1. Who am I to advise anyone?
To be honest….it is a fair question and if I were reading any article about some guy that had illusions of grandeur, I would be asking the same question if not give him a few “choice” words or gestures. However, just humor me. I think that being passionate about a particular subject is essential to success. In addition to your passion, any pursuit to master a particular field requires drive, determination, and discipline. With a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design and Interdisciplinary Engineering (Mechanical Engineering focus) and almost 15 years of experience in the automotive industry, hopefully there is enough wisdom within this article to merit your use of time and provide you with some educational information. If the penny doesn’t drop at the end of this article, then I will happily accept your hand “gestures.”
2. Right and Left Side of the Brain thinking:
Let’s start with some basic knowledge with how the brain works. For a quick refresher, all of us must use the right and left hemispheres of our brains to function. The left hemisphere of our brain allows us to rationalize and analyze problems or think in a logical way. You will often use the left side when solving a math problem or having to write a paper where reasoning and logic may be needed in order to get your point across to your reader.
In contrast, the right side of your brain is very much in tune with emotional factors and deals with a holistic approach to problems or in other words “the big picture.” If you appreciate beauty, aesthetics, music, and are generally creative, you are generally considered right side brain dominant.
Everyone uses both sides of their brain in order to dissect information and make logical sense of it. Part of visual stimulation also helps to assist analytical thinking….after all pictures speak louder than words. We’ll delve into this a little more near the end of the article.
3. Tunnel Vision development in the Professional Environment:
The corporate world is a big place…and often times it is tough to figure out where we fit in especially if you work for a large company. I am going to try not to get too philosophical but I’d like to make a point about the mental struggles we have when we embark on the journey to land our first job after graduating from college.
Not everyone knows what they want to do in college. Some of you may have discovered your talents and interests early in life and therefore know what you want. By and large we understand that higher education is indeed important in order to either discover your interests or develop your strengths in an area you are either good at or feel passionate about learning.
For the sake of simplicity and the subject matter of this article, we are going to discuss experiences in engineering and design school and the mindset that develops when you start working.
When attending engineering and design school (or any subject for that matter), you are introduced to courses that teach you the basics and fundamentals before getting into more complex courses. These courses obviously require you to master your prerequisites before advancing to the next semester (at least that is the hope but not always the result).
For four years, you are asked to take several classes mixing a broad range of math, sciences, and electives. In a good design school, you will go through a vigorous program that essentially trains you to not only become a human drawing machine but also a creative problem solver.
These courses are crucial for you to become a master in this particular field though true mastery is not realized until you apply your skill sets to the working environment.
I know from an engineering standpoint, that you won’t discover the true beauty of engineering until you apply the principles of engineering to your job and create solutions to real problems. The same goes with design. As you learn to create and imagine the fantastic in school, you’ll discover the harshness and reality of the real world when manufacturing is involved. Designers often discover that certain emotive shapes are not producible due to manufacturing, engineering, or cost constraints.
It takes a lot of dedication and commitment to master your discipline and to grow your expertise continuously throughout the years.
However, during this time frame one starts to develop Kalnienk Vision (tunnel vision) within your area of expertise. You become blind to the advantages and merits of other disciplines and to some degree; you see “other” disciplines as a deterrent to getting your job done. Therefore, if you are an engineer, you are unable to understand why it takes design so long to finalize a concept, and if you are a designer, you struggle with engineering’s obtuse attitude toward creative solutions.
As a result, the greatness and synergistic explosion that could occur with removing this conflict between disciplines is yet to be realized.
It seems this would be a problem with no solution in sight. How is it possible to take two different disciplines and integrate them to work in harmony?
4. Seat Design Case Study:
The Project Intro:
I sat there in the meeting trying to figure out how in the world we were going to add all this additional content to our customers seats, test it, and launch it in less than half the time frame we were given to execute a typical program.
