Need for Speed
I’ve been a creative director for over 30 years and have been inspired by literally thousands of products. But one stands out as an ‘obsession’ because it’s been part of my life from when I was at school and remains, to this day, an object of desire, commitment and continual reward. (I have one in the garage.)
Rewind to the mid-seventies when I was a schoolboy, immersed in a world of long hair, platform shoes, purple spangles, metal-flake paint, and the tenacious influences of psychedelia. Mix that with my blossoming passion for motorbikes and there was, inevitably, only one object adorning the posters of my bedroom wall. The 1975 Kawasaki H2c.
These bikes captured the imagination of everyone from pro-racer to schoolboy dreamer with a heady mixture of brutal functionality, screaming noise, smoke and glamour. They quickly gained a reputation for hurting their owners and became known as the ‘widow-maker’. What higher accolade could a 15-year-old aspire to? Each individual element of this design exists for one reason and one reason only: to make that machine accelerate as fast as possible. It’s almost refreshing to look back and see such an intense focus on achieving a single, overriding objective. Perhaps more products would benefit from this approach today, instead of being compromised by the committee-based desire to please everyone.
It’s an exercise in minimal simplicity – to the extent that everything that isn’t part of this equation is, at best, rather crude and at worst, ineffectual. Even the brakes don’t work well. By today’s standards, it’s unashamedly flawed. But by some miraculous stroke of genius, the design transcended anything that had come out of Japan previously and its elegance, beautiful proportions and ground-breaking body work made it stand out in a bland field of outdated machinery. Combined with a constantly evolving selection of sparkling, gaudy, metal-flake colours and contrasting stripes that shimmered in the sun, the H series bikes unashamedly screamed confidence and superiority. To own and ride one (and survive one) gave you god-like status. With any consumer brand, you need more than beautiful aesthetics and cutting-edge engineering for a product to be a success.
The physical experience is ultimately the deciding factor, and to actually ride one of these bikes puts everything else in the shade. From the moment you approach it, breathe in the heady smell of petrol and two-stroke oil, kick the motor into life and recoil from the cracking, explosive exhaust and clouds of blue smoke, you’re under a constant multi-sensorial assault that only increases the faster you ride.
Whenever I work on a new brand challenge, I invariably talk about the need to create something that’s relevant and compelling to the consumer, that answers a genuine functional or emotional need, and does it in a way that forges a long-term relationship between the user and the brand. I wish that every time I did a project the outcome was as successful as Kawasaki was with the H2 series. They managed to absolutely nail it with the right technology wrapped up in the right package at exactly the right time. And not only did they answer the needs of the target consumer but also (intentionally or otherwise) created a burning desire for ownership across future generations of consumers and produced a product that rightfully has become a legend and design icon that endures to this day.
Every day I’m inspired by this bike and obsessed with what those designers managed to get through into production. If only we got the chance to do this now.
As published in Design Inspiration.
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