Giving Your Product Personality

Polly Britton

By: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Product Design

22nd November 2017

All products have personality, whether it’s a sleek, modern smartphone or an industrial, rugged drain cover. The “look” of a smartphone is carefully crafted by its designers over weeks or months; while I suspect the drain cover engineers just made a cast iron plate to do the job and added some texture to the surface so no one would slip on it.

No matter how ‘everyday’ a product may seem, each engineer designs with the end-user in mind and how they would ultimately “feel” when they look or use the final product. Don’t believe me? Do you not feel the safety of added grip when walking over a drain cover’s embossed grooves? And we all get a feeling of excitement when we hold and use the latest smartphone. It’s all these major and (nearly almost always) subtle characteristics that create emotion and defines a product’s personality.

What personality should you give your product?

The kind of personality given to a product can depend on a number of things.

If the target customer base is mostly composed of a particular gender or age group, or defined by some other common characteristic then that might make a big difference to how the product looks and how it is marketed. Razors for women are pink and sleek. Toys for children are vibrant and simple. An expensive sports car has to look fast, to the point where the shape of the car might actually be less aerodynamic.

You might also think about the location and situation the product will be used in: if it’s the kitchen, the product should look “at home” among other kitchen appliances and furniture, just like a hand-drill should not look out-of-place next to other tools and workshop equipment.

You also have to take the company’s branding into account, whether it’s your brand or your client’s brand. Brand recognition is very important for business so a product might have to look instantly recognisable as belonging to that brand. But branding is not just the colours and shapes the brand uses, it’s the overall character. Is the brand accessible or exclusive? Modern or traditional? Playful or serious? Think about how the company brands itself compared its competitors.

These are just some of the biggest considerations. There are many more! Not all of them will be relevant to every product and in some designs one will take priority over the others.

Some products are more ambiguous, like Coca-Cola, which is broadly appealing and instantly recognisable, no matter the age, gender, country, profession, or situation. I think this is only possible because of how old the product is; everyone already knows what it is and what it’s for because it has remained largely unchanged for over one hundred years. Compare this to Diet Coke, which is directed at young women so successfully that The Coca-Cola Company invented Coke Zero so men could have a low-calorie Cola drink too!

How do you communicate personality?

Let’s take a look at the Cubert desk lamp, a Colebrook Bosson Saunders product with the electronics designed at Plextek, for modern hotel rooms and offices. Cubert has a simple, modern look to compliment a computer monitor, TV screen, or phone that might be on the desk with it, and the devices that will be plugged into it. This is achieved with the square base, the slender stem, and flat, adjustable head. It is coloured in neutral tones so it will not clash with any colours in whatever room it is in. The light tones also give the impression of light itself, since white is the most reflective colour.

Here is an exercise I find fun and useful: if Cubert was a person, what kind of person would it be? I imagine a man in his twenties wearing a clean white shirt, no tie, likes to solve Sudoku puzzles on his phone and is easy to talk to at parties. This is not to be confused with your target demographic; it’s just a way to start thinking about personalities.

If you want to develop your intuition about product personality, start by paying attention to the products and brands all around you. Look at the furniture in your home, the packaging on your food, and cars on the road, and think about their human characteristics. It can help to compare products that serve the same purpose that look different. For example, the shape and packaging of Cadbury, compared to Galaxy, and compared to Hershey’s. Starbucks compared to Costa, and compared to Café Nero.

“Personality goes a long way”

One of the exciting things about product design is that a small spark of inspiration near the start of a project can have a big influence on the finished product. For this reason, thinking about personality early in a project can elevate the final product from something that functions as it should, to something eye-catching or delightful or so at-home in its environment that you barely notice it’s there. However, you always want your customer to feel a positive emotion when they see your product and you can prod them in the right direction by adding personality.

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All products have personality, whether it’s a sleek, modern smartphone or an industrial, rugged drain cover. The “look” of a smartphone is carefully crafted by its designers over weeks or months; while I suspect the drain cover engineers just made a cast iron plate to do the job and added some texture to the surface so no one would slip on it.

No matter how ‘everyday’ a product may seem, each engineer designs with the end-user in mind and how they would ultimately “feel” when they look or use the final product. Don’t believe me? Do you not feel the safety of added grip when walking over a drain cover’s embossed grooves? And we all get a feeling of excitement when we hold and use the latest smartphone. It’s all these major and (nearly almost always) subtle characteristics that create emotion and defines a product’s personality.

What personality should you give your product?

The kind of personality given to a product can depend on a number of things.

If the target customer base is mostly composed of a particular gender or age group, or defined by some other common characteristic then that might make a big difference to how the product looks and how it is marketed. Razors for women are pink and sleek. Toys for children are vibrant and simple. An expensive sports car has to look fast, to the point where the shape of the car might actually be less aerodynamic.

You might also think about the location and situation the product will be used in: if it’s the kitchen, the product should look “at home” among other kitchen appliances and furniture, just like a hand-drill should not look out-of-place next to other tools and workshop equipment.

You also have to take the company’s branding into account, whether it’s your brand or your client’s brand. Brand recognition is very important for business so a product might have to look instantly recognisable as belonging to that brand. But branding is not just the colours and shapes the brand uses, it’s the overall character. Is the brand accessible or exclusive? Modern or traditional? Playful or serious? Think about how the company brands itself compared its competitors.

These are just some of the biggest considerations. There are many more! Not all of them will be relevant to every product and in some designs one will take priority over the others.

Some products are more ambiguous, like Coca-Cola, which is broadly appealing and instantly recognisable, no matter the age, gender, country, profession, or situation. I think this is only possible because of how old the product is; everyone already knows what it is and what it’s for because it has remained largely unchanged for over one hundred years. Compare this to Diet Coke, which is directed at young women so successfully that The Coca-Cola Company invented Coke Zero so men could have a low-calorie Cola drink too!

How do you communicate personality?

Let’s take a look at the Cubert desk lamp, a Colebrook Bosson Saunders product with the electronics designed at Plextek, for modern hotel rooms and offices. Cubert has a simple, modern look to compliment a computer monitor, TV screen, or phone that might be on the desk with it, and the devices that will be plugged into it. This is achieved with the square base, the slender stem, and flat, adjustable head. It is coloured in neutral tones so it will not clash with any colours in whatever room it is in. The light tones also give the impression of light itself, since white is the most reflective colour.

Here is an exercise I find fun and useful: if Cubert was a person, what kind of person would it be? I imagine a man in his twenties wearing a clean white shirt, no tie, likes to solve Sudoku puzzles on his phone and is easy to talk to at parties. This is not to be confused with your target demographic; it’s just a way to start thinking about personalities.

If you want to develop your intuition about product personality, start by paying attention to the products and brands all around you. Look at the furniture in your home, the packaging on your food, and cars on the road, and think about their human characteristics. It can help to compare products that serve the same purpose that look different. For example, the shape and packaging of Cadbury, compared to Galaxy, and compared to Hershey’s. Starbucks compared to Costa, and compared to Café Nero.

“Personality goes a long way”

One of the exciting things about product design is that a small spark of inspiration near the start of a project can have a big influence on the finished product. For this reason, thinking about personality early in a project can elevate the final product from something that functions as it should, to something eye-catching or delightful or so at-home in its environment that you barely notice it’s there. However, you always want your customer to feel a positive emotion when they see your product and you can prod them in the right direction by adding personality.

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Further Reading