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What does it take to design a desirable bicycle?

Ward Vancoppenolle

Senior Industrial Designer
If you think abstractly about bicycles, you could state that they are basically frames with attached bicycle parts, often in loose combinations from different manufacturers: wheels, handlebars, brakes, drivetrains, etc. In essence and without any doubt, bicycles are a very technical product. Yet, that’s not how customers perceive them. With so many shared components between them, why are we instantly drawn to some bicycles and not to others? What makes a bicycle desirable?
It's certainly correct to say that this initial attraction is heavily influenced by the looks or aesthetics of the bicycle. You either love it or you hate it, we all find ourselves attracted to objects that move us emotionally. But to sustain and nourish this emotional connection into true desirability, there should also be inherent functional value. For instance, a minimalistic urban fixie bicycle might look intriguing but won’t convince you in your search for a grocery bicycle.
In fact, making a bicycle truly desirable is a conscious balancing act between aesthetics and engineering, looks and functionality. This balance is defined by the following four aspects:
Four aspects
1  There should be an emotional connection, a feeling of attraction at first glance.
It may sound buzzworthy, but the looks of a desirable bicycle should grab your attention within a timespan of five seconds. Because it takes less than five seconds for emotions to form. These are intangible forces to be aware of. Knowing what does and does not contribute to a strong emotional response requires a keen eye and extensive design experience.
2  The appearance should accurately convey the purpose and performance of the bicycle.
The way the bicycle looks, or its aesthetics, will evoke certain expectations about its purpose and performance. Just from looking at the bicycle the cyclist should be able to imagine the role it will play in their life. Imagine the shapes and curves of a time trial bike that express speed. Only after there’s a match between a cyclist’s need and a bicycle’s promise, desirability comes into play.
3  The conveyed purpose and related performance should be inherently there.
The cyclist’s expectations need to be met during the first ride experience, otherwise the cyclist will decide against the bike. Consider a sturdy looking integrated rear rack with a load capacity of only 5kg, disappointing and rather useless for carrying groceries. Any initial setback will be very hard if not impossible to revert. A designer needs to be aware of this substantially decisive ‘feel-factor’.
4  Only a positive user experience leads to sustained desirability.
Once a cyclist has purchased a certain bicycle, its performance in itself will be the key driving factor of sustained desirability: its ease of cycling, its robustness, its overall handling, comfort, safety, ease of maintenance, etc. all contribute to the joy of cycling, owning, maintaining and holding on to the bicycle for a long time. Any disappointment will be shown by the layer of dust it’s covered under, ageing in the garage.
In order to land on a truly desirable bicycle design, all four aspects need to be taken into account. You will find that some designs are more successful than others in this regard, it’s easier said than done. Throughout the development process there are 4 challenges that arise:
Four challenges
1    Working with intangible concepts.
Empathy is a core characteristic of an industrial designer, to get a good grasp on the needs, desires and expectations of the user. And to capture the right emotions that a client wants to evoke with their brand and product. These are intangible concepts, making them hard to clearly grasp and define, yet they cannot be tossed aside. They’re the vital starting point of every design process. Achilles Design has multiple tools and techniques to capture and work with these intangible concepts.
2   Formulate fitting design drivers.
These intangible concepts get translated into design drivers that relate to both the engineering and aesthetic requirements. This process is based on both practice and experience. In essence you’re describing and prioritizing the key properties of your bicycle. These should steer you in a dedicated direction and serve as a guide throughout the development process. All of the design drivers need to be present in the final design. At the end, they will make the difference, they will turn your bicycle into something your target audience truly desires.

What makes a bicycle truly desirable is very dependent on the user expectations and the needs of the targeted cyclist. If a design doesn’t strike the right chord it might be that the designer has missed some of these marks or that the design simply wasn’t intended to speak to you.

3   Find the right balance.
Engineering and aesthetics requirements are often contradictory. It’s therefore key to get the priorities straight at the beginning, these will guide you towards the right design decisions throughout the development process. Ideally you want to look for those design solutions where engineering goes hand in hand with aesthetics, but sometimes you’ll need to compromise. This balancing exercise is further complicated by the interconnectedness of things. To illustrate, selecting a more powerful and therefor larger motor will change the proportions in your frame silhouette, forcing you to revisit previous design decisions. In practice the search for the right balance is a highly iterative process.
4   Maintain this balance throughout the development process.
The industrial designer is uniquely positioned to both define and safeguard this delicate balance between engineering and aesthetics. Throughout the development process of the bicycle multiple stakeholders come into play: suppliers, manufacturers, distributers, etc. Each one working within their own preferences, restrictions and capabilities. During a development process, unexpected things may pop up that have implications on the design. For example, when a section of tubing needs to be altered because of sourcing issues or when a material finish proves to be too costly, the designer needs to come up with an alternative solution. To many, this iterative process of defining and revisiting may sound exhausting, to us it’s second nature.

The design process of a desirable product should always start with the clear identification of the needs, desires, and expectations of the user. It’s a constant balancing exercise during which conscious engineering & aesthetic decisions need to be taken. The right balance is found when these needs and expectations are both conveyed and fulfilled in a compelling way in the final design of your product.

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Ward Vancoppenolle

Senior Industrial Designer

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