I thought “let someone else figure it out…and I’ll follow the lead.” To my shock, that someone else was me. I was given the task to lead the program leveraging Industrial Design, Foam/Trim, Structures, to Validation and Manufacturing. Where I work, we make car seats for the automotive industry and there are several complexities involved in manufacturing seats. I had a smaller project before which took me 18 months to complete and we needed every bit of that time. This was quite a larger scope and I couldn’t hide my initial nervousness. We had to redesign the back foam pad, new trim covers, add an airbag, adjustable HR from a fixed design, pass some new federal regulations, and make sure this seat looked better than its predecessor.
Our initial review for the scope of the program and delivery date seemed pretty discouraging. Not because we could not do it but because it was a high pressure, intensely compressed program that required us to nail so many design guidelines in a short amount of time. Typical program timeframe for this content level was around 2 years. We had 10 months!
Coming to Grips with Reality:
So the first thing that happened was ….panic! I had no idea what I was going to do and most of the feedback for completing the project in time from others was more in tune with “good luck with that one!”
It was an old truck and it had not been updated in a decade or so but federal requirements for 2010 dictated certain requirements be met by law. After I calmed down a bit, I collected my thoughts and started with the problem statement and looked at what needed to be done in the short amount of time. We did not have time to re-invent the wheel for several components. We had enough to worry about as it was.
Assembling a solid Team for Flawless Execution:
We had to have a feasible idea and nail it from the start. The only way for this to work was to assemble the team together and get I.D., Manufacturing, Structural Engineering, Quality, and Foam/Trim involved working together from the beginning. I reminded the team about our time constraints and lack of development time. Essentially we would have to go from mockup testing to full production as we had no time for prototypes. I had a design studio background so I wanted to make sure the seat fulfilled our aesthetic and craftsmanship obligations as well. That was paramount as the previous design needed a lot of updates in terms of looks and poor craftsmanship. We needed to ensure the customer was in a solid position in regards to safety and comfort. After all, the end user is going to assume that the seat is indeed safe and is only going to be concerned with comfort and looks.
Leveraging my Creative Expertise:
In order to come up with different proposals and evaluate the feasibility of our design, I started to create sections through the seat on the computer that emulated the aesthetics from our sketches. I would re-construct the curves to get close to our aesthetics and still meet our packaging requirements for optimal manufacturing. In parallel I looked at the changes that our structure would need in order to package the new content.
I conducted some research to understand which items could be used as “carryover” design to reduce our development time and costs. After we found a solution, our structures group completed the design making adjustments to suit certain craftsmanship concerns.
Communicating with the design studio at the OEM was no problem as I was “multi-lingual” from a design perspective as well as engineering. Along with our industrial designer and studio engineer, we were able to communicate the aesthetic intent and make sure we had a balance between the aesthetics and engineering requirements. Bottom line, our customer knew we respected the design integrity of their product. After some preliminary packaging work on my end, our studio completed the necessary feasibility work for our engineering department to complete the final CAD models.
Respecting the merits of other Disciplines:
To re-iterate, understanding how a particular group process works and giving it due respect is key to executing efficiently. I knew exactly what our I.D. team needed in order to execute. Instead of going back and forth with interpretation, communication was steady and effortless.
The advantage of compressed timing, however, enabled us to make decisions quickly. We had much at stake without having to burden the project with unnecessary tasks.
Finalizing the Design and preparing for Manufacturing:
After working on the final theme sketches and renderings (courtesy of our design dept), we created a rough mockup of the seat to calculate mass and conduct a safety test to give us a direction and predict the seat’s performance. We made some tweaks for the next few months before finalizing the structure, trim patterns, and seat foam designs.
Around the 4th month we had prototype seats that were ready for builds. It took a few more months to iron out all the assembly issues, get approval from the customer Studio, and kick off production tooling. This was pretty scary as we only had a couple of mockup samples to indicate the overall performance. However, I did a lot of homework prior to this, assessing the performance of the previous model year seat and predict future performance based on the design changes we made.
By the 8th month, we had our first customer reviews at the manufacturing plant and we got terrific feedback from our customer who felt all programs should be executed in this manner. At the 10th month we were ready to launch for production. Not only did we meet their timing but we also exceeded their expectations for craftsmanship and safety as well! It’s one of the few times our customers had nothing to complain about and we received a lot of recognition for executing efficiently on several different levels.
