I’ve been reading a bunch of design and design-related books, and I’m going to try to kick off a habit of reviewing one each Monday.
I’m going to start with a pretty non-obvious choice — Product X: Nissin Cup Noodle, a Manga history of the product development of Nissin Food’s Cup Noodle. Yep, it’s comics, it’s translated from the Japanese, you read it backwards, and it’s nonfiction. It was handed to me by one of my fine local comic shop proprietors, who told me "You have to read this." And he is never wrong–it was a fun read! But it’s also a great case study in product design.
The short version is that in the 1970s, Nissin Foods, the original innovators in the instant ramen space, were losing market share due to the commoditization of instant ramen. The president of Nissin Foods decided that they needed to do something radical, so he put to a small team the challenge of developing a new and revolutionary product — instant ramen in its own container. The book follows each member of the team (container development, noodle development, production, marketing) as they meet challenges along the way. And as starving college students and late-night office workers around the world know, they were extraordinarily successful.
It’s pretty gripping stuff (really!), but what I found most interesting was the constant interplay between the individual team members working on their individual challenges and the president, who had a strong vision of the whole product. Each time they came back to him with a solution that compromised that vision, he would send them back to the drawing board — even over the most minute details of product shape and ingredient color.
In fact, the whole tale — with a product development team individually striving to meet the exacting standards of a detail-obsessed executive — started to remind me of something. And that was before the scene with the president gazing lovingly over the perfectly angled, pure white, almost platonic form of the final cup prototype … but I’ll review that book next week.