentive to construct roads which encouraged the development of the automobile. The industry at the turn of the 19th century supplied the technology leading to powered flight — the Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics. Since then, though, technology has been adapted in various ways to produce variations to the modern (stagnating?) design.

2. Useful. To a degree. I recall a US statistic that for distances more than 5km, the incidence of journeys made by bicycles drops away sharply in favor of motor vehicles.

3. Aesthetic. The English proverb ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ applies here. This is where you would need a specific set of sub-criteria to help decide what ‘beauty’ means for the bicycle.

4. Not necessarily. Everyone comes to the bicycle having seen other people riding, so a new user can not come to it intuitively on its own terms.

5. Definitely true, although modern high-end racing machines with the slick graphics and deep carbon rims certainly can be loud.

6. Point 4 applies.

7. Certainly, provided basic maintenance is regularly carried out (although I will qualify this in an upcoming post dealing with cheap utility supermarket-bought bicycles).

8. Most certainly.

9. Not so fast. Bauxite refining for aluminium has its problems. Carbon frames will remain carbon frames for an extremely long time. What is the carbon footprint of bicycle components manufacturing at all levels, be that ‘hand made’ or otherwise? And there is the misery of the rubber plantations established to supply the vast demand for bicycle tires during the 1890s bicycle boom.

10. I guess so. Many aspects of bicycle manufacturing, assembly (front derailleurs!), maintenance, and cycling technique  can be quite complex though.

So the bicycle overall can be said to rate quite highly on Dieter Rams’ scale of good design. But much depends on how you interpret each criterion.  Is there an objective threshold that the bicycle can be said to pass and thereafter be declared ‘good’ design according to these principles?

But bicycles are as much about components as they are stand-alone units. You enter a whole new level of complexity when considering components through the lens of these 10 principles. A main complication here is that a part only has meaning and relevance in how it works with other components.

An important consideration is if you were to actually follow these principles in designing anything, how would you go about it? Looking at them overall, they are rather non-focused. I think they suffer from what many attempts to “codify” creativity actually end up dong. That it, they create rules for processes after they have happened. In other words, the rules are created looking from the present back to the past with 20-20 hindsight, something everyone has after the fact.

What is the process followed by the independent frame-maker, particularly the Italian master craftsman? It’s all about a unique process of creation (nobody welds a frame quite like this master…) in which art and technical savvy blend seamlessly together. You would probably get a whole different line up of design principles depending on who the designer-builder is, if they could be at all bothered to sit down and do it.

One other major issue that I can see here is the question as to whether these principles are useful when considering on-going product development. If the safety bicycle can be viewed as a good example of the 10 commandments, how about its evolution, or lack of, in the century following its perfection?

IBDC and principles of design

Turning to the IBDC, the main bike categories are as follows: MTB;  City Bike; BMX; Racing Bikes; ATB; Electric Bike; Folding Bike; Children’s Bike; Exercise Bike. The final category is “other”, which I guess rules everything in.

Here’s  a quick discussion of the criteria the judges will use to make their evaluations. Each of these can be seen to intersect with the 10 commandments in various ways. They stand apart, though, because they have been formulated with a specific industry in mind.  My comments immediately follow the sub-categories. The point to be made is that it is what the judges personally bring to the process as long-standing industry veterans that is probably key here:

1. Innovation: i. novelty of mechanical components iistructure design and appearance.
To make this work, there would be a scale of ranking values, explicitly outlined or intuitively applied, indicating what would be more or less novel. And to what degree would this be qualified by 2. below? For the second “design” and “appearance” covers an extremely broad range of possibilities.

2 . Manufacturability: i. manufacturing technology ii. mass-production feasibility.
The first is interesting since it would appear to rule out any design that however high it might rank on the other criteria, could not be subject to the second. Any design cooked-up in a workshop no matter how high it rated on the other criteria would fall down here if it could not be efficiently produced (3.ii is directly relevant here). Design purists might have some philosophical objections to this one though.

3. Marketability: i. safety ii. cost-effectiveness iiipossibility of being well liked.
This is the one that is not covered by Dieter Rams’ principles.  It would be interesting to see how cost effectiveness (see Wheelbuilding 101, Wheelbuilding 201) intersects with issues, not just of “likeability” but probability of being liked.

4. Other considerations: i. appearance ii. ergonomic considerations iii. drawing/model presentation, etc.
It’s always a bit worrying when you have an ‘other’ put together with an ‘etc’ because it really opens things up rather than sets boundaries, which criteria are supposed to do. It also seems that ergonomic considerations would be a subset of each of categories 1., 2., and 3.

Coming up with principles of this sort is basic stuff. But how they work in practice is the key. What are the sub-criteria that direct the ways in which such principles are to be applied? How do these interact with the particular perspectives of the judges? The ways in which the principles interact with each other will depend on these perspectives in the final analysis.

Anyhow, the criteria give us, who are not part of the decision-making process, a platform with which to approach the designs and draw our own conclusions about them, and of course better refine what it is that constitutes “good” design for each of us.

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A special thank you to all readers of Satin Cesena in 2010 and especially those who took the time to leave comments and suggestions. Thank you all and Happy New Year for 2011 :-)

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