The Three Faces of DesignHow form, function, and social design elements influence our product purchase decisions.

Her Home™ Magazine spoke with some unlikely bedfellows: Kohler (plumbing products), ThermaTru (exterior doors), InSinkErator (food waste disposers), and Wilsonart® (counter tops), to identify the appeals designed into some of their products for the home. Though the ingredients were different, their recipes were similar: one part art; one part science; and one part your story.

What do you want to feel in your personal space?


Ahhh… the look and feel of a product is a quality all its own. Beautiful… sensual… solid… form can make a product a joy to behold or leave you form can make a product a joy to behold or leave you wondering, “What were they thinking when they designed this?” Form is actually preconscious. You notice something. Instinctively, you’re attracted to it. It elicits an emotional response—perhaps, “Wow!” It captures your imagination while stirring something deep inside you.

Diana Schrage is the Senior Interior Designer at Kohler’s wonderful Design Center on the company’s campus in Kohler, Wisconsin. More than 160,000 visitors come through their Design Center annually and— get this—Kohler Design Center staff provides their design service expertise free to their visitors!

According to Diana, “Kohler customers have a high appreciation for art.” It’s evident in the obvious (sinks, tubs, faucets) to the more discrete, such as toilets designed without the obvious P-trap. But as important as form is by individual product, Diana and her team take great pride in coordinating everything to achieve the look you’re after. For those who can’t make it to the design center, Kohler has published helpful selections guides on their website and provides extensive training for staffs at plumbing showrooms who offer Kohler’s products. At the design center, online, or in your local plumbing showroom, the goal is the same, helping people pull everything together, by room and by price point, so they can envision the finished home while managing their investment.

Frank Lin is Therma-Tru Doors’ Manager of Market Insights. Lin knows the importance of first impressions. Both the Home Improvement Research Institute as well as Therma-Tru’s in-house studies identify that “attractive appearance” is the #1 factor when it comes to selecting a door. In both fiberglass and steel doors, Therma-Tru prides itself on offering tremendous variety in door styles, finishes, decorative glass inserts and complimentary sidelites and transoms.

Lin is particularly proud of Therma-Tru’s Classic Craft series of doors, “Classic Craft is a high-performance fiberglass door incorporating our Acu-Grain technology, which gives these doors the appearance of high grade mahogany or oak doors. They are architecturally correct with styles ranging from Craftsman to European and the widest selection of glass styles. Typically made-to-order, the doors can be personalized to individual preferences. They also have a solid, hefty feel and we introduced a smooth (no wood grain) version of this door line for homeowners who prefer a smooth finish, painted door.”

While some people might think it a stretch to consider a food waste disposer “art,” they haven’t met Eric Schultz, Director of Brand and Channel Management for InSinkErator’s household disposers. In fact, the company created their entire line of Evolution disposers with what Schultz calls “a more stylized, performance look.” Schultz went on to explain, “Each model in the Evolution series has specific visual design cues. We put tremendous emphasis on the physical design of these disposers, because their design conveys signals such as strength; reliability; that it’s up to the task; quiet and a premium look.”

Form can make a product a joy to behold or leave you wondering “What were they thinking when they designed this?”

Wilsonart unleveled the playing field for laminate countertops with the introduction of their Wilsonart HD High Definition surfaces. Wilsonart’s Manager Premium Laminate and Specialty Products, Michael Lallo, talked about the role form played in making this line of countertops a game-changer, “High Definition focuses on the in-demand looks most popular for today’s countertops: quartz, slate, travertine, granite, and marble. Our new technology endows HD countertops with optical dimension and stunning clarity. You can frame your choices with a decorative edge profile, an extra touch that shows off your new countertop at its absolute best.” In addition, Wilsonart has developed a method of fusing their HD sinks to the HD countertops, allowing the sinks to be undermount—the first time this seamless look has been available in laminate countertops. Lallo also pointed out form, as an element of design, is more than visual. “Warm to the touch, with textures unavailable in other luxury materials, Wilsonart HD is a welcome alternative; there is simply no other surface like it.”


High design is more than visually appealing. It also means that the product does what it’s supposed to do, that it does it well and reliably. It means the product is easy to use and maintain. Plus, it means great technology, whether that’s in terms of cutting edge performance or environmental stewardship.

For Lin and Therma-Tru, there seemed to be a sequence of purchase priorities. Lin said, “Women more often initiate the entry door selection or replacement project. Early on, she’s more design oriented, looking for a door that matches her home and interior style, overall shape and finishes. Once the style has been identified, her attention turns toward the functional and performance issues and if a guy is part of the decision making process, this is typically where he gets involved.”

According to Lin, the most important functional aspects of entry doors for consumers are long lasting, followed by the product materials and price. Therma-Tru’s steel doors and fiberglass doors are insulated, offering better energy performance than solid wood doors and exceeding 2010 Energy Star performance standards for entry doors. Steel entry doors are less expensive than fiberglass but can dent. The company’s steel doors are backed by 5 to 10-year warranties, while the fiberglass doors offer a limited lifetime warranty. The doors are also tested for water infiltration and high winds, and the fiberglass doors offer the highest protection against forced break-in for enhanced personal security.

Performance and convenience are what buyers of food waste disposers value. Interestingly, InSinkErator identified quiet as a critical aspect of performance. So the company’s Evolution series disposers were designed to reduce noise by up to 60% compared to standard disposers. According to Schultz, homeowners surveyed by the company after having the Evolution series disposers installed have high praise for the sound reduction measures taken.

