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issue: December 2007 APPLIANCE Magazine

Designing for Cultures

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by Adite Chatterjee, India Correspondent

Despite globalization, cultural identities remain entrenched, calling for appliances with unique features.

Liebherr’s Perez agrees that the how and why of usage are critical cultural elements in product design. Observation of wine and food consumption in Europe and the United States led Liebherr to develop a refrigeration unit that combines food and wine storage all in one. The result is the SBS 245, a 48-in., side-by-side refrigerator-and-wine-cooler with five separate climate zones—two for wine, two for refrigeration, and one freezer, with other features such as energy-efficient LED lighting that is cool to the touch and will not overheat bottles. “While in Europe wine is almost a must with meals, in America it is more of a luxury drink and it’s done with friends,” says Perez. “The wine-cooler-refrigerator combination appeals to American users’ desire for entertainment. This product has found a perfect fit with American lifestyles.”

As the global urban culture takes root, we are beginning to live, work, and play in identifiably similar ways. A perfect scenario for a marketer of appliances that sells its products across different continents, right? Perhaps.

There is a flip side, though. Even as people become more international in their outlook, cultural identities remain strongly rooted.

Consider what Melody Roberts writes about the cultural factor in designing appliances in Loop—the AIGA Journal of Interactive Design Education (August 2001 issue): “Products of industry do not carry the same meanings from place to place. While a food processor in Massachusetts may be considered a time-saving device for housewives—to be stored in a high cupboard—the same appliance in France may sit on a kitchen counter and provide indispensable service to a professional chef. The same appliance may remain boxed in an Indian dining room showcase as a sign of affluence while a family servant grinds food on a stone so as not to consume expensive electricity. It is these culturally idiosyncratic considerations—not just of aesthetics, engineering, or marketing—that precisely describe the success and failure of artistically rendered and cleverly engineered artifacts all over the world.”

Roberts’ food processor example presents a challenge that increasingly transnational appliance manufacturers must contend with.

The solution would perhaps be to offer a single food processor design that could be sold to the Massachusetts homemaker as well as the French chef and the Indian housewife, with a few modifications. So while the American model would be easy to clean and store, the French one would include a durable motor and the Indian version could have an attractive display feature.

“Variable meanings” for different cultural contexts is at the heart of all consumer appliance marketing. Appliance marketers have to juggle with context-specific considerations.

“The context of operating environment comes into play—the interface with electricity; its availability, and quality become key issues in many developing countries,” says Shantanu Das Gupta, vice president, marketing, Whirlpool India. “In the West, power blackouts are rare, whereas here we have to build appliances that are robust and can withstand power fluctuations.”

Space is yet another constraint in most developing-nation homes and, for that matter, even in urban homes in the developed world.

“In India, the desire to buy appliances exists but the major barrier in owning them is the space constraint,” says Das Gupta. “Washing machines are often kept in bathrooms, balconies, and even in living rooms in many Indian middle-class homes. As a result, appliances not only have to be durable but color and aesthetics also become significant factors in the appliance-buying process.”

Small changes in features can make a significant difference to product sales.

“Rather than reinvent the wheel, we believe in adding customizable components to address local needs,” says Hari Nair, Whirlpool’s director, global consumer design, Asia.

One such component was the addition of the “roof rail,” which enables consumers to store towels, cutlery, and assorted kitchen items on the sides and roof of the refrigerator.

Another product innovation from Whirlpool is its pedestal refrigerator model—a refrigerator that is literally mounted on a stand. This feature was added after Whirlpool designers observed that most Indian homeowners would mount their new refrigerator on a stand to enable easy sweeping and mopping of the floor directly underneath the appliance.

What’s more, Whirlpool decided to add a drawer under the refrigerator so that consumers could use it to store onions and potatoes, and thus keep them away from pests. While such need-based features cannot be expected to drive refrigerator sales for Whirlpool in India, the fact remains that when a consumer goes refrigerator shopping, such a feature could make the Whirlpool brand more attractive.

Unique Solutions for Small Spaces

Halfway across the world, in North America, the Germany-based appliance group Liebherr is also working on the challenge of offering customizable solutions to different consumer segments. Though separated from their Indian counterparts by thousands of miles, American consumers living in urban apartments in New York City or Los Angeles face a similar constraint: lack of space.