Initially, I was not convinced that my studio background would be of any importance in my new role as an engineer. When I first made the switch from Design Studio to Engineering years prior to this experience, I literally had to divorce myself from my studio experiences and concentrate on understanding the engineering deliverables before figuring out how to integrate the process. I had to go through a couple of launch programs before being handed my own program to run on my own.
Those programs were extremely tough and “broke” me into the reality of what it took to get a product launched. It was hard work and a real eye opener! I had a tremendous amount of respect for our engineering department. When I worked in the Studio, I was constantly frustrated with what I felt to be an engineering team’s lack of understanding and respect for Industrial Design. However, this conflict started to make sense to me because design did not understand engineering’s rationale and scope of our deliverables. You don’t realize it until you live the experience by working in the trenches.
One thing was clear. I had to excel and accept the fact that I was no longer part of the Studio. If I wanted to figure out a way to integrate disciplines, then I had to embrace the engineering process and earn my stripes as an engineer.
5. The Quest to Integrate Disciplines:
When I graduated from college, my father used to tell me that I needed to write an article about the benefits of integrating design and engineering. After graduating from college, I felt that I did not know enough about the real world in order to write about it. Heck, I still did not know when or how I would use my Thermodynamics and Heat Transfer classes.
Though college affords you the basics and fundamental knowledge to think and solve problems, the practical solutions necessary to manufacture your ideas and bring them to reality are never truly understood until you land a job and work. Whether you attend school for industrial design or engineering, solutions for theoretical problems become the norm and only give you a small picture into the problem solving process.
After graduating, with my dual degree, I ended up landing a dream job of working in an automotive interiors studio. The studio environment was special. We had our own ways of designing and developing interesting ideas and value add products for our customers. I worked on production programs and Autoshow properties. The unique part of our workflow was having not only design and engineering, but studio engineers that facilitated the need to rationalize the concepts from our designers.
I started off as a studio engineer, sketching out ideas and helping our designers adhere to the engineering constraints and packaging dictated by the customer and engineering department. We enjoyed working with each other though our engineering department still felt that we were living in a fantasy land.
After 14 years in the auto industry, conflicts still persist between design and engineering. We still have conflict and lack of understanding between the disciplines and to some extent, a lack of respect to each other’s profession. Perhaps it is the by-product of the automobile culture of doing business to deliver under compressed timing.
However, I must say that without my experiences in the studio and the engineering department, it would have been very difficult for me to execute the 10 month program in that time frame without catastrophic results. Bottom line is that you must care about the value that each discipline brings to execute a product and know enough about each process in order to deliver.
Often times, we talk about innovation, which I fear, has become another overused term….similar to “green.”
What exactly is “innovation?” Is innovating strictly bringing about cool ideas that are envisioned by designers? Can a new process that optimizes efficiency be considered innovation?
I think it is fair to point out that certain things are beyond your control. This includes how companies work at the macro level. There will never be enough time to complete a project and you must always find a way to prioritize your tasks and execute within the time constraint. That said, there are certain principles and ideas that can be incorporated during the refinement phase of the product lifecycle.
Let’s check them out in the next section to understand where the potential gaps are and whether there are opportunities to help close them.
6. The Product Life Cycle:
There are typically 4 phases to the product cycle:
1. Phase 1 – Ideation and Development Phase – This phase constitutes product definition and market segment. You must ask yourself the following questions:
a. What is the product and function?
b. Whom is the product for?
c. Does it satisfy a particular need or solve a particular problem for the market segment?
d. Have you benchmarked similar products out there?
e. How will your product be different and set itself apart from the others?
f. Is your design safe and robust?(if safety is a consideration)
2. Phase 2 – Product Feasibility and Design – Once you finish the ideation stage and solidify an underlying theme for a compelling design that
satisfies and answers the questions above, you will need engineering and manufacturing input. In the automotive world of creating interiors, this comes in the form of packaging components, working with suppliers, and working out the design details to ensure a solid, quality product. The end of this stage will require finished Class A surfaces, engineering CAD models and drawings from which the manufacturer will need in order to make the product. Material choices and components should all be selected and approved at this point.
