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Form and function in perfect harmony – design at item

Carsten Schulz, product designer at item

Since the foundation of the company, design has been a top priority for item. In its designs, functionality and form go hand in hand.

Over the years, this quality goal has been recognised with numerous design awards. Most recently, it was our Joining Plates that impressed the judges. Having already won the iF Designaward 2021, our Joining Plates have now also received recognition from the German Design Council. We were thrilled to be presented with the German Design Award Gold 2022 in the “Excellent Product Design Industry” category. Across all sectors of industry, the German Design Award is considered one of the most prestigious prizes for design. The “Gold” award is the highest accolade for outstanding, holistic and innovative design. Explaining why it was so impressed by the Joining Plates, the judging panel highlighted the “special shaping without any problematic contours” and the “interesting, independent look”. In honour of this award, we met product designer Carsten Schulz to discuss design at item in general and this specific product in particular. He has been with item since 2002, and with his two colleagues is responsible for putting our design philosophy into practice.

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Emphatic design focus as a unique selling point

How should we understand the work of the design team?

“In the design team, there are two designers (Markus Völkel and I) who are responsible for product development and one designer (Guido Hammes) who is responsible for interior design and trade fair stands. As designers, we look after various product groups that we have divided up amongst ourselves, so we work very closely with the product development staff. We support the process all the way from the concept phase.

Right from the very first idea, we offer recommendations for the form a product could take. That is real team work, and we develop solutions together. Once a week, we have a joint meeting to discuss the current status of everything and clarify questions relating to the design. It is unusual to have so many designers working in a medium-sized company. item places a great deal of importance on design.”

So it’s not standard practice to have an in-house design department?

“No, not at all. Industrial companies don’t always put such an emphasis on design. This frequently leads to products that have great functions, but aren’t so great in terms of design.

All products at item are developed jointly with the design team.

The work of the design team includes product advance development and assessing the design of all products that are developed at item. We are, of course, very thorough in that regard. All products at item are developed jointly with the design team. This involves keeping to the design guidelines set out by the design team in terms of colour, form and material.

This sets item apart. Our Building Kit System has a consistent design throughout. Each product lives up to this aim. It is a future-oriented design that simultaneously ensures all new products fit harmoniously into the growing system concept. Customers also appreciate this aesthetic aim, especially when they compare us to our competitors.”

The Joining Plates have received not one but two prestigious awards – the iF Designaward 2021 and the German Design Award Gold 2022. 

Guidelines and methods for a uniform design

What are the characteristics of a “typical” item design?

“Fundamentally, item products have a very classic, subtle design. Form is also given equal priority with function, because that is the benchmark we have set ourselves. The founders and owners of item shaped that philosophy. Both of them are very hot on design. That’s why this philosophy has always been at the heart of what we do.

Oh, and by the way, this uniformity doesn’t just affect product development at item – it applies to the company’s whole image. Whether it’s trade fair stands, the architecture at item sites or the appearance of customer advisers and the case they carry with them – everything is perfectly coordinated. The design team is responsible for that, too.”

How do you check whether a product complies with item design?

“There are style guides with design guidelines defined by us. You can think of that as a kind of basic framework. The shapes, materials, colours and dimensions for the different item product groups are defined so the products harmonise with each other.

The shapes, materials, colours and dimensions for the different item product groups are defined so the products harmonise with each other.

In addition, there are specifications for the material, the surface finish and the colour. There cannot be any exceptions to the deliberately classic form.”

What exactly do you mean by “classic design”?

“I mean a timeless, straightforward design – the materials and colours are subtle. One exception is the red item logo, but otherwise, everything is basically kept grey, silver or black. This type of design fits perfectly in mechanical engineering environments. What’s more, our products also become part of the image that users themselves project and a stylish design makes a good impression with their customers.”

A classic gets a smart makeover

Congratulations on the two new awards! What is so special about the prize-winning Joining Plates?

“Thank you! Joining plates in and of themselves have been around for a long time. They are used to reinforcing constructions. Generally, a fitter will simply take sheets of steel, drill holes in them and fasten them in place with screws.

It was my job to reimagine the joining plate. This is a good example to show you the design goals we have at item. It’s always about stripping things down to the essentials, and also about aesthetics, sustainability and durability.

In the case of the Joining Plates, I had the idea of still using steel plates, but significantly reducing the material involved. Ultimately, the new design makes it possible to use 40 percent less material. The shaping provides a rigidity that is just as high as you would get using a thicker steel plate. In the same way, you could take the design another step further and use Countersunk Screws, which would fit in very harmoniously.”

How would you sum up what makes the Joining Plates so special?

“Our Joining Plates are a real reinterpretation and stand out with their design – due to the shaping of the steel sheet and because they save on a huge amount of material while offering the same rigidity. It’s an end result where you can really say that something new has been created.

Our Joining Plates stand out with their design – due to the shaping of the steel sheet and because they save on a huge amount of material while offering the same rigidity.

Every product designer aims to find new ways of doing things. This might be using material differently and more efficiently, for example. I think we have done that quite well here. And, of course, we’re delighted with the two awards for the Joining Plates. It is great to have our work recognised in this way.”

The Joining Plates from item can be used to boost the rigidity of frame constructions in a targeted way – using 40 percent less material than standard solutions.

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