Personalized Products: The Design of the Times

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Neo-retro industrial. I just made that term up — sort of.

The recent Bell helmet and corresponding advertisement for its “new” metal-flaked, pin-striped, open-face bucket nailed it with the headline “Not Retro. Original.” Original in the sense of being unlike its competitors. The Dodge Challenger, Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro are also nailing the “neo-original but not retro” design market in a down economy. Target’s designer, Michael Graves, also designs gorgeous houseware products along similar renewed lines. Oakley also has shown huge growth in 2009 based on its development of industrially inspired eyewear.

Notice that these are all-American, market-driven companies looking ahead toward a new, younger customer base and a new economy.

In With the New

Perhaps X, Y and baby boomer generations are tired of the planned obsolescence of Bold New Graphics (BNG) each year — aka putting lipstick on a pig (or hog). New models from many OEMs (and apparel manufacturers too) started to look the same in the last few years in a spinning vortex headed toward blended mediocrity. Will a rebound from the economy and the puree of copycat designs force a return to innovative, original design fundamentals and the individuality of today’s riders?

Personalization — or customization if you prefer — is a huge part of American culture, and not just in the motorcycle world. Just check out Nike Customized at www.nikeid.com, Oakley Custom Eyewear at www.oakley.com and Vans Custom Shoes at www.vans.com. No one in America wants to look the same. But the larger the manufacturer the bigger the pressure of reproducing larger volumes of basically the same things. Economies of scale and the pursuit of cheaper prices has sucked the creative elements out of design.

What’s the Next Big Thing in motorcycling? It’s actually very predictable with the increasing quantity of aftermarket accessories and the coming of just-in-time OE manufacturing: It’s personalized motorcycles.

Buying a stock machine, then replacing OE parts with aftermarket ones is a duplication of effort, expensive and a waste. Why not get what you want the first time around, when you buy the bike? You can design your brand-new Mini Cooper online from 10,000 possible configurations and have it delivered to your house or dealership six weeks later. Check out the “Mini Configurator” at www.miniusa.com under “Build.” The company’s tagline for this section is “No two Minis are alike,” proof that it recognizes the individuality of its customers.

Is our industry ready to make it easier on our customers to envision their unique dream bike or outfits before they pay for them? I’d wait longer for something custom and different.

Spotting the Trends

The recession has wiped the slate clean to make room for new inspirations and directions in a renaissance of motorcycle tastes. Racy sportbikes, freestylers, tourers and sport-tourers, dragster Busas, scooters and vintage-looking V-twins have come and will likely remain. But what new categories will be born, and which current categories will grow?

The current adventure-bike category is still small, but it appears to be on an SUV-inspired growth curve due to a rugged, industrial-design appeal and increased accessibility to public lands that a license plate permits. Scooter sales hover up and down, but will continue to have hot spots near college campuses and parking-starved inner cities, and even elsewhere when gas prices soar.

What is coming down the pike for moto and gear design? Rocketeer meets Roland Sands? Hailwood club racer inspires VFR? Land Rover breeds with Super Enduro? JT Racing relaunches camo-military? Icon and Dickies join forces? Fashion and industrial design are fickle things and will always upset those who rest on their laurels. It’s time to see some fresh directions from those who design and build motorcycles, related accessories and gear.

So could we please see what our custom whatever looks like before we write the check?

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews April 2010 issue.