3. Phase 3 – Prototype Release – Once feasibility has been assessed via CAD and mockups, CAD data and drawings will need to be completed for prototype release after which testing will occur. Testing is usually dictated by the customer requirements or if your company happens to be the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), you will conduct tests to your own specifications. If this is a new product, then more time needs to be taken to understand the product usage and develop a test plan to ensure quality optimization. Though prototype tooling and part costs can be expensive, they are intended to minimize any risks and potential disasters during production launch.
4. Phase 4 – Production Release – Assuming that prototype testing passes with flying colors, you can release for final production. Any refinements to the design as a result of testing would have to be performed and executed during Phase 3.
This is the typical product cycle that is probably similar to product design though product design runs at a fraction of our automotive lifecycle timeframe.
For the 10 month program, we sort of combined Phase 1 and 2, skipped 3, and went on to Phase 4!
Now back to our original conundrum regarding conflict resolution between the visionary designers vs. the pragmatic engineers. Phase 2 is usually where the conflict arises and the balance between theme retention and manufacturing must be ultimately resolved.
The word “conflict” will be in question here. Conflict usually arises due to several factors in the development cycle. Each profession has a job to do and must be focused on producing results that affect the bottom line which is creating a top notch seat that exceeds customers’ expectations. The engineer and manufacturer must ensure they have enough time to address all the concerns from a technical and safety perspective, ensuring the product functions to optimal levels and manufacturing must make sure they can produce the parts consistently.
The typical industrial designer works with the engineering team to ensure guidelines are being met but is more concerned with pushing the boundaries of design. They rarely get involved with plant visits and other engineering deliverables.
7. Shifting your Mindset
Typical Engineering Mindset:
“Enough of the pretty pictures and get on with finishing the design so we can make this product manufacturable.”
Typical Designer Mindset:
“Engineers have zero artistic vision and don’t realize that aesthetics are crucial to selling the product. Thanks for butchering the vision!”
Don’t mistake me…not all mindsets are like the stereotype…however, if you do fall into this category, there are solutions.
The fact of the matter is product design excellence is very much dependent on the affectivity of all facets of design. Each team member must bring their “A” game to the table. The final product is a true culmination of all disciplines working together toward a common goal. That goal is to make this product the best that it can be.
Paradigm Shift in Status Quo Thinking
However, just because everyone brings in their “A” game does not mean they have the best solution. Now how is that possible? If you have respected professionals from each discipline that performs their job at a high level, how is it possible that you did not end up with the best solution?
Time to start innovative thinking! I’ll start off by saying knowledge is power. I recognize that there will always be some sort of conflict between disciplines. It is indeed healthy and a certain amount of conflict is needed in order to think and rationalize ideas. There is no way to completely avoid it. However there are ways to optimize your impact to your design team that will help put you a cut above the rest. That is…getting learned! Not necessarily about your own discipline, but about other disciplines. The only way to reduce conflict is to break down the barriers to misunderstanding and type casting of jobs (ie engineers focus on engineering, designers focus on design).
This does not translate to “must I become an engineer if I am a designer and vice versa?” It means that you try to understand a little about engineering to have more impact on your design.
For example, if you are a product designer that needs to make a product that uses plastic injection molding process; understand the limits of the process and costs associated with complex design vs. a simpler design to reduce tooling costs. Think a little more pragmatically. Gain enough knowledge to challenge the engineer. Some principles in plastic injection molding do not require you to have a degree in engineering. They can be learned such as the merits and properties of certain plastic materials from polypro, ABS, or nylon.
“We don’t want to have a feasible solution at Phase 1; it takes away from our creative process.”
This is the common criticism that I have heard from design colleagues. That does not mean we should create a feasible solution during Phase1. It means we take an active role in rationalizing the design and refine it during Phase 2.
The chart above shows where Industrial Design can continue to play an active role during the feasibility process. The more you engage in the details, the better you are at minimizing repeated mistakes. I would argue that as a designer moves on to their next project, it may be valuable to observe the processes through Phase 4 in parallel.
I am a firm believer that you can never have too much knowledge. I don’t believe knowledge can ever take away from your creativity. If anything, it adds to it. Throughout your entire life, you must continue to learn and build on your current skill sets. Why restrict your skillsets to your professional discipline? The more knowledge you have with understanding process, the more you set yourself apart from others. You just need to know when to leverage it.