InSinkErator’s research identified homeowners did not want to have to be overly concerned about what types of food were put into the disposers. They addressed this issue in numerous ways. First was the size of the motor. Essentially, bigger motors better handle larger volumes of food waste. Second, some of the disposers were designed to grind food in multiple stages, which meant they could basically liquefy more types of food as it passes through the disposer. Their top of the line Excel disposer can sense if the disposer is about to jam, drawing on extra power reserves to break through any food waste. Some disposers have an auto reversing system to reduce jams, others have a manual reversing system.

A final aspect of functional design for InSinkErator is their in-home warranty. If one of their disposers fail during the warranty period, the company sends a service technician to the home at no cost to the consumer. Peace of mind is great functional design!

The theme of innovation continued from Wilsonart’s Lallo as he moved from addressing form to function. “Wilsonart HD countertops are a whole new kind of laminate. Our new technology provides four times more wear resistance than traditional laminate and five times more scuff resistance, for a countertop that keeps its good looks longer.”

Easy-care is another aspect of practical design. According to Lallo, the company’s High Definition laminate is nonporous – so there’s no need for sealing as with many other materials. He told us, “It’s as close to ‘maintenance-free’ as a hard surface can get. It’s not quite self-cleaning, but our HD countertops are one of the easiest to care for surfaces you’ll ever own. For everyday cleaning, simply use a damp cloth or sponge and a mild soap or detergent.”

Function was also a priority for the Wilsonart’s HD sinks, as evidenced by their thoughtfulness in locating the drain at the back of the sink rather than the center, freeing up more space in the cabinet underneath. Along the top and at the back, Wilsonart designers integrated a shelf (for soap and sponges) designed to ensure water flows downward into the sink.

When asked what makes Kohler’s residential products “Woman-Centric,” Donna Schrage answered, “Fantastic function without compromising aesthetics.” Notice that even for a recognized design leader like Kohler, function was mentioned first.

A high priority for Kohler has been water conservation. Important, yes, but so is a satisfying shower experience. Don’t you hate wimpy showers? Kohler’s solution has been in the design of low-flow aerators for their faucets and shower heads which truly do cut water use without sacrificing performance. Similarly, Kohler offers low water consumption toilets and has made a priority of getting the word out (including practical tips for everyone) on water conservation via their website.

Schrage identified product quality, as an element of functional design, in a way that resonates deeply. She explains, “We are a disposable society, but Kohler’s products have stood the test of time. The Kohler brand is almost an anti-statement against disposable consumerism.”

Your Story

Sometimes overlooked, the social side of design deals with how a product makes you feel and what it communicates about you to others. Is it important? Well, Toyota hired a firm to survey its buyers of their hybrid Prius model. The top 3 reasons given for purchasing that 50 mpg car:

  • Gas mileage
  • Good for the environment
  • What it says about me

So, what does the humble kitchen food waste disposer say about the homeowner? According to Schultz, plenty! “Buyers who opt for the Evolution series of disposers put more thought into the design of their kitchens. They value their appliances more, because the overall kitchen experience is more important to them. It’s a reflection on the buyer—someone who’s an accomplished cook/homemaker/entertainer and who places a premium value on her kitchen.”

Lallo says, “HD counter tops give any kitchen that ‘I have arrived’ look without a huge investment,” further suggesting HD is a surprising value when compared to other luxury surfaces. And should you want to change the look of your kitchen in a few years, Lallo adds, “due to the high initial cost of many other counter top materials, you would really wrestle with changing out those old counter tops to enhance your new décor.”

“Kohler products,” says Schrage, “are aspirational but attainable.” She referred to social design in terms of how it makes one feel, using one of the Designer Rooms at Kohler’s Design Center as an example – Del Mar designed by Bella Mancini Zakarian, “I feel elegant and immersed in luxury in that room. The designer’s inspiration came from ‘growing up with an ocean view, loving the feel of wiggling her toes in the sand while wearing a ball gown!’ and the details in this space tell that story.”

Says Schrage, “Our values and beliefs are also part of important buying decisions. We have a sense of empowerment when we support businesses in alignment with our values and beliefs. This is reinforced each time we interact with cast iron and know it is from 93% recycled materials – vitreous and glass are recyclable. We expect, and obtain the aesthetic that delights us and on a subliminal level have a sense of peace about making a difference by the choices we have made.” She asks, “What do you want to feel in your personal space?”

Finally, few products in a home say as much about you as the entry door. Because, at most every price point, there are a great many entry door choices to accentuate your (and your home’s) style. Lin suggests an individual’s choice in an entry door indicates whether or not they are in tune with their home’s style, “The entry system is often the first thing people see when they come to your home to visit. Selecting the right door style shows discernment and the right materials an appreciation for craftsmanship. Just ask REALTORS®. Realtors know the first impression and curb appeal set the expectation for what they’ll likely see inside and often dictates if a prospective buyer will even be interested in going in the home.”

As you can see, the design professionals at leading home product companies are intimately involved with all three elements of design. You may have not thought too much about it before. Again, form, especially visual appeal, is initially preconscious. You’re simply attracted to something the moment you see it. Function is largely left-brained (logic, reasoning). But social design is highly contemplative — it’s one way we reveal who we are to the world.

Ranking these three facets of design is also intertwined with your personality and core values. If you walk into a home and your first thoughts are boring… predictable… then you’ll value form and social design cues more. Similarly, when walking into a home with soaring ceilings and a dramatic wall of windows, if you find yourself asking, “how would you clean those windows/how would you change those light bulbs?” then functional design elements will be more important to you. One is not ‘better’ than the other—but ignoring any of the design elements is a sure recipe for regret!

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