By ANDREA NYLUND Contributing Reporter How do you make a computer mouse pad “sexy?” That was the challenge presented to Edge Industrial Design Group by client Belkin Components Inc., a manufacturer of computer cables and plugs. The result was a combination of engineering, design, medical research and computer modeling. By the time the process was finished, Shadow Hills-based Edge had produced three prototypes. Equipped with a raised, gel-filled pad to alleviate wrist tension and grooves on the bottom to cover stray computer cords, the new pad offered improved function, comfort and look. “We didn’t want a ‘me too’ product,” said Robert Hess, vice president and partner at Edge. “ErgoPad was designed for people serious about their computing.” In a market in which very similar products must compete with each other on store shelves, the way the product looks can be crucial. And that’s where Edge comes in. The company helps manufacturers come up with products or packages that will sell either because they simply look better, or are technologically superior to the competition. “We have a split second to catch your attention, so our designs need to give the best possible impression,” said Jonathon Oswaks, whose firm works with Black & Decker Corp., Kenwood Corp., United Technologies Corp., Price Pfister, AT & T;, Life Fitness and Mattel Inc. Edge helps these and other clients develop new products or transform old ones to reach specific target markets. Since Oswaks established the firm four years ago, revenues have increased five-fold, from $400,000 in 1994 to $2.25 million this year. The approach to design starts with “ideation” or brainstorming by designers and concludes with prototypes and product launches. Based on the client’s experience and goals, Edge drafts a market report to define the target market and competitive forces in the industry. Edge’s designers and mechanical engineers develop a market strategy and coordinate the project’s direction with the client’s own marketing and engineering staff. “We can help our clients look at things differently to reinvent or develop a product’s heritage,” said Oswaks. “It’s not our job to make a statement,” added Hess. “What we do is identify need in the marketplace and visually communicate a marketing plan.” Outsourcing industrial design is becoming increasingly commonplace. “Unless you’re a very large firm, you usually go outside the firm for industrial design expertise,” explained Wendell Ritchey, senior director of engineering at Tekelec, a telecommunications technology firm and client of Edge. The company is working with Edge to “mechanically repackage” a portable piece of equipment used by phone companies to test lines. Edge’s expertise allows it to do more than make Tekelec’s products look good, according to Richey the firm has the engineering know-how to actually improve the products from a technical standpoint. “They help us stay competitive by enhancing our product’s portability,” Richey said. Other prototypes created on-site for clients include packaging designs for Ralph Lauren cologne, sleek stereo speakers for Infinity, irrigation equipment for RainBird, and a new turbine engine prototype for Allied Signal. Then there is the fitness market. When Edge revamped the Star Trac treadmill for Unisen Inc., it incorporated new features, such as holders for cups, books and towels, that have prompted copycats to incorporate similar features on their products. It takes at least six weeks to develop a prototype, with a maximum design period of nine months. “If it took more than nine months to develop a prototype, U.S. businesses wouldn’t be able to survive. Competition is strong and product life cycles are shorter than they once were,” said Hess. No matter how innovative a company’s technology is, others can catch up quickly. Product design is a distinct competitive advantage. “We can all imagine ourselves behind the wheel of our favorite automobile. The visual impact is what captures our interest,” Hess said. But industrial design, as a tool in business, is not fully utilized by consumer products companies, according to Hess. It is often dismissed by marketing departments as an engineering, rather than marketing, concern. “Many consumer products companies miss the boat because they didn’t realize the full impact of industrial design,” he said. Edge Industrial Design Group Year Founded: 1993 Core Business: Industrial Design Top Executives/Owners: Jonathan Oswaks and Robert Hess Revenues in 1994: $400,000 Revenues in 1997: $2.25 million Employees in 1993: 8 Employees in 1997: 22 Goal: To give clients decisive competitive advantage through inspired product design. Driving Force: Need for quick product differentiation.