Rakmun Bryant-Vick is a Stanford-trained Product Designer with diverse design and manufacturing experience, but he also drew the banner for this site. At one of his many remarkable positions, Rakmun became a Design Engineer responsible for the budgeting, sculpting, safety, function and prototypes for 30% of the Burger King Kid’s Meal toys produced – over 24,000,000 units per year. Rakmun is now seeking to further broaden his creative and professional horizons by attaining a Master’s Degree in Industrial Design while continuing to build his professional portfolio with freelance work. He sat down to talk about his process.
Eno Sarris: That’s a nice banner, but you also call yourself a freelance product designer. What exactly do you do, and what do you want to do?
Rakmun Bryant-Vick: There is definitely a long answer, that involves the details of my design process and there is the short answer… I’ll try to keep it short, my job as a product designer is to monetize ideas. Kind of a crass way to put it and definitely an oversimplification, but in the end that is the long and the short of it.
I call that definition crass because it overlooks an important facet of design: in my opinion, for a design to be successful, it is equally important that a designer create social currency from the initial idea as it is that they create the traditional green-stuff. So for instance, the banner I did for you, no one will come to your site for the banner (maybe my wife), but, hopefully, the banner makes them feel that they have come to the right place.
If it does this it does it by virtue of social (and cultural and psychological) cache of the artwork. While this logo capitalizes on images in the collective conscious it also contributes to that consciousness. In this way design creates not only stuff, but the context for that stuff. That is where things get interesting, exploring that is why I am going to school, freelancing, breathing, etc.
Day to day I am making observations, collecting insights, researching new technologies and mock up ideas through sketching, prototyping and 3d modelling.
Eno Sarris: I’m a concrete thinker, but your statement about design creating stuff as well as the context for that stuff is very interesting to me. Can you describe another project you’ve done where that aspect of design came to the fore?
Rakmun Bryant-Vick: As part of Equity Marketing I worked on the Burger King Kid’s meal toys, one promotion in particular, for a video game called Viva Pinata, actually required context creation in order to be successful, this is not always the case. This was a few years ago, there was a cartoon tied to the property as well, but we were focused on the game.
The holy trinity of fast food toys is composed of driving traffic to the restaurant, helping entertainment companies to build buzz around their intellectual property (such as Iron Man, or in this case Viva Pinata) and, of course, providing children with a little bit of joy and/or magic. The toys are free to the kids, so there is a very real imperative to meet all of these goals as efficiently and at as low a cost as possible. In retail, similar goals are achieved often through the use of new technology, but when you are giving something away new technology is often not cost effective. So cost is a major constraint (the other constraints are cataloged in the tome of regulatory guidelines for children’s products).
For Viva Pinata, the creative team and I had as an additional challenge the fact that neither the cartoon or the video game had been released yet. This presented 2 big problems: first, there was no social cache around the Viva Pinata characters or story and 2, we had very little idea of what the storyline was or what the relationships between the characters were.
So, the challenge was, how to make a free toy that will be exciting to kids when kid’s have never heard of the characters before and you have don’t know the storyline. The brief we received from the marketing team suggested capitalizing on the surprise factor inherent in the ‘pinata’ concept. Our creative team came up with the idea of a stuffed animal that folded into a ball. The child would get the stuffed animal in ball form then turn it inside out to reveal the animal. The plush nature of this concept would allow us to leverage the “cuteness” of the animals, get some surprise factor and the nature of plush is that you can get a lot of color for free (for hard plastic toys you have to pay for each color, FYI it’s about a third of cent), which was seen as another important trait of the characters or at least the limited artwork we had for them. The nature of the toy itself: colorful, soft, with a little surprise inside, creates its own context, its own setting. No back story is necessary if the child has seen a pinata before.
So problem solved, right? Wrong, of course, the stuffed animals were too expensive. We all went back to the drawing board. I began to think about what a pinata was: a container; where you see it: parties. I looked at the cost estimates that I had put together, looked at the marketing input: color, surprise. Then I asked myself what is the simplest solution that meets these criteria? Pinata’s are inherently colorful and kids like candy, but paper mache and candy are not sanctioned for use in Burger King Premiums. Then I thought well what about a simple pinata-like plastic shell that holds a party toy, in-lieu of candy. Party toys, flip books, paper yo-yo’s, kazoo’s, etc. are all quite inexpensive to manufacture, which freed up some additional funds for decoration to the outer pinata shell.
Client liked it and we were into steel 3 months later and in kid’s hands 9 months later. We kept the elements of the plush that leveraged the little social cache inherent in the pinata aspect of the property: color and surprise. And we crafted the nature of the surprise so that it was consistent with the property and figures, but did not depend on the backstory attached to those figures. You don’t need to know about the fudge-hog (looks kinda like a hedgehog) in order to play with the stickers that came inside him, you just need to like stickers.
Kind of a mundane example, but I think it illustrates the mechanics of how this can work fairly simply. All of Apple’s I-products also do this, albeit much more effectively and profitably. The Ipod and Itunes interact to this same end. When the Ipod came out most digital music out there was illegal. So the relevant context for the Ipod would have been largely illicit and therefore marginal, but the Ipod is not stand alone, there is Itunes. With Itunes the user not only has a way to organize their music, but also the point of purchase (how many more clothes would you buy, if your closet was also your favorite department store, or every department store there ever was?). The user interface of the Ipod itself encourages the user to take advantage of the inherent benefits of digital music files with the playlist creation features, allowing for the user to personally invest in the product. And then there was also the arresting and iconic advertising. So, where other MP3 players failed, the Ipod succeeded because it made itself relevant and the sum of it’s features speak to some inherent socio-psychological value of the item, some social cache. The Iphone and the Ipad have used more or less the same design/business model and have obviously been quite successful.
As a designer I think Apple could have gone further in defining the world in which there products sit if, for instance, they had some sort of end of life scenario worked into their designs. What is the relevant context for a 1st generation Ipod whose harddrive stopped spinning in the Bush years? I don’t think anyone at Apple gave it much consideration, I suppose in the course of designing a new framework for the consumption of pre-recorded musical entertainment for the Western World some things got dropped. It’s easy to make light of, but it is getting harder and harder.
Eno Sarris: Describe another particularly rewarding project you were involved in and how this fits into your philosophy of design.
Rakmun Bryant-Vick: That is a tough one, mostly because, while individual products can be more or less interesting, it is the process that I find exciting and rewarding. Hands down the most rewarding design experience that I had was the design of a Halloween candy bucket. Pretty boring, I know, but it was exciting because in about 30 seconds I solved a significant problem that could have lost us the account.
Basically, they wanted a bucket that folded up, in past years the buckets did not fold. The buckets had to have graphics on them and you can’t print on folding buckets. I suggested that we do a hybrid bucket that was mostly fabric with a plastic handle and frame, to give it shape. It was very satisfying to understand a challenge clearly and immediately see a solution and, then see that solution implemented and on the shelves that next Halloween. How does that fit into my philosophy? It doesn’t, it actually flies in the face of it. This describes one of those lightbulb moments that people usually associate with a good idea.
Of course, what I am not describing here is the process after I had the idea and everybody agreed it was a solid direction. We then spent another half an hour discussing other solid directions. Then we ran some costing, looked at samples and made prototypes. After reviewing and looking at a slough of ideas, mine happened to fit the bill, get chosen by the client and then get produced and onto the shelves. So, although I can draw some satisfaction from coming up with a good solution right off the bat, we only had confidence that it was the right solution after iteration and exploration.