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Case Study: Plumen Light Bulb

On September 15th 2010 (at 3.32pm or thereabouts) London product design company Hulger pressed go on the Plumen 001. It was a breakthrough moment. Inside Hulger HQ faces beamed.

After four years of development, the team had finally realised a commercially viable, low-energy light bulb designed to be both sustainable and beautiful. The design conundrum that had evaded the makers of conventional chlorofluorocarbon (CFL) bulbs - with their blocky, awkward fluorescent tubes - seemed solved. It was that sumptuous moment of a project when you recognise the impact you are about to have on the world.

Photography Ian Nolan, Styling Poppy Norton

Best known for their ‘retro phone of the future’ Skype handsets, Hulger had started working on ‘the next big launch’ back in 2006. Then, after road-testing the Plumen concept in London at Designers Block in 2009, they began collaborating with industrial designer Samuel Wilkinson to prototype the promising new product, and bring it to market.

A year after its launch, the Plumen would go on to win a slew of design trophies, including a D&AD Black Pencil and the Brit Insurance Design of the Year award in 2011. Already considered a modern classic, the bulb now retails in over 100 stores globally and is featured in permanent collections across the world. Its story continues to unfold.

The Plumen Design Team

  • Nicolas Roope, creative director and Hulger co-founder
  • Michael-George Hemus, Hulger co-founder
  • Violetta Boxill, branding and graphic design
  • Andrew Penketh, photography
  • Samuel Wilkinson, product design
Nicolas Roope and Michael-George Hemus, Hulger co-founders

How Plumen was born

It was late 2006. Hulger’s boutique electronics design business was already two-and-a-half years old, with over £1m worth of phone sales to its name, selling in 25 countries. It had achieved a good deal with its P-Phone, Penelope-Phone, Pappa-Phone and Pip-Phone but in terms of market leverage, the team calculated the phones had reached the top of the bell curve. It was time for the next big thing.

"Plumen was born from a philosophy - our approach to products and their relationship with the world. The phones came out of this way of thinking, and we’d always conceived there would be other projects."

Nicolas Roope
Creative Director and Co-founder
Hulger

Hulger was born out of a way of looking at the world. As designers who spend a lot of time grappling with the backwardness of flawed systems that seem to flourish, Roope says he set up Hulger to be a ‘counterpoint’ to everyday product marketing and technology processes. It’s an attitudinal brand, no doubt about that.

‘What usually happens with technology products is manufacturers add more and more functions, even when there’s no real underlying need. More functions become just a reason to sell. And products are created as a consequence of having all these features,’ Roope continues. ‘The trouble is, this all misses the point. It’s the wrong way round. They tend to add all this stuff without ever really improving the experience for the people that use them.’

‘The companies that make these products are often set up around engineering processes. This can mean they don’t have the human sensibilities that design led companies have, which is often our opportunity,’ he says.

Photography Tom Mannion

"I’ve always described Hulger’s way of looking at things as being at the intersection of technology, design and art. It’s not just about technology and design, There’s an artistic component to what we do that has a deeper questioning – figuring out what makes something interesting; letting you deconstruct things in a different way."

Nicolas Roope
Creative Director and Co-founder
Hulger

Recognising the design problem

‘To the engineering mind, what we wanted to do with the CFC bulb by changing the shape is pretty meaningless.’ Roope continues. ‘Fundamentally there’s no difference to the product: it gives off the same light; it’s the same technology.

‘But from the design point of view, that difference is fundamental. It’s how you perceive the bulb and the difference it makes to you as an object – the resonance between it and the things around it – and how it unlocks the problem of how you consume responsibly.’

Using their digital network

Hulger turned to digital channels to launch Plumen to the public. By telling the story of the product online to the Hulger digital network they were able to feed the buzz and chatter around the launch via social networks like Facebook and Twitter. For Plumen, as for the Hulger phones, the team relied on its own digital expertise to drive its marketing activity. (Roope is executive creative director of Poke and previously ran Oven Digital and co-founded the seminal digital collective Antirom).

‘The network was critical because it would allow us to launch the product in multiple territories with almost zero marketing spend,’ says Roope. ‘The fact is, the network touches reality in every way – and that includes products as well as people. Because of these new conditions, the potential to build a product business is still huge. It’s about building tangible value from the network as well as from the product itself.’

Photography Tom Mannion

The first Plumen concepts

In 2008, Hulger began contacting manufacturers with a view to pitching their new big idea.

"The first question we had to ask was did the bulb make sense as an idea? It couldn't be too expensive or it wouldn't be adopted. We realised we had to design something that could engage existing industrial processes. We needed to be able to drop our bulb into existing production lines, but we didn’t really have that sort of experience on the team."

