ORLANDO, FLA. – Design. Engineering. Marketing. Together they comprise the three legs of the proverbial product-development stool. Remove one, and the project is likely to teeter and fall.
Good communication and collaboration between these disciplines is vital to delivering the types of products and user experiences necessary to succeed with today’s demanding customers and consumers. And yet these links often fray, if not break, resulting in cost overruns, launch delays and unseemly compromises in the appearance or function of the final product.
Why does this happen, and what can be done to avoid it?
A blue-chip panel of designers and engineers tackled this topic at the recent NPE 2015 trade show in Orlando, and drew on their decades of experience to share insights and suggestions with a standing-room-only crowd of about 90 on March 26 at the Orange County Convention Center. The panel was one of two pre-conference sessions staged in conjunction with the Industrial Designers Society of America (www.idsa.org), which held its IDSA South District Design Conference at NPE.
Marco Perry, founder and principal of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based industrial design firm Pensa LLC (www.pensanyc.com), helped to frame the discussion by assessing the differences in training and culture between designers and engineers. Perry, who has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and a master’s in design, explained:
Engineers are trained in school to follow the rule of thumb. “You take a scientific approach to creating repeatable results and you put a function to it, that’s basically some form of invention. … So they’re really trained not to change the past, because it’s been proven to work.”
Designers, on the other hand, are trained in design school to come up with something completely original, with originality being among the most-valued goals. A designer “really doesn’t want to repeat the past because there’s nothing different about it – and there’s no value in that.”
“If you talk to the designers, they’re going to imagine possibilities you never thought of before. It’s not because they’re more creative, it’s because they’re not cursed by knowledge,” he said, prompting a wave of laughter in the room. “There’s this curse that, like, it can’t be done that way, and therefore it is not done that way. And so sometimes you get pretty far with some blissful ignorance.” Perry sees great value in tapping into designers to push the ability of materials into unknown and unproven areas.
Augusto Picozza, long-time director of industrial design in Boca Raton, Fla., with Jarden Consumer Solutions (www.jardencs.com) – parent to such brands as Mr. Coffee, Crock-Pot, Sunbeam and Oster – added:
“Someone asked me once what my greatest value was to the company. And I said, ‘It’s my ability to challenge assumptions.’ We don’t want to repeat the same old thing every time – you’re [always] discovering.”
Picozza, who began by studying engineering before becoming a designer some 38 years ago, believes strongly that all industrial designers should steep themselves in technical knowledge about manufacturing, tooling, processes and materials, and aim to be very well rounded.
David Kusuma, vice president of product development worldwide for Tupperware Brands (www.tupperware.com) in Orlando, began his career as a designer before also getting an engineering degree (followed by two MBAs and a Ph.D.). Early on, Kusuma worked for Bayer Corp., the U.S. arm of the big German materials company, and he got frustrated when he was not allowed to do things he thought he was well qualified for.
“There I was the designer, and I shouldn’t be doing the materials specification – things like that. What I learned, after I finished going through engineering school, was that you’re only as good as your terminal degree. Once I became an engineer, I was told, ‘No, you can’t work on the creative side’.”
At Tupperware, a $2.6 billion global company, he said, “We’ve been trying to figure this whole thing out over the past couple years. Is it better to have designers who are very knowledgeable in materials and manufacturing processes, or is it better to give them the route of the ivory tower – let them design products without the constraints of manufacturing, and hope they bring something much more unique out that we can figure out how to make later on?”
Kusuma doesn’t think there is a right or wrong approach – both can work. But what Tupperware has been doing lately is organizing all its development people into what it calls “category teams.” It segments its product lines into different categories – such as microwaving, children’s products, on-the-go products, etc. – and then assigns designers, engineers and marketing people to each of these teams.
“Their job is to work with each other to make sure that everything is taken care of from the ground up – all the way from defining the market size, doing all of the market research, and then carrying the development through the design and through the technical process of delivering a product. We find that this has made communication a lot better.”
Kevin Shinn previously worked as a design leader at Newell Rubbermaid Inc. and at materials giant Dow Corning Corp., but now is vice president of design at Altair ThinkLabs (www.altair.com), a Troy, Mich.-based software and services firm that does end-to-end product design and development.
