stephenprocter designdoctor


Product design- it doesn’t have to be a one horse race [August 2006]

Over my years of product design at a Sydney consultancy, I have noted to my dismay, that in most cases, the ideal concept doesn’t get up. A typical project will go as follows;
project briefing> consumer research etc> 3 concepts> develop one concept to a final product.

The big problem with this is that more often than not, I would look back over a project and realise that one of the other concepts, while not looking so hot in the renders, would have resulted in a better overall solution- the elegance of the execution would have made it a better result. Yikes. The client has paid a lot of money, and they are not getting the ideal result.

Worse still, having decided on a concept, a designer will move determinedly ahead, as they come against (mostly) unforseen problems , they determinedly think up solutions and solve them, pushing forward to achieve the chosen concept. Often the solution to one problem will result in more problems that must be solved, having an exponential effect. Often the client will bring in additional information (such as water proofing standards) that the product must adhere to. What started off as a simple, elegant 3 piece solution to a product is fast becoming 10 part ‘bitsy’ compromised solution with join lines in places that start to make the product look downright ugly. The designer may have reservations, but what can they do- the client and their marketing department have agreed that this was the best solution, we (the design consultancy) gave our consent. How can we now turn around and say ‘actually we now think that we should start again with another concept that solves all the problems we didn’t think of’- this cannot happen. Firstly the design consultancy will look silly, secondly the client will balk at the idea of having to pay more money for more hours to replace work that now seems to have been a waste of time.

The reality of starting again may not be so bad. I was fortunate enough to start agin on a project that involved television screens in buses. 60 screens had been made and installed into buses, then the bus drivers refused to drive the buses because the screens restricted their view of the passengers in the aisle of the buses. The initial project had taken14 months costing a considerable amount. Making the 60 screens had taken 9 weeks. The redesign took 5 days, and 1 week to make the replacement 60 and crash test the new design for safety. The cost of making each of the new screens was less than half of the old screens. Close to no overtime was required to achieve this. The new design simply avoided all the problems that the old design had come up against. For example, because of the shape of the previous screens, the process chosen had needed to be aluminium castings. This had meant that they were large, protruding down form the bus. This meant that to pass regulations, the screen needed to have a striped foam pad below so that it would be visible to passengers, and not hurt them if they did hit their head against it. The process of printing onto the foam was difficult and took many weeks to solve, let alone the problems of adhering the pad, and assembling it. The new screen simply avoided the issue by making the screen from sheet metal, allowing thinner walls, making the screen smaller, and avoiding the need for having any foam pad. This was only one of many solutions; theirs included being able to install it by only one person instead of two for the previous design, taking 25 mins to assemble instead of 1.45 hours for the previous design. The list went on. The company then went on to make another 300 screens making the initial problem an overall saving.

This flow on effect- of one problem (like the screen protruding down form the ceiling of the bus too far) causing a host of largely unforseen problems (like how to print the foam) is typical in industrial design, since it is largely a ‘research and development’ process. The difficulty with product design is that the client mostly doesn’t see it this way, is unhappy to pay for unforseen problems, and even less happy to pay for starting again. In fact I am yet to meet a client who is happy to start a project again when in to them ist should be a straightforward process of making what we showed in the computer rendering.

What ca we do to avoid this issue? I am in favour of a process we could call the ‘2 horse race’ The 2 horse race involves moving forward with 2 concepts. Two concepts are chosen at the early stages and are brought towards the finish line. Invariably one of the concepts will ‘fall off the rails’ (that is become obviously not good ). This will happen because in the process of resolving the details, the winner will show itself. The great American furniture designer Charles Eames said that God is in the details. The winner will be the product that has the most resolvable details.

But wait I hear you saying ‘we don’t want to pay for two concepts to be resolved’. Fair enough, but it doesn’t have to be more expensive. This process helps us to ‘fail early, fail often. The emphasis is on the ‘early’. It means jumping into prototypes and getting into the issues rather than discussing them.

There are flow on savings also- think of all the production savings on a large run. Or the details might make it be slightly better looking, but grab 15% more market share. That would certainly pay for a few extra prototypes.