Nicolas Roope

By then, the team had made waves with some neon concept designs for the bulb  – one off pieces designed to spark some interest - and previewed them at the 2007 Designers Block show in London. They got good media coverage in design circles and some national press (a page spread in The Times and key exposure in the blogosphere). Yet whilst they caught the eye of various curators, the concepts didn’t amount to anything like a final product. That was a job that still had to be done.

The day after Designers Block, they began putting a deck together to show their potential bulb to makers in the Far East. A few meetings followed, but reactions, surprisingly, were far from enthused.

‘They were really surprised we wanted to do it,’ says Roope. ‘You imagine you’re going to show up and if you have the orders and the money to pay for it, they’re just going to agree to start making them. Not at all.’

"There hadn't really been any innovation in the CFL side of the market for some time. There had been some early attempts to create decorative CFL bulbs but they’d been cheap and nasty and failed spectacularly. So in the mind of the industry, decorative light bulbs had been tried and failed. Why would you want to go there again?"

Nicolas Roope

Finally in 2008, after much persistence and long distance travel to meet manufacturers in the Far East, they found a Europe-based manufacturer who was willing to help them, and who had the scale and buying power it was clearly going to need. The result was a joint-venture that would take Plumen into production.

Hulger struck a deal where they would pay a unit cost for every bulb that was produced. The plan was then to price it as low as possible for it to make sense as a commercial product. The key to its success now depended on making it cheaply enough to give it an affordable price point – no mean feat given the inevitably higher costs of production for the detailed new design.

"The big question was would we be able to physically produce it or not in the factory because there was no existing process."

Nicolas Roope

The industrial design phase

While the Hulger team had developed its first concepts in pipe cleaners - which were portable and easy to bend around when they could snatch the odd five minutes here and there - it soon became clear that they needed a product designer to own the design: someone who understood the 3D industrial processes involved. In 2009, Roope placed a few ads online on sites like Dezeen.com.

Enter Samuel Wilkinson, product designer, who had studied furniture design at Ravensbourne and worked for consultancies including Tangerine, Fitch: London and PearsonLloyd since graduating in 2002.

Wilkinson was very interested in sustainable design and impressed the team with some of his creations, including Techno Tree in Switzerland, which clearly solved the same kind of 3D problems that existed for Plumen. After a meeting in Camden, the match was made, and he was soon on board for the long haul.

Wilkinson would lead the development of the industrial design processes and was charged not only with turning the concept into a workable product design, but with ensuring it was make-able in the factory.  Part of that meant liaising with a busy manufacturer on the other side of the world, deciding which designs to put forward to the engineering team and handling the inevitable knock backs.

Photography Tom Mannion

Hulger showed Wilkinson the pipe cleaner designs and neons and introduced him to the big idea.

“I went away with Hulger’s initial thoughts, which had already been narrowed down to quite a tight two-tube idea (for the fluorescent part of the bulb),” says Wilkinson.

He went off to think about how to adapt the tubes and started finding inspiration in moving forms like ribbons swirling in air, and gymnastics movements.

"I looked at the filaments of old light bulbs and other forms trying to understand how the lines in space could work using the twisting concept. From there we started to talk with the supplier about how it could be made. And of course it made us lose the shape we were using and rewrite the brief based on all the new manufacturing requirements."

Sam Wilkinson
Product Designer

Progress was slow but steady. The working process of the production line limited the twists that could be used, so Wilkinson worked doggedly with the manufacturer to find a shape that was workable, without radically altering the process or re-tooling the whole production line. Each time he came up with a design, the challenge would be whether the factory would be able to get the bulb’s phosphorescence physically into the new twisting shape of the tubes.

Wilkinson initially came up with about 30 variations of the shape, based on his knowledge of the manufacturing system and what could conceivably be adjusted to give a bit of extra design aesthetic.

‘We were working with the unknown because there was no body of work to reference in terms of what could work,’ he says. ‘It was all new.'

Using sketches and by creating vignettes in 3D software, Wilkinson created a series of shapes or doodles that he would turn into various iterations of the original design concept. He shut himself away.

‘Even if you love the first one, you force yourself to do lots more iterations, and by the last one you’re thinking in a very different way to when you began,’ he says.

Wilkinson came up with a shortlist of 12 design permutations, each with a different tube solution – some were very geometric and some were more fluid.

The designs were reviewed with the Hulger team, who quickly selected two designs as preferred routes to take to the manufacturer. One, a double helix, which was closely related to the original concept, was eventually dropped due to restrictions with the manufacturing. 