“Traditionally, and given the average size of the homes and shopping patterns, the U.S. market has preferred big-size appliances, whereas in Europe the smaller sizes are preferred,” says Marc Perez, vice president, marketing, North America, Liebherr Group. “Now, plenty of baby boomers in the United States are going back to the downtown areas. We looked at the major metro areas such as New York, Miami, Boston, and Chicago and recognized a market for smaller refrigeration units, such as 30 in. wide. This has proven to be a major success. Since the refrigerators are sometimes placed in open kitchen spaces that go into the living room, there is a need for quiet appliances. Plus, with the increasing climate change concerns,
energy-efficient models are preferred.”

Small living quarters can be found all over the world, but different peoples find their own methods of coping. China’s largest manufacturer of white goods, Haier, was quick to make the most of an
opportunity. It realized that a significant segment of users of Chinese compact refrigerators are college students who live in tiny apartments and also own computers. The company introduced a line of refrigerators with two wooden flaps on the sides that could be folded out to make a computer table. The computer can be stored on the top of the refrigerator and the flaps folded back when the extra space is needed in the apartment.

Electrolux’s annual Design Lab competition has showcased conceptual, futuristic-looking appliances that were inspired by long-established cultural behaviors. The Nevale, winner of the 2006 Design Lab competition, was developed by Turkish student Metin Kaplan and is based on the shape of an antique food container named sefertas. This type of layered food container has been used in Middle Eastern countries for centuries to carry homemade food.

For Distinct Culinary Habits

Culinary habits that are peculiar to certain cultures also present an opportunity for marketers to modify existing appliances to meet local needs.

LG, the Korean transnational maker of consumer electronics and appliances, has succeeded in several markets around the world by offering special features in their refrigeration and kitchen appliances.

Kimchi is a must in Korean homes. Made from fermented cabbage and seasoned with garlic and chili, it is served with most meals in Korea. However, when it’s stored inside a normal refrigerator, its pungent odor taints other foods. To counter this problem, LG Electronics introduced the kimchi refrigerator, with a dedicated compartment to separate kimchi from other foods.

In Iran, consumers can buy an LG microwave oven with a preset button for reheating shish kebabs, a favorite dish with Iranians. LG’s Primian refrigerator for the Middle East market has a special compartment for storing dates.

LG has smaller freezer compartments in its refrigerators sold in India because Indian families don’t store much raw meat. The vegetable compartment is bigger and, because people prefer fresh foods, the depth is reduced. LG also introduced a one-touch autocook option in its microwave ovens in India, enabling customers to cook food to their preferences. LG says this feature has been crucial in breaking the myth that microwave ovens are unsuitable for cooking Indian food.

The How and Why of Coffee

Appliance manufacturers are often successful at adapting global appliances to local requirements, but these modifications can only enhance the user experience.

Appliances are often employed differently depending on usage occasions within the same country—what Roberts refers to as “culturally idiosyncratic design constraints.” She quotes the example of coffeemakers, which can be both culture-specific and

For instance, electric models of coffeemakers with features such as automatic brewing, morning alarms, and built-in grinders address the needs of many American users for whom convenience and a quick pick-me-up brew are priorities. However, there is another set of users within the United States for whom the ritual of coffee making has its own significance. For such users, a product that eliminates the ritual for the sake of convenience does not offer much value.

As Roberts points out, “The critical cultural factor is not who is preparing coffee, but how and why they are doing it.”

Changing Culture

Over time, cultural contexts are getting redefined. In a paper titled “Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies,” published in the June 2005 issue of ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, the authors Genevieve Bell, Mark Blythe, and Phoebe Sengers write, “If we look at the history of the kitchen over the last century and a half, the following trends emerge. Cooking has been seen as an industrial process to be optimized. Science and technology have become authorities over how people cook in their homes. Although we eat healthier, unspoiled food in greater quantity than has ever been possible before, in domestic cooking technology there has been a strong emphasis on efficiency over quality… In our complex interdependent society, industry has a strong influence on what is cooked. Marketing has become central to American culture, gradually penetrating all aspects of the kitchen.”

Innovation in appliances today is often driven by the quest for greater efficiency. For instance, refrigerators are being designed to automatically make shopping lists and replenish stocks of food that have been consumed. And yet, research suggests that labor-saving devices do not actually save time, and “though work has become easier to do, there is more of it to do.”

