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When form follows function – designing a bike rack the Thule way

What makes a product a Thule product? Is it the way it looks, or the functionality? Or is it a combination? Henrik Ericsson, Global Design Director, explains how design is central to product development.

It all happens in Hillerstorp, the small town in southern Sweden where Thule was founded. Design, product development, testing – and even manufacturing of several components all happens here. Henrik Eriksson has been with Thule for several years and has been involved in the design of many classic Thule products.


Henrik, in many ways it is a different workplace now compared to when you started, right?

It is. Hillerstorp has always been the heart and soul of Thule, but the expansion the last few years has been fantastic. It is a great thing to have these facilities here, where we can take an idea and realize it in a finished product.

Many people think that designers do most of their work at the beginning of a project. How true is that?

It is actually very far from the truth! We are involved in all stages of product development. I think that many people see product designers as some sort of architects that make the blueprints in the beginning and then leave the construction to other people. But our work here at Thule is teamwork, where several departments cooperate at all stages. As designers, we support wherever we can to make the final product the best it can be.

Thule products look cool, but they are not all about the looks. In fact, the visual design is sometimes secondary?

True. I mean, take a bike rack for instance. It is a specialized tool that helps you bring your bikes with your car, and it needs to be safe, versatile, durable, and easy to use. So, the number one thing that dictates what it looks like is its functionality. That’s where we start. Product design is so much more than visuals – it’s about how you interact with your bike rack, how you use it.


What is it about the design that unifies Thule products that range from strollers to cargo carriers? What is the uniting factor between these different products?

The question is really if there is a Thule design DNA. I would say that there is. We have put a lot of work into our design framework, creating a set of design principles. A philosophy for how we do things at Thule. The thing is, you need rules to help you along the way. Guidelines. Not something you need to follow so strictly that it stops you from being creative, but something that puts you on the right track.

Coming back to bike racks, we know that they will look very different depending on if it is a towbar mounted model or a rooftop model. The functionality dictates the form. And that is important. It needs to be tailored. When someone sees the product, they should instantly realize what the product is made for.

But both models of bike racks will still share several design features. We talk about integration – that’s how we try to find harmony between different materials, and to enhance the functionality. We want to add tension to create dynamics and energy. We accentuate edges and lines to connect different design elements. And of course, there are many things to consider when it comes to sustainability. Not adding anything unnecessary, keeping the weight down. Choosing durable materials.

The way the end consumer experiences this is... well, there is a special feeling you get with something that is tailored to a specific task. It feels just right! Like the difference between a tailored suit and something from the discount rack. Both will be wearable, but you will want to use the tailored one, for sure!

And the way we want this to work for our products is that they should look like they belong to the same family, but also feel connected. A reassuring quality, an intuitive feeling for how it’s used. And our philosophy really helps us get there.

Do you always get your way, as designers?

No! But that’s not the point, really. We are in it together.

 

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