Research Goes Digital

More and more designers are doing product research online, but does that spell the end of the traditional material library? Some design pros give their take.

by Margie Monin Dombrowski

Now that we’ve arrived in the Digital Age, we’re officially living in the future. With a few keyboard taps and a click of the mouse, you can turn up almost anything online. Eighty-one percent of American adults are now online and 91 percent of the time they’re hunting down specific information through a search engine, according to the Pew Research Center.

So how is this changing how designers learn about products and materials (or is it)? We spoke with a few design professionals to learn about their product research preferences—online and off—and what this means for the industry as a whole.

“I definitely think the younger generation goes straight to the internet,” says 23-year-old recent grad Rebecca Warren, an interior design consultant for Saxton Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa. Although Warren has a large material library within reach, she finds herself going online first and to the library second. “Usually, that’s where I jumpstart a project.”

She’s also noticed a divide among fellow staffers. When requesting samples, older designers tend to phone in fabric sample orders, while younger designers order them online (unless, of course, one option isn’t user friendly).

“If [a manufacturer] doesn’t have a functional website, I just skip them,” says Cyanna Goold, a 32-year-old interior designer with NBBJ in Seattle, Wash., who almost always researches products online first, then calls a rep for samples. “I don’t use catalogs at all unless I absolutely have to.”

“I’m still kind of the old-school mentality—I’d rather pull a binder off the shelf than look on the internet,” says Melissa Salamoff, president of Salamoff Design Studio in Burbank, Calif. Salamoff, who worked for a variety of large architecture firms for 15 years before starting her own design firm in 2010, doesn’t have much storage space, so she finds manufacturer websites helpful in narrowing down her product search before letting sample orders overtake her library. “I would never specify something without touching it and seeing it, but it’s impossible to keep your library stocked with the latest things,” she says.

“We still use catalogs and magazines, just not as much as we used to,” says Klas Eklof, a senior associate with MBH Architects in Alameda, Calif., who has been with the firm for 15 of his 20 years in the field. “Five years ago, looking online was 10 percent of the time. Now it’s maybe 60 [percent], but we haven’t reduced our in-house library,” which is constantly replenished with new catalogs and periodicals by a full-time librarian.

Although Eklof finds himself doing more product research online, it’s not always ideal. “It’s more of a shotgun approach, where you tend to hit some things you didn’t expect. Often that can be good, but it’s also a little less focused than going to my library or looking at catalogs.”

"I don't use catalogs at all unless I absolutely have to."
—Cyanna Goold
To meet designers’ expectations, manufacturers are getting creative in how they distribute product information. NanaWall, a glass wall and door manufacturer, produces 120-page photo books with commercial, hospitality or residential design ideas, available in both digital and print formats. “It spurs a discussion,” says Matt Thomas, NanaWall systems marketing manager.

“Over the past year we’ve actually increased the amount of physical books we send out. People will flip through it online and then request the physical book for their archive.”

Ross Leonard, vice president of marketing for flooring manufacturer J+J/Invision, is finding that easy online access to product details is helpful in generating initial interest, but there’s still demand for physical catalogs. “Now, it’s expected that every major manufacturer every year or two is going to have a multi-page catalog,” says Leonard. “We wanted ours to stand out, to have more shelf life and tactile significance, so we made it a hardback edition.”

J+J/Invision’s Good Product Guide is available as a hard copy, PDF and a digital version on iTunes, with QR codes that allow users to order samples straight from their iPads. “As manufacturers, we can simplify the selection process because it’s all about saving time,” says Leonard.

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