The Odd Designer Out

It’s a tough life to be an industrial designer. It’s tougher when the engineering, supply chain, and marketing functions jump all over your ideas.

As electronics and mechanical devices have become ever more integrated, the various engineering functions, mechanical, electrical, and software, have learned to work together on designs. Now it’s time to learn to work together with industrial designers for more aesthetically pleasing designs.

The term Industrial Designer, I think, is a miss-label, even an oxymoron. After all, our industrial designers often work very hard to help us shape and develop our products to appear much less “industrial” and much more comfortable.

If your organization works with industrial engineers on product designs, either your own in-house designers, or contracted or customer designers, is the relationship between the engineers and the industrial designers one of camaraderie or is it adversarial?

Industrial designers are often at odds with our engineers. Just think about it. The industrial designer’s job is to improve the appearances of our products. No doubt that looks matter. Unfortunately, that which looks really nice isn’t always practical to manufacture or economical to build.

In the automotive industry, designers produce car appearances and concept cars with mind-blowing styles. By the time the engineers and production teams are done with them, they are lucky to retain the general theme sometimes.

What looks great isn’t always aerodynamic enough to enable the fuel economy required. Sometimes the molds or manufacturing processes simply aren’t capable of repeatedly reproducing the shapes to tight tolerance requirements.

It’s a tough life to be an industrial designer. It’s tougher when the engineering, supply chain, and marketing functions jump all over your ideas and they aren’t well received and everyone wants something different.

In one of my past career personas, I worked inside of a corporate sector that developed commercial and residential door locks. The business hired a handful of industrial designers to help improve the appearance of our products and maintain a competitive edge.

In the beginning, the industrial designers struggled to find a place in the development process. They were definitely the odd designers out of the team. The relationship started out somewhat adversarial.

After a couple of years of struggling with it, however, we eventually learned how to work together, efficiently and effectively. Our designs improved.

Let me share some observations from that learning curve we experienced and see if some of them won’t help you either improve your utilization of industrial designers or shorten your migration from adversaries to comrades.

1. By nature industrial designs and engineering designs are at odds. It seems to be a law of the universe, perhaps a corollary to “Murphy’s Law” that which is eye-catching is difficult. Difficult equates to costly. It is the industrial designer’s curse that their best designs shall be the engineer’s worst nightmare.

This can be mitigated by mentoring designers and engineers alike through the process of working together on industrial designs. Compel your engineers and industrial designers to visit the manufacturing processes together.

Let them bring back samples of molded and vacuum pressed and other manufacturing process components. Let them see and feel what can be achieved and what is just too intricate to be practical. It will be a good education for both of them, and it will give them a common ground to stand on when discussing how to achieve some of the design ideas.

2. Eliminate the phenomenon of the industrial designer working with marketing folks to develop neat-looking ideas and then throwing them over the wall at the engineers. The over-the-wall phenomenon breeds conflict. It inhibits understanding.

Understanding is the key to avoiding conflict. It’s difficult to disapprove of, or to condemn, that which we understand. Therefore, compel your industrial designers and engineers to work together on refining the designs that marketing picks. It may be important to include your manufacturing experts as well, if your engineers are not themselves intimate with process limitations.

Let the industrial designers and the engineers approach the marketing leaders together with compromise proposals. It lets the engineers understand first-hand why certain features are important and it keeps the industrial designer from being caught in the middle. It also demonstrates a teamwork solution, instead of a hostile negotiation.

3. Encourage the engineers to get creative themselves about how to achieve designs. Make it a positive agenda to invent ways to achieve difficult designs. Make it a challenge to be conquered. This fosters an attitude of welcoming challenging designs instead of resisting them out of practice or policy.

This is a powerful behavioral change that opens the door for your business to truly introduce some innovative appearances and features into a competitive market. It takes the entire product development team to do it, but it really makes a difference as they rise up to the challenge and your capabilities improve.

4. Make sure that industrial designers are teamed up with the marketing function for customer research and voice-of-the-customer data collection. The more information and direct insight the industrial designers receive, the more inspiration they foster for their designs.

5. Establish clear roles and responsibilities for the industrial designers. It took a couple of years of working together for us to learn where the industrial designer’s contribution to market research began, and where their contribution to product development ended. Instead of letting it work itself out over years, start a deliberate dialog and begin writing guidelines.

Be prepared to correct those guidelines as assumptions are tested and boundaries are crossed. Eventually, we found that the industrial designers became very helpful in researching possible manufacturing methods, for example, but determined that the decision about what processes would be used or suppliers would be engaged belonged to the engineers and purchasers.

6. Make sure that when the team is making its concept selection decision, and picking the design concept, engineering strategy, and process proposals, that your supply chain function is part of the discussion. It is critical that the supply chain can support the assumptions about what will be accomplished.

That’s it for my observations and recommendations. You will observe that by the time your organization has addressed each one, your industrial engineers will have become very well connected with virtually every function that contributes to product development.

Whether your industrial designers are in-house, or contracted, or if it’s a matter of working with your customers’ designers, the observations above can certainly help bridge the gap between the designers and the rest of the product development staff. If your industrial designers are not in-house, build the practice of inviting them to go with you on visits to manufacturing floors and get in the habit of conversing with them every day.

The only way to get two groups to work as a unified team is to emulate the behavior of a unified team. That means relentless communication and common perceptions.

Integrate your industrial designers into your product development team, eliminate the over-the-wall phenomenon, inspire a desire to invent ways to achieve brilliant-but-challenging designs, and sort out the boundaries of roles and responsibilities. When your engineers and product development teams work hand-in-hand with skillful industrial designers, your products can take on a whole new level of market prowess.

Stay wise, friends.