Product Design

Marginal Gains - The Pursuit Of Perfect Design

October 26, 2023

In the industrial design space, the pursuit of achieving perfect design is never ending. Often when people are looking to solve a problem or improve their work, they seek a single transformative solution to address all the issues. Making small changes that appear to have minimal impact on the outcome can seem like a waste of time, which is understandable. However, the accumulation of many small improvements can result in a substantial overall gain to the final outcome.  This philosophy of incremental improvements adding up is referred to as marginal gains. This approach has been used in F1 for decades as a method for gaining an edge on the competition without breaking any rules of the FIA. More recently, the concept of marginal gains gained prominence when David Brailsford, the Performance Director of British Cycling, utilized it effectively, leading the GB Track Cycling team to an impressive record of seven gold medals. He searched for 1 percent improvements that other teams overlooked, from sleeping with the most optimised pillow to teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid getting sick.

Utilizing a marginal gains approach in design involves breaking down the product development into the smallest aspects and optimizing each one. Just like painting a masterpiece takes countless tiny strokes of the brush, developing a fully optimized product requires countless incremental improvements. By scrutinizing each and every part of a products design, manufacture and performance, you can discover opportunities for improvement that may have otherwise been missed. The marginal gain’s philosophy pushes designers to take on a holistic perspective, understanding that even the smallest of things can have an influence on the overall performance and attraction of a product. Essentially what it does is gives designers the power to create products that don’t just meet the needs of users but far surpass their expectations, and often disrupting markets in the process.


Let’s look at bikes as an example of high-performance products where the slightest improvements in performance can give an edge over the competition. Bike frames are an area of constant research and development. The geometry of the bike frame influences the weight, comfort, and aero dynamics of the bike, all of which have an impact on the speeds the rider can reach. The material of the frame is another big factor that effects the weight of the bike or the way it absorbs shock from the road.

To people not big into cycling you may think a tire is a tire, however its another aspect of bike design where small improvement can be made to have a big overall effect. Reducing rolling resistance is a key focus in bike design. In road bikes the smallest, smoothest and lightest tires are the goal, any improvement to these aspects will increase the speed of the rider. Or in mountain bikes increased wheel diameter and tires size or improved grip can improve the handling down a high-speed trail. Innovations in bike tire design and materials have even made their way into other industries such as wheelchairs, improving their mobility and ease of use for the users.

Another key focus is power transfer, optimizing the transfer of energy from the rider to the wheel is an aspect of bike design where small improvements can have a big impact on performance. Its all about allowing the rider to gain as much speed as possible using as little effort as possible. The diameter of the wheel, the gear ratios, number of sprockets, speed of gear changes, pedal sizes are a few of the things that can play a big role in the ride efficiency.

All these aspects that have been described play a part in how well the bike performs and even though a small change to one of them may not have a massive overall effect, if you optimize each one then you’ll create a bike that could win a gold medal in the Olympics or have the quickest downhill run in a red bull mountain competition. When you get into high performance products its these incremental changes that can set you apart. Racing bikes for example, the difference between winning can be less than a second. So, any reduction in weight or improvement in aerodynamics and ride could be difference between first and second.

F1 Car Design Evolution
Picture above showing the evolution of F1 car design. A visible example of how over time countless small improvements result in a drastic overall change.

F1 cars are another example of where a marginal gains philosophy has led to products of the highest performance. The sports constant drive for tiny improvements to performance has produced technological innovation that trickle down into consumer products. The aerodynamics of an F1 car is the pinnacle of engineering. There is not a single curve, line, angle, or wing on an F1 car that has not been engineered to reduce drag and increase downforce. This has had an influence on trains where aerodynamics is being used to increase their speed and improve energy consumption.

Every component on an F1 car has been optimised, not even the bolts are free from engineering scrutiny. Everything has been designed to reduce weight and improve handling. The cars are built from light weight and high strength materials such as carbon fibre to help keep the weight down and prevent too much flexing in the body. Nothing is based on assumptions, F1 teams utilize industry leading data analysis to optimise everything on their cars. If you extend this to product design, using data analysis can help to identify user behaviour patterns that can be used to inform your design decisions, tailoring the product to the needs of the user.

The marginal gain’s philosophy encourages product designers to push their designs to new heights. Its an understanding that the road towards excellence takes one step at a time. By analysing every aspect of a design, from aesthetics to function, materials to manufacturing, designers can develop products that disrupt markets and exceed expectations. Taking a commitment to continuous improvement and innovation can lead to setting new industry standards. With the market competition as fierce as it is and expectations of consumers as high as they are, utilizing the marginal gain’s philosophy is a method for success.

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