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2 Design and innovation 1: the plastic kettle

2.1 Issues of supply and demand

Section 1 attempted to tease apart the various factors and processes that might be found in design activity. Designs can be the result of quite complex interactions which in turn are influenced by context. This complexity is important but I don't want it to be confusing, so in this section I will focus on one example: that of plastic kettles.

In Section 1 I looked at the thorny problem of 'needs', and how as designers we might devise ways of understanding them. Do you think there was a need for a plastic kettle before the first one was introduced in 1978? I cannot imagine somebody making a cup of tea with a conventional metal-bodied electric kettle, and grumbling that what they really 'needed' was a plastic kettle. However, for some reason the introduction of the plastic kettle had a startling effect on the kettle market. Within the first few years of production by several manufacturers, plastic kettles gained 30 per cent of the market share. This raises some very interesting questions which are central to this course. Firstly, might a significant number of users have harboured unspoken complaints about their existing methods of boiling water, including the use of plated and stainless steel electric kettles? Perhaps the market was ready for innovation but it was unable to articulate this because no one had any experience of an alternative to metal-bodied kettles. Might there be some other influence at play: perhaps a movement away from gas towards electric kitchens, which might create an environment ready for innovation? Is it possible that the supply of plastic kettles could have generated a new demand?