Household chores continue to be just that—and new products, while being enormously efficient, have not been able to take the drudgery out of chores. Lars Eriksen, director of industrial design, Electrolux Australia, wrote recently: “Design teams have now to rise to the challenge of identifying and meeting the emotional needs of the user… What we must do now is provide more than functional improvements. There is a point when making a washing machine spin any faster no longer makes sense to the user…Having excellent functionality and attractive design does not automatically guarantee the right user experience, which is why we need to work on all three areas in parallel.”

Moreover, there is a need to take into consideration the changing dynamics in households while designing appliances. Data from the UK suggest that men spend twice as much time on housework as women; they do nearly all the laundry and ironing; they also help with the washing up, tidying, and looking after children. However, these trends are not reflected in terms of many domestic products.

Bell and her coauthors raise a pertinent question: “Imagine for a moment that men really did do twice as much housework as women. What would an iron look like if it were designed for a predominantly male market?”

Similarly, the aspect of making household tasks more enjoyable is hardly being addressed by marketers. “Whichever sex is engaged in housework, neither is likely to enjoy it. Housework is rated low in satisfaction scales across all groups in countless surveys. Making household tasks more enjoyable then is an increasingly important design challenge,” write Bell and her coauthors.

The winner of the 2007 Electrolux Design Lab Competition was Levente Szabó, a student at Moholy-Nagy University of Art & Design in Budapest, Hungary, who crossed cultural lines to develop a washing machine that makes use of the soap nut instead of detergent. The soap nut (sapindus mucorossi) has been used for centuries in India and Nepal to clean clothes. An e-Wash washing machine had to be designed to accommodate using it, but Szabó says a kilogram of nuts would last a typical user an entire year. “The soap nut is a natural plant and can be cultivated,” Szabó says. “It does not harm nature but is a part of it.”

Changing How We Live

Changes are also taking place in the way people live, particularly in Asian countries. The breaking down of the joint family system, however, does not necessarily mean that Asian nuclear families have metamorphosed into American-style families. The extended family continues to play an important role and it is not uncommon to find a family sharing adjoining apartments within the same complex. In-laws and other relatives continue to drop in and out of each other’s homes. In such situations, cooking often takes place in a common kitchen—and appliances therefore have to be geared for multiple usership.

While most appliance manufacturers have been targeting upper-middle-class homes, some are now developing products at the lower end of the market. Philips has developed a stove that addresses the problem of indoor air pollution caused by traditional cooking fires, which are commonly used among lower-income homes in developing economies. The Philips cook stove claims to have reduced the fuel needed (wood or charcoal consumption) by a third. Smoke pollution is reduced as much as 90% compared with a traditional cooking fire, and volatile organic compound emissions are reduced 99%.

BSH Bosch und Siemens Hausgeräte GmbH have also worked on the problem of creating a stove to replace the traditional cooking fire in Third World countries. Its Protos cooker uses plant oils instead of fossil fuels. Plant oils have several benefits: They can be produced locally with low-tech methods, they cause less damage to the environment compared with fossil fuels, and local production boosts the local economy and raises standards of living. (For more on the BSH and Philips cookers, see APPLIANCE magazine Europe Reports in August 2006 and April 2007.)

In fact, a silent design revolution of sorts is taking place in low-tech appliances targeting the vast population of below-the-poverty-line users. In the summer of 2007, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosted the four-week International Development Design Summit to showcase low-tech design and innovations from 16 countries. The goal was to provide solutions to less-privileged users.

A key figure at the summit, Amy Smith, a lecturer at MIT, told the Bangkok Post: “Nearly 90% of research and development dollars are spent on creating technologies that serve the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population. The point of the design revolution is to switch that.”

The summit sought to bring together innovators and designers and help them create workable prototypes through a process of mentoring in a workshop-like environment. The idea was also to develop technologies that could be bought and sold in installments, such as a drip-irrigation system that can expand as a farmer’s income rises.

Consider one such prototype that was worked on at the summit—a cooler that uses evaporation from wet fabric instead of electrical components to draw heat from its contents. The idea came from participants from Tibet, where meat needs to be stored for weeks in isolated rural areas.

Appliances have clearly become an integral part of modern-day life. While it may seem that there is nothing left to invent any more, the sheer diversity of cultural circumstances and human experience proves that appliance designers still have many challenges ahead of them.


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