Speaking of his role as a design manager, Shinn said: “It’s less of an effort of leading the design team, and more of an effort of managing the rest of the company. So a lot of the purpose of my job is to run interference so the designers can do what they can do.
“I’m big on pushing my teams to learn to speak the rest of the business, as well. You need to understand the finances; you need to understand how engineering plays in product development, the marketing, and all aspects of the business. I think when you do that, people are more likely to understand what we do.”
But fellow panelist Mark Dziersk, Chicago-based managing director of consultancy Lunar Design (www.lunar.com), pushed back a bit. He challenged some of the points being made, and stressed that he believes it’s not necessary to be an all-rounder, as long as you are excellent at your chosen skill.
“Some consultants came up with the idea of the T-shaped person – you’re deep in your discipline, but you have to be a ‘T’; you have to go across the disciplines, and you have to learn to speak engineer, and speak finance, and speak marketing. I’m gonna kind of call bullshit on that.”
“Why can’t we bring the ‘I’ back into T-shaped people? Why can’t you be so excellent at what you do, that people seek you out [because] you bring something to a discipline, or expertise, that’s never been seen before? The organization can figure out – like Tupperware has – how to make those people communicate. But celebrate insanely great engineering, and then expose designers to that. I don’t care if they don’t speak the same language – they’ll collaborate.”
Dziersk applies the same logic to those firms that want to attract good design talent – either to hire or simply to work with.
“If you want designers to come to you, that’s all you have to do. It’s like a magnet; it’s like an elixir. Pursue excellence, and designers will seek you out. Figure out a way to make things that nobody has ever done before, and you’ll own their attention for as long as you want.”
At the same time, Dziersk warned that designers sometimes can get too emotionally attached to their work, to their own detriment. “As soon as that happens in a boardroom, or whatever, you get discounted,” he said.
But there’s also a good reason for such intensity and passion, he noted. “There are no statues in Central Park that are erected to honor the work of committees.”
Chris Bray, director of IQ Design Labs (www.iqdesignlabs.com), the St. Louis-based, in-house design team for materials giant PolyOne Corp., stressed the need stay grounded as a designer and focused on the end game.
“When I go in front of a business leader in our company, and I need a new 3-D printer, he wants to hear how this is all going to fit within his or her business objective.”
So another area of “bridging the gap” relates to demonstrating the value internally of having a design capability within your company. “How do you substantiate what it delivers for the company, and is it helping the company accelerate toward those business objectives?”
Bray said he spends just as much time selling internally as he does selling externally to customers. The reason why is that design as a discipline is much talked about, and it seems to provide value, but that value is difficult to quantify.
He suggested a cautious approach when it comes to scaling up operations – because the last thing you want is a studio full of people you find yourself struggling to justify.
As for the value of engaging with designers, both Shinn and Kusuma noted that while designers seldom directly specify a given material or process, they can have a huge influence on what does get specified in the end. And so there is a good reason for a materials or software provider to try to gain mindshare of young designers – even while they are still students.
Despite all the communication challenges that exist, Pensa’s Perry offered his strategy for success: “I don’t try to get the engineers to talk designer, or to try to get them to change anything that they’re doing. What we try to do is to get everybody to focus on the main goal, which either is our client’s goals, or trying to make a great experience for a product.”
When it comes to interacting with other departments, Picozza served up some principled advice of his own:
“When marketing says, ‘I really don’t like the way that looks,’ I think the designer needs to respond not with personal opinions but with principles. ‘Well, let me tell you why this form is better than that one, in principle of design. It has a softer, inviting form, it has this, it has that, it has the other; now, tell me why you think that one is better.’ And force on them the need to bring principles into play, rather than just personal opinions. Because when it comes to personal opinions, I’m always right – aren’t you?” he said with a laugh.
“Individual excellence,” stated Picozza, “in collaboration to a common purpose – that’s really what teamwork is about. Each has an obligation to perform to their highest level of excellence, in support of one another, not in adversary to one another.”
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