Industrial design firm 4ormfunction may have a funny name but it's serious about design and business. And after scoring gold for its Smartbar for Les Mills at last year's Best Awards, it's punching above its weight.
How do you innovate to build upon a competitive advantage that has launched your global success?
How do you re-energise a product that is so simple that it hasn’t been changed in 40 years and is viewed by its users with a mix of contempt and pain?
When Les Mills International wanted to capitalise on its successful Body Pump fitness classes, it called on Christchurch industrial design consultancy 4ormfunction.
The result of the collaboration, the Les Mills Smartbar, was released last year to both industry and gym-bunny accolades.
The carbon steel and glass fibre reinforced nylon apparatus picked up gold in last year’s Best Awards for its ability to take the hassle out of changing weights and for its propensity for a more fluid, less interrupted workout.
Getting people enthused about working out was no small task. The agency was literally working up a sweat to please its client, with regular attendance at Les Mills’ Body Pump classes for all staff members involved.
“Sweating in the gym doing Pump classes was followed by group discussions about problems, issues and opportunities for Les Mills,” says 4ormfunction owner Lovegrove.
Then came the usual process of design, develop, prototype and testing.
The agency got stuck in from day one in the fitness studio, as well as interviewing and observing struggles faced by gym junkies. Ultimately, it’s all about problem solving, says Lovegrove.
“That’s the core of our industry, to be able to offer a far superior product for the end user.”
4ormfunction did just that, winning the consumer category at Best last year. The Smartbar impressed the judging panel with its ergonomic design and performance improvements. Les Mills is stoked with the result and the product has since become an integral part of their internationally syndicated Body Pump classes.
Les Mills Enterprises chief executive officer Vaughan Schwass says his company’s first foray into product design is now exported everywhere from the UK to Japan and the Middle East.
“We always believed the Smartbar was a great concept – thankfully the market and industry confirmed as much.”
Schwass says the relationship between the agency and his company was a tight one.
“When creating a product it’s critical that we break down any barriers between suppliers and clients and we’ve done that with 4ormfunction. It enabled honest conversations, fast thinking, quick failures and ultimately resulted in a great product.”
The Smartbar is the arguably the first leap forward for dumbbell design since the days when Arnie made pumping iron fashionable.
“It was about time to bring this piece of fitness equipment into the 21st century,” says Schwass.
This meant incorporating a head on the Smartbar, called the ‘gator’, at each end of the bar, which has retractable teeth to hold the plates securely, so no extra clips are required to hold the weights on.
Lovegrove thinks the design strategy complements the branding of Les Mills.
“The quick transitions are key, as anyone who has been to a Body Pump class will know. So, too, was designing the plates so they can also be free weights and hand weights when not on the bar.
“That’s both novel and multifaceted in terms of applying it to other fitness classes.”
The design consultant believes the Smartbar is another way to differentiate Les Mills’ fitness classes from rivals’, offering an innovative and tangible product that builds upon the established competitive advantage.
“It’s always about making sure punters can be retained and get the best workout they can in their limited time. Undoubtedly, from that you will get loyalty.”
So it’s the start of a new era for the agency, after feeling the full effects of an economic downturn. Founded by Lovegrove 14 years ago, it had carved out a lucrative niche predominantly in industrial design, working with Ford and Navman and many medical companies. Then 2008 happened. The global financial crisis and a selling off of some of Lovegrove’s clientele meant 4ormfunction had to expand into other design sectors, hence the relationship with Les Mills.
“When [high-tech companies] Navman and Humanware left, it was really disheartening because we had big programmes going forward with them. There are so many flow-on effects from these takeovers, so it’s disappointing to see the same thing happen with Fisher & Paykel,” says Lovegrove of the recent Haier takeover.
The downsizing forced them to refocus and diversify in order to get back up on their feet.
“4ormfunction was renowned for technological development and we have had to evolve to a wider space as a result of the recession. That’s when Les Mills came along – when
some relationships end others can form.”
Although Lovegrove’s design portfolio is still centred on exporters, New Zealand’s manufacturing sector is yet to fully appreciate the strengths of Kiwi design.
“The New Zealand product design industry is pretty skinny, and quite immature. So the opportunities to be doing good product design and process are quite sparse.
“There is a lot of room for growth, but what it needs is New Zealand companies to mature and trust what design can do for them in order to better compete.”