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By Design: Four Lessons Learned Over 30 Years in Industrial Design

Design has taken me to a lot of different places, not all of them expected. I’ve experienced how design works in large corporations like Black & Decker / DeWalt in Maryland and at Philips Electronics in the Netherlands. And I’ve worked in small and large consultancies in London and now Philadelphia.

I’ve also presented at my share of conferences but never one that was set up quite like the “Ask Me Anything” IDSA Northeast Conference in New York last month. People posted questions online before the event, and presenters were asked to design talks around these questions. While sorting out my approach, I was reminded of one of my favorite university lectures by a professor who took us on an illustrated tour of his career and his personal life (warts and all).

So I developed my own illustrated tour inspired by contributed questions and organized around products I’ve helped design. Here are the highlights:

LESSON #1 (1975-1987): Work out what stokes your fire.

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I’ve always had a strong fascination with how things not only look, but how they work. I can trace this back to what fascinated me as a kid. Many folks believe mountain biking originated in the hills of southern California. I like to believe we came pretty close in the hills of Shropshire, England where we would strip down our Mums’ clunker bikes and ride them to destruction in competitive boy scout teams. (Yes, being the team mechanic did give me the right to wear that rather stylish red boiler suit in the photo below.)

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This didn’t crystallize for me in a professional context until 1987, when I was in my second design job out of school with a London consultancy called Queensberry Hunt that specialized in ceramics. They’d hired me as an industrial designer to help with more mainstream consumer products.

A client, Morsø, made cast iron cookware in the northern Danish island of Nykøbing. They also made wood burning stoves, so one winter I found myself on this rather desolate but beautiful Danish island surrounded by snow, ice, and wind turbines. I tried reindeer meat for the first time.

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We were asked to create designs that could expand Morsø’s appeal beyond their primary Scandinavian market. Working with Robin Levien, we developed a range of stove designs that sought to amplify the focal point, the actual fire, by maximizing the size of the windows. We created a simple look that could be adjusted between Nordic linear aesthetic preferences and a softer look for the rest of Europe via modular feet and side panels.

I’m really proud that these products are still in production and selling today nearly 30 years later.

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But what makes me most proud and gave me the biggest buzz at the time was that we were able to incorporate some air path ideas within the stove. These created a more efficient stove with a pre-heated wash of air over the window to keep it cleaner, and sidewall channels to create convection and cooler-to-touch side walls. I’d started to discover that this combination of technical innovation and aesthetic design was what I was passionate about and what I wanted pursue in my career.

LESSON #2 (1999-2010): Let the user be your guide.

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In 1999, I moved to the Netherlands to join the nearly 300 designers who were part of the corporate design team at Philips Electronics. I only spent two years there and they’d just started the process of making the in-house group operate like a true independent consultancy (something they reversed later). I learned plenty of great things about managing the creative process but unfortunately design research was not one of them, and I never met a single product customer.

Compare that with my next corporate design position at Black & Decker in Maryland, where there was a daily imperative to connect with our customers and get designers and engineers out in the field alongside them. After leading the consumer ID team for several years, I was asked by the president to start a consumer insights team to do a better job of bridging the gap between research and the company’s technical innovation focus.

I was asked by the president to start a consumer insights team to do a better job of bridging the gap between research and the company’s technical innovation focus.

Doing research is often great fun but delivering actionable project direction to engineers and marketers afterward can be really tough. Many mature product and task categories are already super saturated with innovation and features. Cordless drills were no different — they had developed a host of very capable features where power was becoming the most dominant differentiator.

So in 2010 we took a deeper look at how our consumers were really using cordless drills. We noticed that consumers and even pros were really struggling to drive screws correctly with these super-powerful drills. They didn’t understand the function of the the clutch ring at the front; they set the gears incorrectly; they squeezed the trigger like grim death with the hope that the result would be okay. They would strip screw heads or bury them into their work piece. There had to be a smarter way to drive screws.

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As a designer, I’d seen firsthand the issues that consumers were struggling with, and I was able to use that stimulus in concept visuals. I’m no electrical engineer and implementing technology is rarely as straightforward as an ID sketch. However, visuals like this can be an effective way to solidify marketing’s product vision and engineering’s functional target. Once we had that marriage, our project definition was clearer.

