Landscape Forms’ Use of GE ColorXpress® Services Customer Innovation Center for a New Product Launch

Launching a New Product Line Based on Customers’ Input

September 28, 2006

For its 35th anniversary of business, Landscape Forms, an industry leader for the design and manufacturing of outdoor site furniture, worked hand-in-hand with GE ColorXpress® Services Customer Innovation Center experts to help create a bold new product line to commemorate Landscape Forms’ past, present, and future.


Landscape Forms is well known by architects as an industry leader for the design and manufacturing of outdoor site furniture. On the verge of their 35th anniversary, Landscape Forms’ President, Bill Main, saw an opportunity to maintain its leadership role by taking a big, bold step in design with an innovative new line of outdoor furniture. The company’s product portfolio includes commercial-quality outdoor benches, tables and chairs, umbrellas, wheelchair-accessible picnic tables, planters and litter receptacles. This high quality, long-lasting furniture is typically specified by landscape architects and purchased by companies like Cisco Systems, Hewlett Packard, Harvard University, Disney, Chrysler, Mayo Clinic, Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, Sprint, Gateway, LaGuardia Airport, Microsoft, Nike, Kellogg’s Cereal City USA--all current clients.

Founded in 1969 in Kalamazoo, Michigan by John Chipman, Sr., a landscape architect, the company was created to fulfill two goals: 1) to design high quality outdoor furniture that could be used by landscape architects who designed corporate campus environments and 2) to provide meaningful full-time work for his employees. “I needed to find a way to keep our landscaping employees during the off-season, so we began to design and craft outdoor furnishings we could build during Michigan’s long, cold winter,”[1] he explained.

With the 35th anniversary just two years away, Bill Main commissioned frog design, the world renowned industrial design firm, to gather information about new trends in landscape design and then to use that information to design a bold new product line to commemorate Landscape Forms’ past, present, and future. So, in 2002, frog design and Landscape Forms partnered with the Landscape Architecture Foundation to conduct a “traveling think tank” to gather opinions and trends from a cross-disciplinary slice of prospects, customers and thought leaders.
More than two hundred leading design professionals participated in these multi-disciplinary brainstorming sessions in 15 cities in North America. Participants included landscape architects, city and transportation planners, real estate developers, corporate and commercial architects, commercial interior designers, academics, university and city park planners, journalists, environmentalists and graphic designers. The research findings were published in a white paper.[2]

These professionals discussed topics ranging from “is the workplace necessary?” to “what percentage of the workforce works 24/7?” to mobile phone etiquette in public spaces, to the reduced level of interpersonal communication in coffee shops since laptops joined lattes. They shared examples of favorite, well-designed spaces.

There was a clear difference of opinion between those who felt that outside spaces should be optimized for relaxation, reflection and enjoying nature, and those who felt that outdoor spaces could and should be used for work-related activities. But all of the participants seemed to agree that outdoor furniture should be more moveable and adaptable. Instead of formal benches and fixed seating arrangements, they envisioned much more lightweight furniture that could be easily rearranged for different purposes.

  • “The call for increased flexibility in environments and furnishings was one we heard across disciplines and in every part of the country. Fred Schmidt, Principal Environments Group, Chicago observed: ‘Within a day a given space might be used for group work, for a training session, for a party, or for one-on-one meetings.’”
  • “Participants agreed that addressing the multiplicity of functions over time requires objects that can bend and flex, expand or contract, move into the foreground or background, depending on the needs of the situation.”
  • “Design professionals said they looked for comfortable, lightweight, moveable furniture for creating home-like settings in places such as hospitals and corporate environments. Some reported specifying higher-end versions of residential products to provide more personality and less institutional quality.”
  • “Dr. Galen Cranz, Professor of Architecture at UC Berkeley, called for a whole new look at what true flexibility in the workplace means, questioning the basic assumption that people must sit upright when they work. ‘The workplace needs to be redesigned to accommodate more than one posture,’ she said. ‘If you're going to be spending 8 hours, even 12 hours there you cannot be in the right-angle seated posture the whole time.’ She cited the growing incidence of repetitive strain injuries as a clarion call for changes to support people and their bodies in a wider variety of postures.”
  • “Companies are also making workplaces more hospitable and responsive by providing larger and more varied outdoor environments that support both work and leisure activities. Patios and gardens outfitted with data ports, electrical outlets, and phone connections are now common, along with basketball courts, jogging trails, cafés, and seating enclaves of many sorts. At the new Sprint World Headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas, 60% of the site is green space. The campus contains five major courtyards--one an amphitheater and the others used for yoga and karate, outdoor dining, relaxing, and meetings--as well as walking trails and other exercise facilities.”
  • “Architects and landscape architects reported increased client requests for a variety of outdoor spaces to which workers can retreat, even if those spaces are in close proximity to buildings. They noted that corporations are using outdoor facilities as tools for recruiting employees.”
  • "New York's Bryant Park was cited as a [favorite] example. There, people working on laptop computers share six acres in midtown with people who are eating lunch, playing cards, dozing in the sun, and enjoying the park’s newest addition, the Reading Room, a designated reading area complete with magazines, newspapers, and books on loan.

