What Low Design Differentiation Looks Like


I was recently shopping for a new bike helmet and I was struck by a realization: Is there another category with lower differentiation amongst the different brands?

Above is a representative sampling of helmets from four different manufacturers: Bell, Giro, Louis Garneau, and Specialized. I’ve removed the logos. Can you tell one brand from another? I certainly can’t. (Answer at the end of the post)

The bike helmet category, so far as I can see, is primarily style driven, as all the helmets have to meet minimum safety standards determined by a couple of third party organizations. The differences in weight and comfort between the lower end and upper end helmets (a price range of $40 to over $200) are marginal. The major difference is in the amount of cooling — the upper end helmets have larger vent holes — but contrary to a few years ago even the middling helmets are good in this respect. The $60 Bell I picked up cools much better than my five year old $100+ Specialized.

A significant incentive in many bike purchases is what pro’s are using, and having bragging rights to the latest gear. In that case you would expect more obvious differences at the upper end — if there’s isn’t a strong visible tiering, or a strong brand identity through the product design, then only a tiny number of people will be able to spot that you’re wearing the latest and greatest, which dilutes the incentive to spring for the expensive stuff.

Bell Sports owns Giro, who was the originator of the bare-styrofoam helmet that dramatically reduced weight over the older style that had a hard plastic shell. Typically when a company acquires another one they want to keep a differentiation between them, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Based on my experience, the two brands seem tailored for slightly different shape heads (Giro = rounder, Bell = elliptical). Other than that they are largely the same. Between the two of them they dominate the category; I don’t have stats but I’m guessing 80%. Perhaps they’re just a bit complacent due to their almost-monopoly?

It’s odd that in such a style driven category that all the manufacturers have basically converged on a single aesthetic and stuck to it. In fairness, designing anything to go on the head is a tricky and highly constrained exercise and one of the most difficult things to design, but this level of conformity is still very odd. How about a little choice so we don’t all look like racer wannabe’s with Trilobites stuck to our skulls?

(Brands answer, clockwise from top-left: Giro, Specialized, Louis Garneau, Giro, Bell, Bell)