Similarly, engineers can also benefit from the very act of sketching out ideas. It broadens their mind and perspective in formulating creative solutions. I always encourage my engineering colleagues to learn more about design. Design has always been more than creating “pretty pictures”(one of engineering’s lackadaisical terms for design). It’s about solving problems in a creative and unique fashion that brings value to your customers.
8. Are there limits in Design?
In this day and age, virtually anything is achievable and producible. You are only limited by your own creativity, technology (which is always advancing) and most of all, your budget. All it takes is a large enough budget and projected earnings to justify the budget. Apple is a fine example of this as money is no object in the research and development of innovative products. Their products are driven by industrial design rather than engineering. Therefore, the engineers must do what it takes to make the design “vision” a reality. That costs money….and when you can sell 30 million iPads a month; you have all the money you need and market demand to support innovative solutions.
9. Short and Long Term Goals for building an Innovative Approach
Short Term Solution: Attitude
The short term solution is to convince yourself that shifting your thinking or attitude towards a particular field, works in your favor. I am a firm believer that everyone has the ability to be creative in their own way and excel to greater heights. One can easily find a way to reach their “unrealized potential.” It all boils down to attitude. You have to be receptive to the idea of learning different subjects. When you do the same job every day, you tend to pigeon hole yourself into a comfortable zone where it prevents you from thinking outside the box. This is a phenomenon that occurs for every discipline including Industrial Design.
One main point I would like to make regarding attitude.
“Once popular status quo thinking is established, one rarely challenges it. It is accepted as the norm.” – Arvind Ramkrishna
I remember when I first interviewed for an entry level product design position with a consulting firm in California before graduating from college. It’s the first time I experienced the attitude that engineering is bad for the designers mind. The senior designer was intrigued about my educational background in engineering and design but felt that it was a deterrent to my creativity. At the time, I really did not know what to think because I did not have enough experience to challenge it. Hopefully, from the experience I have described in the Case Study, you can see this thinking methodology is false. It’s fair to note that it could have been true but bottom line is that I did not allow it to happen.
Letting someone know that too much technical information stifles creativity, tells me they have the wrong attitude and are just limiting themselves. If you have already made up your mind that it will not work, then it simply won’t. I guarantee that it won’t be because you made an honest effort to try it and put it into practice constantly.
You have to know when to apply certain ideas and to what phase of the development. That comes with experience and the willingness to learn. If you don’t have the right attitude to be open to new ideas, you’ll lack the knowledge to understand the potential for it to affect your future ideas.
Learning the ins and outs of both disciplines had been the best strategic decision I have ever made but without applying what you learned, the knowledge would have no purpose.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” – Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs learned Typography when he attended college and fell in love with the subject not because he was required to take it but because he was curious enough to want to learn about it.
It wasn’t till he released the first Macintosh computer that he recalled the attributes of San Serif fonts and implemented it on the keyboard. It was of course a smashing success.
At the time…Mr. Jobs admits he did not have enough foresight to know where he would use this knowledge or if it would be of any use at all.
The fact of the matter is, you may not know when you are going to use information but building your knowledge is clearly never a bad idea.
So to summarize, changing your mindset is a critical element and is the underlying foundation that will help you to grow and see things “differently” on all levels. Be receptive to learn new ideas, disciplines, subjects, etc. The more knowledge you have the more respect you gain from others which leads to more influence to your final product.
To be honest, I hated the switch from design to engineering. Initially, I found it very difficult to cope with the drastic change. However, it was evident that my initial negativity was preventing me from not only learning the new tools that I so desperately needed, but also the ammunition that was necessary to realize my full potential and write this article envisioned post-graduation.
I have learned to cherish every experience, whether good or bad. I work for a terrific company that provides me with a rich framework and opportunity to build and grow that experience.
Long Term Solutions:
Educational institutions such as engineering or private design schools should start to see the value of introducing subjects from other disciplines that will help to aid their creative thinking processes and build not only innovative solutions but also the practical application.