I left Black & Decker in 2011 but the electronics innovation team and industrial designers, Dave Miller and Jason Busschaert, went on to do a great job of developing and realizing the concept further. The AutoSense drill isn’t targeting the power fiend or pro, but it’s a very simple, intuitive way to drill holes and drive screws.

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Smart electronics and two buttons replace a bulky gearbox, confusing gear selector and clutch ring. Their function is clear: drill, or screw. The motor control electronics sense peaks in current draw as the screw head starts to bottom. At that point it switches to a slow indexing mode to seat the screw flush with easier and predictable control.

I believe outcomes like this are most likely when designers play a role in the core project definition. Black & Decker believes that connection to the user was core to their recent brand re-launch.

Lesson #3 (2005 – ongoing): But know that technology often drives the breakthroughs.

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At Bresslergroup, we divide innovation into three buckets: brand fit, insights-driven, and technology-based.

Brand fit innovation tends to focus on the softer aspects of design — aesthetics, form, color, and branding execution. Increasingly brand encompasses more experiential touchpoints to create meaningful differentiation such as digital interactions, gestures, sound, light, unique materials, and finishes.

The cordless drill in Lesson 2 is an example of insights-driven innovation, when consumers’ unmet needs shape problem definition for technical challenges. While this is highly effective and vital, it tends to deliver more incremental innovation. Issues with existing tasks tend to be solved by applying existing technologies.

It is the 3rd bucket — technology-based innovation — that often delivers the biggest breakthroughs in product development. This type of innovation is more unpredictable and has higher risks of failure, but it can lead to new products that would not have evolved purely from user research.

Trice Medical’s mi-eye+ is one example of radical innovation driven by technology. Bresslergroup’s client, Trice Medical, developed a low-cost camera and light source technology that led to a breakthrough device for orthopedic diagnostic applications.

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Together with the portable interaction display, doctors can perform diagnostic arthroscopies with the mi-eye+ during an office consultation without risk of cross-infection — they can cost-effectively dispose of the camera afterwards.

This technology-led innovation is providing faster results, reducing costs to patients, and eliminating the false reads that can occur in other types of diagnostic tests such as MRIs that result in procedures like knee surgery. The mi-eye+ was just named a 2016 Medical Device Excellence Award (MDEA) Finalist.

To read more about Trice, check out the mi-eye+ case study.

LESSON #4 (1986–never-ending): Be Open To New Realities.

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I hope these anecdotes and lessons learned are helpful for design students and those who are early on in their careers. My first design job out of school in 1986 was with a small ID group within the larger consultancy of the Michael Peters Group that focused more on corporate graphics, packaging, and retail interiors.

The team led by Graham Thomson had developed a range of headphones and household radios that could be tooled up and molded in China, then assembled in the UK (all without any screws).

 

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One of our design tools at the time was to hand-draw production blueprints (this was before CAD), cut them up into smaller sheets, and fax them to our contact in Hong Kong. He would then piece them back together and, magically, 45 days later we’d get molded parts that usually fit together. Obviously, a lot of room for interpretation but it was considered fast and efficient at the time.

Jump forward to 2014 and the Jacuzzi Hydrotherapy Shower, a walk-in, aging-in-place shower with novel hydrotherapy features that can be easily installed in the standard 60″ x 30″ bathtub footprint.

We received an IDEA Bronze award last year for this design which pays close attention to how an enveloping space can provide ergonomic safety and security for senior users.

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We were lucky enough to participate in a test with the virtual reality team at Boeing Defense, Space & Security in Philadelphia. Typically, Boeing uses VR technology to optimize ergonomics throughout the development of its aircraft.

Boeing took our interim CAD design for the Jacuzzi shower into their VR setup and let us carry out an experiential test of the digital model. The split screens show the actions of the user and the resulting different viewing perspectives of the virtual model. In this design evaluation we were able to virtually scale the same user and simulate the interaction experience of different-sized ergonomic percentiles.

From hand-drawn blueprints faxed to Hong Kong to virtual reality for concept validation — I’m looking forward to what’s next.