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Well Said

Brief profiles of five Inc. design award winners.

When design works, as it does in the five examples singled out by our judges here, it speaks volumes about a company and its offerings

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Product Design Winner

OXO International
"Without design there would be no OXO," says Betsey Wells Farber, OXO's design director and the wife of founder Sam Farber. After 30 years in the pots-and-pans industry, Sam decided a lucrative niche existed for anyone who could make kitchen utensils that were wonderful to handle, beautiful to look at, moderately priced, and dishwasher-safe. Nine months of design work later, OXO International, in New York City, was gathering kudos at gourmet trade shows with its line of ergonomically sound implements. Inc.'s team of judges lauded the fully resolved, no-detail-overlooked quality of OXO's execution. "It's probably one of the great product contributions in this field in the last 5 or 10 years," commented Gordon Segal.

"Design is our entire competitive advantage," says Sam Farber. Designers are involved at every turn at OXO, from attending trade shows to visiting the factory floor. The three-year-old $5-million-a-year company devotes at least 10% of its annual revenues to ongoing design efforts. Among the financial benefits of OXO's distinctive look and performance are savings in the marketing department. Whereas an OXO competitor might spend $50,000 each for any number of annual quarter-page ads in trade publications, OXO lets its products speak for themselves. Thanks to the media's fascination with OXO's designs, the company has gotten away with an advertising budget of virtually zero.

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Product Design Citation

Recovery Engineering Inc.
The invention of Recovery Engineering's portable water-purification device, the PUR Traveler, represented both a technological and a design challenge. Founder Brian Sullivan knew from the outset that in the gimmicky world of outdoor gadgets, "design is the key. We could have the best technology in the world," he says, "but if it's thrown into a can, the consumer won't go for it. Design is the best way of communicating the credibility of a product to the consumer." It's also, Sullivan insists, the best way to promote the product. "Rather than spending a lot of money on sales and marketing, we differentiate with design." At the seven-year-old Minneapolis company, sales are growing 60% annually on average.

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Communications/Packaging Citation

Mohawk Paper Mills Inc.
Even at $80 million in annual sales, Mohawk Paper Mills, in Cohoes, N.Y., is considered small-fry in the commercial-paper market. A year and a half ago, after six decades in business, Mohawk decided to differentiate itself from its competitors by exploiting design. It redesigned its logo to look "appropriately historical" and to connote the stability of the company, says Laura Shore, Mohawk's manager of communications, and it showcased its products in a sleek, handy specification manual. "Our logo and spec manuals enabled us to surface," she says. Indeed, revenues for 1991 rose 7%, reversing a three-year decline.

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Communications/Packaging Citation

Jordan Sparkling Wine Co.
In the wine business, presentation can play as pivotal a role as taste. Under Tom and Judy Jordan, a father-daughter team, Jordan Sparkling Wine has secured a $2-million foothold in the saturated champagne market, with the help of a memorable bottle, gift box, and logo design. The Healdsburg, Calif., company's proprietary egg-shaped bottles are nearly unadorned except for a large yellow painted-on J. That distinctive identifier is reinforced by the J-shaped opening in the gift box. The design won praise from the judges for its simplicity, uniqueness, and the force with which it announces Jordan's presence.

Environmental Design Winner

Ringer Corp.
We're talking organically correct fertilizer here, not to mention toxin-free insecticides and herbicides that harness insect-fighting agents existing in nature. For Ringer, in Eden Prairie, Minn., design helps educate customers about the advantages of "biogardening" -- with or without its products -- and the way the company presents itself reflects that mission.

"We've always been an education-intensive business," says Rob Ringer, son of the founder, Judd, "because what we're selling is different. People don't know the whole natural approach." Ringer, which now registers annual sales of $21 million, enlightens its consumers with an array of free brochures containing nary a product (or price). To read "Biogardening: A Guide to Natural Lawn and Garden Care" is to obtain a convincing crash course on the benefits of maintaining one's garden au naturel. What do consumers conclude from all this? That Ringer's campaign for ecological sensitivity is genuine and trustworthy, not artificial and seductive -- and that the company is more interested in the quality of its products than in the manipulation of its image. The very directness with which its claims are offered contributes to their credibility. In Ringer's case, design engenders trust.

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