Interview with Gianfranco Zaccai at Continuum

We had the chance to talk design with Gianfranco Zaccai, Chairman, President & Chief Design Officer at Continuum. Their global design and innovation consultancy is headquartered in Boston and they're doing some pretty amazing work.

What is Continuum's mission?

Continuum is a design and innovation consultancy. We’ve been in business since 1983. We got our start designing medical devices, but have evolved over the years. Now, we have five offices around the world, working with global Fortune 500 companies. Ultimately we deliver the future, made real, to our clients. Whether it be a service, a product, or some advanced technology, we use human-centered research methods to arrive at solutions that build businesses and improve lives.

What are you doing at Continuum?

I have 2 roles. The first is as a designer, developing innovative products, especially in healthcare. The second is as President of the company, to look to the future and how we can continue to evolve and become more compelling and meet our mission of making a difference in peoples’ lives and our clients’ bottom line.

I have a degree in industrial design and a degree in architecture. But, most of all, I have practical experience working internationally in both corporations and in my own consultancy, identifying opportunities for innovation that can be fully realized.

What makes Continuum different than other design consultants?

We don’t design for our own portfolio or our own ego. We delve deeply into the lives, hopes and aspirations of the people we want to serve to develop ideas for new products and services. The things we design make a difference in their lives and are profitable for businesses to produce and affordable for consumers to acquire.

What should a designer consider when developing products?

Design to encourage consumption is a major problem. Products developed without a concern for value and quality end up in landfills. So does the reputation of the companies that produce them. Companies that provide real value to their customers thrive and succeed increasingly. It's by making products smarter, more compelling, easier to use, providing long-term value and on-going revenue streams because of the services they enable.


What are your most exciting product design projects?

One of the most enjoyable projects that we ever engaged in was called Metaform, which was an exploration of the needs of people to remain in their own homes as they age. We realized that people reject products that stigmatize them, and therefore we decided to develop a series of adjustable components for personal hygiene that would be just as beneficial for people with young children as for elderly people. In other words, a transgenerational design. And although the system was never produced, it opened our eyes to a vast array of possibilities which have informed our process ever since.

How do you manage to collaborate with such a distributed team?

We’re able to collaborate because all offices are guided by single principal and process. We create teams from different disciplines in different locations to explore a challenge from individual and collective prospectives, applying the best talent we have to identify opportunities for innovation and then make them real. We use video conferencing, collaborative software and at times too much travel to accomplish this. The biggest challenge of course remains time difference and distance.

Which CAD software tools help you design?

We use everything from SolidWorks to SketchUp.

What do you think about the future of hybrid products?

It depends on your definition of a hybrid product. If you’re talking about an automobile with 2 sources of energy: that is a growing trend. Especially with hydrogen and electricity on the horizon. If the question is about products that integrate multiple functions, it depends if the functions are there because a microprocessor happens to reside in the system, making it possible, or if people really want them and can use them in a useful way. Hand-held devices (e.g. cellphones) are great examples of multiple functions included in a single, easy to use, engaging device. Products that integrate functions that frustrate the user and increase complexity are too numerous to mention.

What makes a great product?

A great product is a product that people grow to love. A product that gets out of their way when not necessary. One that goes beyond providing functional needs of the user to also addressing their emotional desires, increasing their sense of self and connection to other people.

Thank you to Gianfranco and the Continuum team for taking the time to help our engineers and designers learn a bit more about design thinking and thoughtful product development. It is always a pleasure to see how great product companies got their start, developed their mission, and put customer needs first. Let us know what you think makes a great product in the comments.

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