Miscues In A Vacuum

There’s an article over on Ad Age that has me doing one of those eyebrow dances. You know, the one where you’re trying to reconcile what you know and what you’re being told. The article is called “Anthropological Marketing Insights – Why Non-Verbal Cues Are Crucial to Advertising Strategy and Design” (Link) and here’s a couple of excerpts from the piece (btw, you’ll need to substitute “style” for “design” here … as usual):

In other words, if you get the design [i.e. style] wrong, you get the message wrong as well. The design is the message. And no amount of clever words in an ad will override a bad design that communicates an irrelevant symbol.

Dyson vacuum cleaner
For an example of how good design can communicate the meaning of a brand, look no further than the Dyson vacuum cleaner. Commercials for the product got noticed for many reasons, but the design of the vacuum itself became a symbol of its promise to powerfully suction up dirt.


If the Dyson design came anywhere close to Bissell’s or Hoover’s or Eureka’s, do you think its message would have translated so effectively? I don’t. Just as anthropologists have used recognition of designs to navigate unknown cultures for centuries, cultural anthropologists have used the context or layers of meaning within design to bring order to an imbedded culture.

Interesting but as far as I’m concerned the author, Emma Gilding, is wrong in suggesting this was intended.

I recall when Dyson first entered the vacuum market. It was a long time ago and the design language and culture back then was very different. In fact, by the time the Dyson vacuum was being discussed among product designers, most of the people I knew were wondering why it looked so dated (the 80’s design aesthetic had worn thin by the time Dyson vacuums showed up on most industrial designer’s radar in the early 90’s).

The dated design could, however, be explained. This wasn’t some big manufacturer with the ability to keep up with stylistic trends. This was a guy basically on his own. He started the project in 1978! It’s not like he’s going to dump all his work to try to catch up with the style of 1993, which by the way, was trending toward soft, amorphic shapes (a CAD headache for the tools available back then).

The one thing that it did do well was emphasize the staged nozzles. There are other bagless, cyclonic vacuums out there, but the Dyson vacuum is unique in that it stages the nozzles such that there is a greater overall pressure differential. This is what allows it to do such a nice job of “scrubbing” the air. But otherwise, the thing was considered pretty ugly by everyone I knew.

So how did this vacuum succeed? Not by it’s looks as far as I’m concerned. Most people simply didn’t understand it back then and I’m not entirely sure they understand it now. So the staged nozzles – along with the robotic-looking excess and graphic treatment – just as likely communicated that it was an inelegant solution in a sea of increasingly sophisticated-looking offerings. If anything, it’s been lucky that there’s so much retro showing up now (example: Link) because while working on a vacuum a couple of years ago, the looks of the Dyson still put people off.

I think we just have to chalk this one up to James Dyson’s tenacity and a well-designed product; not styling and not cultural anthropology. Sorry Ad Age. I think you’re using the wrong example here.