Norman Mintz, Design Director of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation and New York's 34th Street Partnership, says, ‘This is the most popular park per square foot in the country and part of our goal is to encourage as much diversity in activities as possible. Computer access adds to the diversity and usefulness of the park. This is a place for people to relax, and even people who are working on their computers are enjoying the break it provides.’ And, although Bryant Park’s pioneering use of moveable chairs in a busy city park was greeted with skepticism when first proposed--few thought that hundreds of Bistro chairs would last a week in midtown New York--naysayers were pleasantly surprised. The chairs have lasted for several years and their use has been widely adopted elsewhere.”[3, 4]

The frog design team took these customer insights to heart as they designed a collection of outdoor furniture for the next generation of users. They designed the Chill®--a molded plastic chaise lounge chair that invites the user to perch or stretch their legs out in a semi-reclining mode. It is lightweight enough to be moved; but heavy enough to withstand high winds. They created the Mingle® dining table with from 2 to 6 seats and the dramatic Shade® umbrellas/sun shades that look like a wave of butterflies about to take flight.

The collection also included Mix®--a modular seating system allowing the flexibility to create space for independent work as well as social interaction. What distinguished this new “35” collection was not only the fluid shapes, but also the colors and translucence to be used for the umbrella and seat panels. Critical to the project was the use of softer and more contemporary colors with a translucence to let the sun shine through and give these pieces a living look--like they belong in nature.[5]

By December 2003, the stunning new furniture designs were complete. Now it was up to Rick Utting, Landscape Forms’ engineering manager, and his product development teams to turn the frog designs into manufacturable products in time for their debut at the annual trade show of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) which was to be held in Salt Lake City in October 2004. Rick had two major challenges in implementing the designs: finding the right material for the colorized translucent panels and finding the right colors to satisfy landscape architects as well as architects.

Landscape Forms’ 35 Collection Co-Designed by Lead Users and Frog
Illustration 1. Landscape Forms’ award-winning and popular product line of commercial outdoor furniture for municipalities, hospitals, and businesses was designed by frog designs with input from lead users--professional architects and landscape designers.

Selecting the right material was tough, Rick recalled. “The inspiration for the translucent panels was a 1” thick sample of frosted acrylic that was warm and elegant, unlike most plastics. The designs however, called for structural panels that were much thinner, and we knew from preliminary testing that strength was a major hurdle for acrylic. Our testing had validated that polycarbonate would be a strong enough material but we had no idea how to get a custom color or a frosted finish.”

“We had some folks from GE Plastics come in and talk to us,” Rick recalled, “they knew about the materials but not enough about color options or availability. It was already June and I still didn’t have the right solution. Then, GE’s Lisa Mars said, ‘Rick, you need to go to our GE ColorXpress® Services Customer Innovation Center.’ That was a ground-breaking moment,” Rick recalled.

In late July, Rick flew from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Albany, New York and drove through the countryside, past farmhouses and fields to GE’s manufacturing plant in Selkirk, NY. There he was greeted by the team at GE ColorXpress® Services Customer Innovation Center. They all sat down around the coffee table in the high-ceilinged atrium and looked over the 7 color targets he had brought along. They discussed different usage parameters--weatherability, durability, temperature range, ease of graffiti removal, and so on. Rick showed the team test results his group had already conducted and the polycarbonates his group felt would suit their needs. Once they agreed on the material selection, it was time to choose the color and finish.

They moved into the color lab and adjusted the lighting for outdoor afternoon sun. “I didn’t know at the time but I probably picked the toughest color to start with,” Rick recalled. “I selected the light arctic blue.” Looking at the vast array of color samples on display, around the walls of the room, he found colors that were close to what he needed, but they weren’t translucent. “It’s easier to match color when you’re working with something opaque, but for our designs, an opaque solution looked too much like plastic. We needed something colorized but translucent so the furniture could blend into the landscape.” The combinations and permutations of materials and color selection had become really complex. “I learned a lot about color while at the lab. In order to match our light arctic blue target we needed to add white pigment. However, once we added white, we lost the translucency.”

As Rick selected colors that were close to what he wanted, Lisa Ashton, the color technician, would ask clarifying questions, like “How much do you want to be able to see through it--distinct shapes or blurry shapes? What color do you want it to be when you’re looking at it on a sunny day? On a cloudy day?” As they discussed different shades, Lisa would take the closest sample and her mental picture of what Rick was looking for and ask her colleague to call up the formula and modify it in certain ways. Then, in the next room, a technician would weigh out the right ingredients, mix the resin and pour it into a mold to generate a custom sample. Within a few hours, they had produced a series of custom color samples...


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