How Logitech Designed a New Future for Themselves

Wednesday, July 29, 2020
Nick Williams

If you’re a gamer or even just a regular PC user, chances are you’ve used at least a couple of Logitech devices before. Hell, you might even still use an 8-year old Logitech controller to play games on your Rasberry Pi. The fact that an old, greasy controller still works great speaks to the design philosophy of most hardware companies, where the unspoken ethos seems to be functionality above everything.

However, that 8-year old Logitech controller is a product of a previous generation: A generation of products engineer-centered and lacking thoughtful, user-centered design; ultimately resulting in all of the hundreds of thousands of discarded old webcams and keyboards cluttering the basements of families across America.

People bought Logitech products because of their low price-points and acceptable quality—not because they were exciting or cutting edge.

But what happens when a competitor enters and completely disrupts a market?

What happens when they begin to reveal products that DO consider design, combining ease-of-use and functionality with imagery and hardware that appeals to a wider audience than just PC users who need a set of unspectacular computer speakers that hit the target baseline of “getting the job done?”

What happens when you go against a competitor that can produce glossy, trendy advertising campaigns littered with young millennials enjoying their new MP3 player poolside in Ibiza while listening to Mac DeMarco?

Where does that leave companies like Logitech? Unfortunately, the answer is firmly and unanimously “in the dust.”

Enter, Bracken Darrell

Up until recently, Logitech was considered a computer peripherals manufacturer, betting big on the continued stability of the home desktop market. But with the mass-advent of products like the iPhone and iPad, PC desktop sales dropped significantly in 2008 and so too did Logitech’s numbers.

Instead of betting on the purebred, award-winning favorite Logitech bet on the stinky, beaten-up old packhorse—resulting in the company seeing a steady decline in revenue, with a particularly disastrous dip of 10% between the years 2009 and 2010.

While the company was producing solid and functional hardware for PC users, design-centric companies like Apple was shifting industry goalposts. PCs were no longer mainstream and they were definitely no longer considered sexy or cool.

By 2013, Logitech was getting their asses kicked. So the company brought in their current CEO, Bracken Darrell, to help guide them through the dark ages and back into the hardware and peripheral “spotlight.”

Today, according to Darrell, instead of being a computer peripherals company, “we peripheralize cloud-based services.” Honing a more design-centric approach, Logitech goes beyond PC and into the market of wireless and Bluetooth products.

A new design era 

When Darrell was brought into Logitech, he was not simply tasked with modifying the development process of Logitech’s hardware. Rather, he put a series of changes into motion that would alter the company’s entire landscape, and ultimately, its fate.

Darrell’s most significant initiative has been to transform Logitech into a design company. His first official step was to reallocate company research and development funds to hire an actual design team.  

For decades the company had outsourced design to external firms, something akin to hiring a fashion consultant for yourself: they might pick out the coolest, most trendy clothes for you to wear—but your style will never possess the same soul as if you picked out your own outfits.

Recruiting talent from IDEO, Samsung, LG, and Nike, Darrell’s new design team is currently still led by Alastair Curtis.

Curtis gained recognition while working at Nokia where he was the lead designer of the Nokia 3210, credited with completely revolutionizing the cell phone—transforming what was a boring, practical tool into a trendy, cool accessory that every man, woman and child in the world wanted.

Darrell and Curtis began righting Logitech’s sinking ship by asking a deceptively simple question about every single Logitech product and service: “Who is the human need behind it?”  

Or in other words, how can we create products that fulfill a certain meaningful function and experience for the consumer?

These questions specifically are at the center of Logitech’s development processes—and on a broader scale, should be at the center of any successful design-based company. Even though they seem intuitive, almost obvious, they weren’t always central to Logitech’s company.  

When a huge company corners a particular sector of the market based on their engineering prowess alone—these types of design-centric questions can easily fall by the wayside in favor of best practice documents and checklists. For Logitech, it used to be “how can we create a product that achieves our goals and benchmarks” rather than “how can we create a product that satisfies the needs of the customer?”

Darrell has emphasized that one of the main failings of an engineering-based approach to design is focusing too much on adding features and innovations, which ultimately results in a watered down product—a jack of all trades, master of none.

Using a design philosophy approach, products need to accomplish one major goal, or “big idea” concept, and accomplish it perfectly.

As Mark Wilson points out in his article for Fast Company, “Logitech was notorious for releasing new products simply to release them, designing products to price points rather than consumer needs or tastes. Curtis’s job was essentially to inject a design sensibility into a company renowned for $15 dishwater-gray mice.”

Today, each product is designed with a single “big idea” and sense of purpose. However, since Logitech has several use cases, there’s no singular design language for all of their products. This is because, as Curtis explains, the company is still designing “magnetic” products,  “minimalism is beautiful, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to gaming. There’s a high degree of expression.”

For example, a hardcore gamer will need more complex features and options on their keyboard, for managing shortcuts and macros, than a doctor will need on their keyboard. They’re also going to look for different aesthetics. Both people are potential Logitech customers, and both need products that will consider their needs, without being bogged down with a bunch of extra keys and options or other flashy features they won’t ever use.    

