Designs on Designers

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The Problem

In my refrigerator there is a wheel control that is used to change its temperature. It is jammed to position 3 by use of a lolly stick. Why? Because just about every fourth or fifth time I put something in there (especially when it is nearly full) the wheel is disturbed and the temperature setting is changed.

I cannot for the life of me work out how this design flaw was passed in the first place. Surely, this problem came to light when the prototype was being tested?

Another problem I have is with my car. The light in the dash that indicates the full beam is on is obscured by the steering wheel. No matter what position I change the steering wheel to, it still manages to obscure this important light. I am about average height but have to constantly crane over the steering wheel in order to find out if I am blinding other drivers. Once again, how did this pass the design test?

These are only two example - but we all know that there are many more.

Designers do not have an easy task. Depending on what they are asked to design, they are required to match artistic license and flair with functionality. They are faced with many obstacles along the way. Here are some of them:

1. The Client
When a new design brief comes along, the designer is usually handicapped right from the start. Whoever the client is, whether its the designer's own boss or an external client, they will have pre-conceived ideas that the designer is expected to accommodate. Straight away the designer needs to know how to play the politics involved in getting out an original, workable piece whilst pleasing the “wouldn't it be great if" crew. A confident designer with a proven track record can afford to demand some space from the client, or at least the opportunity to make some mistakes. A less confident designer may turn into no more than a draughtsman, slavishly turning the client's amateurish instructions into the dog's dinner it will inevitably become.

2. The Critics
Most designs are a compromise between aesthetics and functionality. Constructive criticism is possible when dealing with functional aspects. Aesthetics are a different matter: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A designer can have the wind taken out of their sails at an early stage if someone says they think their design is not pleasing to the eye (or just plain ugly!). Let's just acknowledge the skill required to be a product designer. The rocket designer has it easy: 100% functionality required. The artist also has it easy with 100% aesthetics. Our product designer has to have a foot in both worlds - and perhaps his fingers in his ears!

3. Production
Yes, but how will it work in production? Good question. Most products are designed to be re-produced in mass production. All designers will have this in mind from the start. There is no point in designing the perfect product that costs zillions to produce. The problem is that the production manager will so enjoy pointing this out at every opportunity - great design - impossible to make. A good retort of course, is to state the reverse which is equally true: there is no point in designing the perfect production-friendly product if the end users don't like it: great production product - impossible to use.

4. Time
I have a sneaky feeling that this is the most common problem of all. Most situations require deadlines. Well the average client is hardly likely to say: “I want this product at some time in the future - whenever you can get around to it". Most new product launches are project-managed, with the designer always - I mean ALWAYS - allocated insufficient time. As time is a linear phenomenon, the corners that tend to be cut fall in the latter stages. This rather obvious statement is made in order explain why prototype testing and customer satisfaction measurements tend to be squeezed the most. Several weeks or months may have originally been put aside for these vital aspects when in reality two or three afternoons of prototype testing are all that separate a working model from the finished product.

5. Events
While you are designing your new product, the world around you is changing. Customers’ purchasing habits are changing. The factories that might make your products are being upgraded. New legislation is being planned. New materials are now available. And, of course, competitors are bringing out new products and doing a great job in moving your goalposts. If only the world could stop while you perfect your design. . .

The Solution

The product design function comes in all shapes and sizes. Small companies may employ just one part time designer who often will be the business owner. I personally think that the make up of the design function is the most vital part. Large companies may have an in-house design team - that is fine. The rest should also consider having a design team rather than leaving it up to one person, even if outside resource is brought in to bolster the function for the lifetime of a specific project. It is common for companies, large and small, to pull in outside resource from a design agency - sometimes they will be given the full brief. If resources are scarce and only one designer can be afforded, I would rather have two part-time designers (perhaps seconded from other duties for part of the week) then one full-time. The reason for this is the need to be two things at once:  focussed on tunnel vision creativity and focussed on outside pressures and influences.

The ideal ingredients of the design team are the following:

- Outer function
- Moderating function
- Inner function

Ideally the designers will all be qualified professionals. As well as having their own fields of design expertise that they will bring to the team, they will also fall into one of the above three camps. The outer function will deal with external pressures: they will be more experienced and will be given the task of dealing with demands made by the client or the boss. They will fight for resources, including precious time for the team. They will defend the teams decisions. They will also keep a watching brief on changes in materials, trends, legislation and competitor activity. They will work closely with the production team. They will act as a filter, feeding back to the design team only information and requirements that are needed. Let's say the client insists on a particular design feature and the external function see merits in this, or - let's get real - are told to include the feature or else. This can then be communicated back to the team as a bona fide decision that must be adhered to. Other tittle-tattle can be discarded.

The inner function will need to consist of free-thinkers who are given time and space to produce innovative ideas. They need to possess innovative thought processes and an open mind. They will be protected from outside interference as much as possible. Their ideas will be taken up by the moderator function which will feed back to them, moderating their expectations in line with outside realities whilst giving them encouragement.

The moderating function will work with the inner function, turning their ideas into workable solutions. They will also do the same with the information and decisions that come in from the outer function. The moderating function will not necessarily have the free-thinking attributes of the inner function, but will not be bogged down in having to deal with the external contacts. They will be the end-designers. They will turn the ideas fed from both the inner function and moderate these with the demands from the outer function and come up with the design.

The whole team will need to feedback on the aesthetic elements, as the widest possible poll of these aspects would be required.

This is not design by committee. This is a team of people who must be joined to each other at the hip. They will be expected to argue their corner but will also compliment each other, giving way to each other's strengths and be prepared to give in when the time comes. The team will become one entity and not a group of individuals - not a committee.

I can only imagine that there were some on the design team of my refrigerator and car who were aware of the design faults I have highlighted. I am sure that if their design teams had been structured the way I have suggested above I wouldn't have a lolly stick in my temperature control and would not have to be in fear of causing a pile up on the motorway.

Insectocutor is a good case study where product design has moved over the years from purely functional to a balance between function and aesthetics. Their fly killer machines have traditionally been built for food factories and out-of-sight kitchens. In the last few years they have recognised that there is an increasing trend to have fly killers in front-of-house areas such as retail shop floors and open kitchens. They have also seen an increase in the use of fly killers in domestic homes. As such, the Discreet Series and Select Series have been developed. These are kind to the eye whilst still doing an excellent job of dealing with flying insects. Their most powerful machine is a marriage of both aesthetics and functionality. The IND61 can kill flying insects within a 500 sq metre area and looks majestic as it guards us from up on high. Insectocutor have the perfect design team - where do you think I got my ideas from!

Please have a look at the Insectocutor fly killers at the Arkay Hygiene web site. Here is the mighty IND61 Electric Fly Killer machine.


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