We talk about how education must be improved in this United States and part of that solution lies in the way we must emphasize creative thinking and problem solving even at the elementary school level. This proposal is applicable not only to the U.S. but many other countries that are used to running their curriculum status quo.
The power that a designer or engineer has to be able to not only sketch their ideas but to also look at implementation and execution is a priceless talent to have.
It will allow you to:
- Innovate on a different level by implementing creative solutions in less time.
- Increase your impact to the final design
- Build your own knowledge base that will enable and feed you with more ideas
- Reduce overall development costs
- Minimize production risks that could affect the quality of the product
- Set yourself apart from the competition
The bottom line here is that companies need innovation but there is not enough knowledge on how companies can leverage their talent effectively. Combining disciplines is the natural progression and evolutionary change that is necessary for this to happen.
I have read about and witnessed a lot of R&D that occurs with the absence of Industrial Design and similarly, Design will tend to go solo and create their visions without the backing of engineering. In some cases, both solutions can lead to money wasted with no real practical solution. That said, there is nothing wrong with going full out and creating beautiful exteriors of automobiles or products that stretch the boundaries between concept and reality. It gets the public excited about the brand and brings optimism and pride in the creativity and innovative thinking of the company. However, reflection on those ideas and how to bring them into reality should be the focus of R&D and should not stop at the conceptual stage.
So how can one accomplish this?
The best way to bring about new product is to understand the change needed in the product itself and whether it is appropriate for the market. You then need to understand the technologies out there (or being developed) that can help realize the vision. Part of this process is to understand the limitations and cost of the technology and whether a suitable price point can be achieved through a predicted volume.
Finding the right balance and making optimal use of both hemispheres of the brain is challenging. However we all have the potential to be able to leverage the hidden talents within. Whether we know this or not, all of us can be creative in some way. You simply cannot function without using both hemispheres of your brain. Perhaps you feel that you cannot draw but play a musical instrument. Playing an instrument uses both the left and right side of the brain. You have to be able to read the music (left hemisphere), but to avoid playing the music mechanically; you must leverage the emotional component (right hemisphere) to bring the music to life! The same goes for drawing, depending on the level you want to achieve. To understand the technical aspects of drawing such as perspective, you must tackle it analytically and make sense of it. Then you must practice before it becomes an emotional experience to create and sketch with rhythm and fluidity.
It may not be a practical solution to be able to completely change the way some businesses think or restructure a designer or engineers thinking methodology. It will take a lot of time and focused effort to welcome new ideas into your current frame work of thinking.
However, designing a product does not mean aesthetics alone. The final product is a culmination and reflection of all disciplines working together toward a common goal. To make the best product they are capable of.
I am reminded of one of the greatest inventors and true archetype of the Renaissance Man. His name was Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci had the abilities beyond comprehension because he was not only gifted but had an undying thirst for knowledge and understanding how things worked. By understanding the technical details, his concepts gained respect and credibility that carried through in virtually everything he imagined. He visualized the fantastic from helicopters, flying machines, tanks, solar power, and calculators. Just think what one could accomplish if they did not set limitations to their job responsibilities.
Why does any of this matter to you?
We live in an extremely competitive world where we must not only compete for jobs domestically, but globally. Outsourcing trends seem to continue with companies looking abroad for talent at cheaper costs. Other countries like China and India are searching for ways to change the status quo in their own educational institutions seeking more creative courses and disciplines. They are hungry for knowledge and creativity. It will get more difficult to set yourself apart from the competition. For this reason alone, it is to anyone’s benefit to go above and beyond their jobs to not only create value for your company…but more importantly…yourself. You owe it to yourself to be the best you can be.
Reflecting on my own experiences and appreciating history I have to admit that Da Vinci was just an amazing human being that was driven by his desire to constantly learn without boundaries. Take the attitude to learn for the sake of learning. Hopefully as we all search to understand the evolution of design, we can realize that positive thinking and the quest for knowledge is truly the only key to creating innovative products no matter your field of expertise. Who knows….perhaps someday as you reflect on this article, you may indeed decide to embrace some of these concepts in your quest for knowledge and self-improvement. When that time comes, you may very well be…our next Renaissance Man.
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