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3 Top Tools with Dan Massam, Industrial Design Manager

(Our “3 Top Tools with” series looks at the everyday work of Bresslergroup’s strategists, researchers, designers, and engineers through the lens of their top tools for product design.)

Working here, you get to touch a lot of projects and learn a lot about very diverse markets and products.

I’m used to that because I’ve been in design consulting for more than fifteen years. It’s still a thrill to see products on the market that I’ve designed. I feel gratified knowing that people are using and interacting with them on a daily basis. It also means there are a number of products I’ll never look at the same way again.

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Tools are a lot different now than when I was starting out. 3D printing has gone from being an expensive design process to something you can use to iterate freely. And I used to sketch by hand and render my sketches in Photoshop, but digital sketching transformed that process. CAD programs have improved so much that we now use them on the front end. It used to be you sketched something and then took it to CAD. Now you start out with CAD, and sketching and tweaking are bundled together.

1. Digital Sketching Hacks

Digital sketching and CAD are great but often it’s easy to zoom in on a detail or zoom out and lose your sense of scale. You can get so focused on the components and how to package them that you forget about the human who’s going to have to use the product.

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I use some techniques and tricks to bring the human element back into the picture. One is simply printing out the components 1:1 and sketching over them in 2D. Another is dropping human figures for reference into my CAD drawings. I do this when I’m working on something large, like WonderSphere, pictured above — this sketch gave us a really good starting point before we made the foam-core prototype. I find that it helps to do a scale check to avoid losing sight of the scale of the device and how the user will relate to it.

I use some techniques and tricks to bring the human element back into the picture.

For smaller products, I drop in high-resolution models of hands. Even if I don’t use them in the final presentation, I find it helpful to have human hands in there while I’m sketching. It’s a quick reality check before we get to foam mockups and 3d-printed prototypes — to make sure what we’re designing really fits. Every CAD model I do has either a person or a hand in it.

2. GoPros for Research & Storyboarding

We started using GoPros in the last year or so for field research. We use digital cameras a lot when we’re out in the field, and one of our user researchers came up with the idea of mounting GoPros directly on our subjects’ heads instead of videotaping them with our cameras. It was a great idea — we can see what they are seeing, what their hands are doing, where their gazes go.

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It gives us that wide field of view — 170 degrees as opposed to our iPhone cameras whose field of view is about 65 degrees. This is useful when we’re working on big stuff, especially diagnostic equipment and large pieces, in tight spaces where you can’t step back and capture the whole thing.

I’ve also occasionally been using a GoPro to supplement storyboarding for client presentations. With a GoPro mounted on my head, I can walk through a product’s workflow as if I’m the user. This is really useful for showing clients the contrast between a legacy product and a redesigned product — and to illustrate the improvements that our design changes have made to the user experience. One of our clients actually went out and bought GoPros for their entire sales and marketing team after seeing one of these user journey videos.

3. Cool Pens from Japan

Honestly, Japan just makes nicer pens than we do.

I had a friend who was taking classes at NYU. He found a Japanese pen store there and came back with one of these .5 millimeter Pilots. They’re impossible to smudge. (I’m left-handed so my hand always wants to smudge what I’ve just written.) They’re also instant drying and completely archival. They tend to be my go-to pen for day to day use.

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The Pilot Frixion pen lays down a gray line and has a piece of silicon that lifts the ink off the paper. It’s a different kind of technology than an erasable ballpoint. I like that it’s a flowing, floating ball and completely erasable. I use it for thumb-nailing (sketches) and quick ideation. You can actually heat the paper and the lines appear again.

These are impossible to smudge. I’m left-handed so my hand always wants to smudge what I’ve just written.

The Uniball Jetstream is like that goofy retractable pen you had as a kid that came with different colors, except it’s nicer. It’s good for brainstorming, note-taking, and for doing cross-sections. When I want to differentiate pieces or indicate how something moves, it makes it easy to sketch them in different colors. They’ve also stuffed a mechanical pencil in there for when I want to switch into pencil mode.

(Researchers and engineers and designers, oh my! Read the other entries in our 3 Top Tools with series to learn about other top tools for product design across Bresslergroup’s disciplines.)