Photography Nicolas Roope

The final design

The design with the edge on all the others was a futuristic bulb made of two twisting symmetrical tubes that interlock into an abstract shape. Depending on how you look at it, the shape reconstructs itself as a number of angles or ‘characters’ that appear as the bulb is turned.

‘We’d gone through about 300 forms with the pipe cleaners by the time we briefed Sam,’ Roope says. ‘We’d become very attached to the idea of the mirrored form – there’s no front or back. For light bulbs it’s very important that the shapes are not directional. With the mirrored form you get absolute symmetry however you turn it, however it’s displayed.’

Plumen 001 was about to be born.

Once the direction had been agreed, Wilkinson took it back to the studio to define the details in depth, and work out the sizes required, both around the tubing and the base of the bulb (the ballast).

"The shape of the tubes is really dominant (so) we came up with a ballast that compliments it and has a slight vegetative quality to look at, almost like a plant pot, its organic nature."

Sam Wilkinson
Product Designer

He created a 3D model to check the sizing and design were working. This stage required factoring in usability requirements such as the wattage equivalence of the bulb. The process with the factory moved forward in fits and starts: every element had to be considered, many of them unseen.

‘Every couple of months we met with the factory to talk about funding, getting ready for production or to cajole them a little bit to test something,’ says Wilkinson.

‘We sent them 3D-files and the first actual functioning prototypes that came back from the factory were these hand made horrible squiggles – because they’d not worked out how to assemble the parts exactly,’ he says.

With some extra documentation and a manual for manufacture, Wilkinson was finally able to illustrate exactly how the parts would synchronise and offer some solutions for the assembly jig to make the production easier. In the end, to solve the problem of the production constraints, the team would need to create a special press tool.

Things were looking up. But despite the painstaking advances, the Hulger team still didn’t know for certain if it would work, in terms of it actually being make-able.

‘It had to be a viable product – we needed to make sure the rejection rate in the factory was low enough that the bulb was commercially possible,’ says Wilkinson.

It was put into quality testing. A whole series of ‘beds’ containing thousands of prototype bulbs were tested for weeks, to check for any issues. It sailed through.

At this point, Wilkinson was working on the final touches of the design, such as injection moulding for the air holes, to make the bulb’s housing as cooling as possible. But the hard work was done and finally the Plumen 001 was a working reality.

The Plumen 001 requires the equivalent of just 11 Watts of power, and lasts eight times as long as traditional incandescents – the bulbs derived from Thomas Edison’s design of 1879.

The launch

'We didn’t plan the launch until three weeks before it happened, because there were still snags in production,’ says Roope.

The story was developing all the while and the neon concept designs from Designers Block had been requested by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for a show called ‘Design and the Elastic Mind’ in 2008, (the designs were later acquired for the museum’s permanent collection).

The neon designs were getting a lot of airplay and after the MoMA show, another design, ‘Doodle’, was subsequently leant to the Victoria & Albert Museum, for its ‘In Praise of Shadows’ show in 2009.

The design of Plumen 001 was withheld until the very last minute in a deliberate attempt to avoid it being copied.

‘We definitely tried to throw potential plagiarists off the scent by being outlandish with the neon concept designs,’ Roope explains. ‘And it was very successful. It added to our confidence that we were doing the right thing with the product.’ 

Photography Tom Mannion

"A lot of products are pre-launched, so they are effectively ‘revealed’ in advance of going on sale. But it doesn’t work for us. We didn’t want to reveal the final shape and design before going on sale. We still hadn’t secured a network of retailers – we were talking to them – but it felt like we needed to land product and then start to sell. We did it with the Hulger phones. The first place you see the product and the first place you can buy it from is the website."

Nicolas Roope

The Plumen 001 launch was timed right down to the last second in order to maximise coverage and drive to real sales.

‘The moment of actual “launch” is very fleeting. You don’t get a second chance to get launch coverage, so you stand the risk of wasting the momentum if you don’t have the stock in place,’ Roope explains.

‘With the Hulger phones, we learned a lot about timing the news and letting the networks fuel the story – there’s only so much you can manage in that respect. All you can do is decide the moment to go,’ he adds.

Once the launch was underway that September day, the team began using the networks exactly as planned, uploading all the photo assets online for anybody to use and waiting for a favourite to emerge by itself.

