Samsonite’s IBON suitcase does everything differently just because you open it differently. For co-designer Lukas Van Campenhout, it exemplifies the Research through Design method, in which the making process precedes the drawing board and theory. What can other research areas learn from product developers?
Lukas Van Campenhout, senior industrial designer at Achilles Design and lecturer in product development at the University of Antwerp, was part of the design team for Samsonite’s new IBON suitcase. The IBON suitcase’s big innovation was simply the idea of splitting the suitcase right down the middle. This keeps the suitcase the same size when opened, as the shells fold down. A handle in the middle of the suitcase makes it easy to lift, and handles on the sides make it even more mobile. Finally, there are also a compression system designed to keep the contents of the suitcase in place.
Research through Design
Van Campenhout sees the IBON suitcase not only as a product, but also as an example of the Research through Design method, in which designers focus on prototyping. Unlike classical research, where a theory is developed first, Research through Design creates knowledge through design and experimentation. ‘The Samsonite suitcase did not start on the drawing board, but because someone stuck some white tape across a suitcase. It is only in that moment that you realise that a suitcase that closes like this does not get bigger when you open it.’
After a fifteen-year career as a designer, Van Campenhout’s take on the design process led him to a PhD in product development and industrial design. ‘I wanted to start thinking about my own actions. While doing a PhD, I just started to realise how unique design is.’ Integrating the Faculty of Design Sciences into the university provides an exciting academic context for product development, according to Van Campenhout. He believes that the principle of Research through Design could also be interesting to other research fields.
The Samsonite suitcase did not start on the drawing board, but because someone stuck some white tape across a suitcase.
Van Campenhout’s own research mainly focuses on dematerialisation from the perspective of industrial design. He questions digitalisation, saying physical objects have an intrinsic value that is fundamentally different from their digital counterparts.
‘Digitalisation is a technological evolution, not a human one. I have been accused of being nostalgic on that front, but I am not at all against digital flows. Digital stands for dynamic, fluid, flexible, and so on. But at the same time, physical stands for something persistent, for inertia. The shape of an object, physical or digital, does matter. So the question is: “What are we going to keep?” And how can industrial design play a role in that?’
One of his designs, a conceptual payment module, makes payment transactions more tangible so that users become more aware that they are spending money. Many participants said the conceptual payment device gave them more of a sense of actually transferring money. This could indicate that we can invent a form of digital payment that engages the payer more consciously. ‘I find those physical interactions with digital flows very interesting.’