frog Design Mind

From Rain Man to Spider-Man:
A Tale of Two Products


By Adam Richardson

Gillette recently introduced its Fusion razor for men, to inevitable jokes about the jump from three blades to five, leapfrogging competitor Schick with its measly four blades. Really, where will it end?

But this move was so predictable that The Onion mockingly anticipated it a year and a half ago. Predictability is bad for Gillette—it makes Schick s job easier—but it s also bad for us bathroom products consumers too.

I wake up in the morning, I want something that makes me smile a bit before my coffee and gets me going. Something like Alessi s Mr. Suicide bath plug. Essentially a handle for pulling the plug out of a drain hole, he s a cute little blue plastic guy with a Charlie Brown head, X-ed out eyes and gritted teeth. Mr. Suicide drowns under water until you rescue him by emptying the bath. He s morbidly funny, an example of the humor that European design effortlessly pulls off and at which mainstream American products such as the Fusion utterly fail. By contrast, the design of the Fusion is all steroids and turbos, brute force over finesse, void of personality.

Let's see if we can uncover how we arrived at this situation. To assist, I have in mind two films: Rain Man and Spider-Man, and the protagonists in each.

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In Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman played Raymond, an autistic man who could perform amazing feats of memory and counting, like memorizing an entire phone book. However, he would store and recall data apparently randomly, such as repeating the lines to Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine over and over. But his telling of it had all flatness of an Iowa cornfield since he didn t understand the humor driving it. Raymond had instant access to enormous amounts of information, but the meaning was empty to him, and therefore he was unable to respond to it in a useful way.

Let's contrast this with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Spidey has always been one of the darker comic book heroes, especially as portrayed by Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 2, driven by forces that are not entirely under his control. Like his 8-legged brethren, he acts on instinct in spite of better judgment. Most reasonable guys would take Kirsten Dunst over wounds and torn Lycra, right?

Spider-Man is not rational in the normal sense. We admire him precisely because he goes beyond the rational, doing the right thing and winning over the hearts of the citizens, despite attempts by the Daily Bugle to defame him in the meantime.

What does this have to do with the Fusion? It's a perfect example of a product made by a Rain Man company. Rain Man companies are highly data driven, and don't make a move without their tighty-whities being as tight and as white as they can get. You can just see the executives in their conference room sweating the latest metrics. Schick had captured the high ground with four razors, putting Gillette s Mach 3, the Cadillac of razors, into has-been land. The data didn't lie: if three is good, four is better, five must be even betterer. Onward and upward!

Such is the pitfall of Rain Man organizations. Because they have no instinctual insight into information, its larger meaning is lost on them. As a result, they make new gadgets in a robotic fashion, much the way Raymond repeated the lines to "Who's on first?"

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Products made by Spider-Man companies are quite different. They have a personality, an unexpected flavor to them that immediately engages you. Mr. Suicide is a perfect example. Can you imagine Gillette having the guts to bring out something so quirky? Nope, not gonna happen.

The days of one-size fits all products governed entirely by Rain Man decision making are over. Motorola unexpectedly discovered this with the RAZR (but slipped back into Rain Man mode with the ROKR—where it collided head-on with Spider-Jobs). The MINI Cooper defiantly sidesteps the trend of bigger SUV s by injecting bubbly personality—a quality Rain Man companies have a hard time comprehending.

Spider-Man products inspire passion because they tap into people s latent emotions, creating a bond that goes beyond reason. Just as importantly, Spider-Man thinking allows envisioning radically better products. Rain Man thinking is all about benchmarking and making products that are good enough. Spider-Man thinking draws on an a larger vision and says, Don t follow the numbers, make others follow you.

Gillette logically followed three and four with five. Six would be the obvious Rain Man response for Schick. The more interesting question is: which company will embrace Spider-Man first, and do something that makes their competitor irrelevant?

Adam Richardson is Strategy Director in frog's San Francisco studio, where he helps companies identify user needs and new market opportunities.

Read more frog Design Mind. The column appears every Monday on Gizmodo.