  • The first shot was of the naked bulb, clean and simple.
  • For the second shoot, Hulger used dressed spaces to show how the bulb can be ‘tailored’ to different rooms with different accessories.
  • The team uploaded a video of the bulb in rotation, to show off the angles and dispel the myth that there were five different designs.
  • The Hulger team validated its approach by asking for opinions online
  • Plumen stole top slot of the Google listings for the term ‘designer low energy light bulb’

Telling the story on pack

Plumen’s striking identity and packaging were crafted by Violetta Boxill, the designer behind all of Hulger’s branding and product packaging. It’s a key role for Hulger, which deftly uses its products as a canvas for publishing its ideas and values, and for talking about more than electrical specifications.

‘The packaging,’ says Roope, ‘is the story of the bulb before it gets installed. It’s an opportunity to see our attitude – the rejection of the conventional.’

For the Plumen 001, the pack design features monochrome images of the bulb from corresponding sides, so the base has a bottom up view and the sides show off the bulb’s sculptural shapes. The pack back is an information panel. And the pack is high, much bigger than for other low energy light bulbs.

Boxill explains that, just as with the branding for the Hulger phones, the Plumen box has a lot to accomplish to tell its story and get the standout it was looking for.

Packaging Violetta Boxill

"We wanted to make the point that it’s beautiful in spite of being green not because it’s green, so it wasn't about creating anything that looked worthy. It’s a premium product so we wanted it to feel considered. And I wanted it to feel very clean."

Violetta Boxill
Graphic Designer

Boxill started drafting early versions of the Plumen packaging using images of the prototype bulbs, which were replaced with the final product once it was ready.

Naming the product

Plumen - from a combination of beauty and function – ‘plume’ (in reference to the decorative feathers of birds) and ‘lumen’ (the unit for measuring light). 

Information Design

The information design is deliberately light on copy, and very visual.

 'We spent quite a lot of time in the supermarkets looking at the packaging of sustainable light bulbs and we realised there is so much information on every facet,’ says Boxill.

‘I was really keen to keep all the information in one place, so you don’t have to keep turning it around to find what you need. Originally, I wanted to strip out all the copy and just use pictograms, but it wouldn’t work in all the territories. Different countries have mandatory requirements for what you need to display - in the US, there’s five point copy all the way down,’ she adds.

Identity

Boxill worked on the packaging and identity simultaneously. She tried out several early versions of the identity, which she wanted to reflect the product and also fit within the wider Hulger stable.

The Plumen identity itself plays with the forms of the letters in the Plumen name, and ‘makes the suggestion of a pendant in the letter M’, which like the bulb is symmetrical from the front.

Colour palette

Magenta was selected as the first workable signature colour for the packaging - chosen for its warmth and fit with the Hulger master brand, Boxill says.

Plumen’s palette takes different shades of a key block colour to distinguish between different bulb fittings. So as they emerge, different bulb sizes or designs, can take new colours using the same tonal approach.

After doing the original photography herself, Boxill now works with her long time collaborator photographer Andrew Penketh.

‘All the images are consciously very genuine,’ says Boxill, who’s gone out of her way to avoid the excessive gloss and image re-touching she sees in some product packaging.

The branding has now been worked across stationery, the website and on-shelf and in-store visuals too, including displays at The Conran Shop.

Post-launch acclaim

Plumen’s success since the launch is well charted. Online its cut-through has been quite awesome, with an ever-growing community of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, as well as copious reviews on noteworthy design blogs and mainstream press.

In terms of the PR value of all this, Hulger estimates that it has generated over £1m worth of network coverage from a marketing budget of precisely zero. Impressive figures.

In terms of its sales cut through, the product has increased its retail reach from 15 outlets at launch to over 100 stores, including John Lewis and The Conran Shop in the UK, West Elm and Anthropologiein the US, Illums and Praxis in Scandanavia and the Netherlands.

Plans are now in play for increasing this reach into some of the major multiples, and the launch of a smaller new light bulb product with a lower price point is planned some time in 2012. 

Awards and achievements

Plumen was nominated by two separate nominees (Shane Walter of Onedotzero and product designer Sam Hecht) into the product category of the Brit Insurance Designs of the Year Awards, held at the Design Museum in 2011.

It made the second round shortlist and entry into the Awards’ exhibition along with the Apple iPad and the Dyson fan. For the Design Museum show, the team presented the bulb in series, as a line of 12 bulbs to show its different faces.

Winning the grand prix was overwhelming and came as a huge surprise. But coming in the year that incandescent bulbs were axed from the major retailers, it was also very prescient.

‘After that the story has kept on going,’ says Wilkinson. ‘We won a black pencil from D&AD, which was amazing because we were up against some huge product designs there too.’

The Plumen 001 also received the Smarta Innovation Award 2011 and is featured in the permanent collection at MoMA and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

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