“Spotlighting” design

The concept of the human experience forming the nucleus of product design is perhaps no more apparent than in the design of Logitech’s PowerPoint/Presentation controller, the Spotlight.

Presentation remotes have existed for almost as long as people have been delivering PowerPoints in front of bored employees. And yet, not many have really put any thought into making them more functional or more pleasurable to use.

The Spotlight’s “big idea” is not that it is simply a remote for controlling a presentation. Rather it is an advanced wireless pointer system designed and marketed as a tool to help eliminate the fear of public speaking.

It does so by considering some of the core issues presenters may face in front of an audience. For one, it connects instantly and effortlessly with most devices by Bluetooth, or USB receiver, and also offers an impressive 30 meter (roughly 98 feet) range to present in. For context, the closest competitor products clock in anywhere between 20 to 50 feet.

The Spotlight marks but one new design focus for the company. In a move demonstrating a reallocation of their design efforts, Logitech acquired audio device maker, Jaybird, back in 2016 to further ‘amp up’ their Bluetooth-based music-listening products.

Finding “soul” in design

“Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”

– Steve Jobs, Fortune, 2000

In a very enlightening keynote address at the 2018 TNW conference, Darrell thoroughly describes his perspective on the progress of design in the technology development industry. He explains how he and Curtis looked to Dieter Rams’ 10 principles of design to revamp Logitech’s own development philosophy.

Darrell starts off his presentation (sporting a Spotlight, mind you) admitting that it wasn’t at Logitech where he discovered design but instead while he was president at Braun, the same company Dieter Rams is credited for the success of its early design.

Having spent time at Braun, Darrell may have a unique relationship to the heritage of Rams’ principles, but really any designer worth their salt should have at least a working understanding of them: after all, they have formed the foundations of design-centric business since Rams released his manifesto in the 1970s.

Darrell and Curtis were mindful of tradition but also wanted to re-imagine the principles—to modernize and adapt them in a way that would consider Logitech’s identity and the needs of its customers. And so, Darrell and Curtis created their own principles:

Idea—This is the big idea behind the product.  Each concept needs to have one essential nucleus.

Soul—Building upon the idea, a product can’t simply be a laundry list of features hobbled together to create one haphazard Franken-webcam. Each product needs to have a unique identity.

Crafted—Superficial features and unnecessary functions lead to bad products. Products need to be refined, perfected, and reduced to their essential functions.

Effortless—There can’t be any friction between the end product, the user experience, and the big idea. The soul of the product needs to permeate every layer of its lifespan, from production all the way to consumer use.

Magical—A user’s relationship with the product needs to be creative, expressive, and fun.

These five tenants allow for experimentation, malleability, and room for human error. They prioritize the development of products for the sake of solving a human problem or delivering a particular curated experience. This approach ensures that Logitech can forge and maintain a positive brand image in the eyes of consumers. 

Although Logitech has seen an unbelievable quadrupling of their profits since Darrell’s onboarding, he would be the first to admit that they still have a long way to go before becoming a fully design-centered company.

The dining room table mentality

In the introduction of his TNW keynote speech, the Logitech CEO goes on to explain that he has a strong belief we’re all intuitive design thinkers and goes on to highlight what he considers to be the three historical steps in design-centered thinking:

1. Legacy: How companies approached things before Rams and his contemporaries revolutionized design in the 1970s. Design was the last step in any product’s development and was basically just a superficial coat of paint applied to entice consumers.

2. Current: The modern design philosophies underpinning development for most companies. There are some shifts towards building products with big ideas and human experience as central governing principles, and design-based thinking is slowly becoming the norm.

3. Future: “Design Everywhere”—companies imbue design principles into every facet of their organization, from bookkeeping to engineering, to development. The result is companies that can capture, and maintain that early startup soul and excitement that inevitably tends to erode with upscaling.

The idea is that the key points behind design-centric thinking, human experience, and big ideas, should permeate every single facet of a successful company. Marketing, sales, and QA should incorporate the same philosophies as engineering and development.

Darrell points out the problem in maintaining this approach is that these types of ideology shifts are extremely difficult to incorporate while maintaining a company’s identity. This is doubly the case with large legacy companies, like Logitech.

Darrell asserts that the soul and the structure of tiny startups are what every larger company should strive to recapture,“look to the small unit of work for the best practices,” he encourages.  

In terms of design, small startups are certainly at an advantage, because that “sitting around the dining room table” mentality permeates their every decision.  

But what happens when one table turns into two, and then two turns into a separate table for marketing and a separate table for engineering and a separate table for sales? And then all of a sudden the company’s soul is fractured into a million, non-communicative pieces, all aiming to achieve intangible goals and benchmarks?

What happens is that you become Logitech, circa 2013: a behemoth breathing its last gasps, trying to stay relevant in the wake of younger, more concise competitors.

It’s still a work in progress, but a future where human experience and logical design permeate every aspect of tech production seems to be on the horizon.  

And, considering Logitech’s miraculous turnaround and the quality of their new products, we should be excited. I’m sure many gamers never thought they would see the day where they PREFERRED using Logitech peripherals over first-party accessories—and that speaks directly to the inspiring strength of Bracken Darrell’s philosophies.