How effective is product design process?

I have heard some negative stories about designers’ experience and I wonder whether it’s something to do with the lack of efficiency of their work. There were a lot of complaints of how designs had to be completely corrected by manufacturing or marketing department, etc. It just concerns me that design work is treated as a very basic low level ideation service rather than a strategic service that adds a lot of value.

So here are my questions :

  • was there a time when your designs were completely changed due to engineering or marketing requirements?
  • were there times when the value of your design process was questioned so much that your deadlines were tightened to almost unrealistic durations?

Your answers would be greatly appreciated.

From my experience there are a lot of inventors and even large companies that submit designs needing a ton of work before they can be manufactured. I don’t think the design process is treated at a very basic low level, but if you submit a poorly designed part or even a very complex part that is not labeled correctly it becomes more of a burden for companies to quote a part that might require a lot of work and dialogue before production.

-Was there a time when your designs were completely changed due to engineering or marketing requirements?

Depends on the company, bigger players like Protomold require you to design your product a certain way while smaller companies can entertain much more complex designs. If a designer submits a poorly designed part that is missing files, has corrupted files, incorrect labeling, or poorly chosen materials it can create a lot of extra work. The majority of changes I see done are because of a poor choice in materials for the part.

-Were there times when the value of your design process was questioned so much that your deadlines were tightened to almost unrealistic durations?

All the time, companies will submit a part to be manufactured along with a very tight time table. Everyone wants their parts right away, everything is expedited and rushed. That is why everything is rapid this and rapid that. I think design process is crucial before laying out a timetable. If something has to be redesigned and there is no shift in the timetable, you’re going to have a bad time.

Thanks for your reply. It answers everything that I would like to know.

No problem! Glad I could help.

Having received designs from other departments and had to work with them, I think every department that receives a project (versus being involved from the beginning) has the reaction of trying to start again from scratch. That was what I wanted to do with engineering’s designs and I’m sure that’s what they wanted to do with mine.

When I’ve had the opportunity to lead a project, I tried to get consensus on the general direction from day one. I would then show everyone how my designs were pushing the project in the agreed direction. It made a much easier argument than “Well, I like this one more”.

On the other hand, I’ve mostly worked for other departments. It’s strange, but highly experienced and highly educated people have told me that planning is useless and there is no reason for project briefs. This always leads to butting heads and eventually the department in charge or company president just decides what they want to do. Depending on my relationships with those people, it could be soul crushing. Notice, this isn’t that marketing has different requirements, rather that no one ever decided on any requirements.

As for deadlines, I’ve usually been in charge of them. In the organizations I’ve worked for, engineering and marketing were routinely extremely late so there was no pressure for me to hurry. On the other hand, when pressed for deadlines, people always seem to think that I have a cabinet full of complete designs and I just need to pull it out.

When I was in consultancy, I completed a project where the clients marketing department decided on what products they wanted designed in a range, then admitted afterwards that they had decided in some cases on the wrong set of product skews, based on bad sales/marketing figures, post first production run!

I sent (and I will not be alone in this experience I’m sure) manufacturing data to china (the client didn’t have the budget to send a consultant out to supervise) and what came back (due to a Chinese desire to over deliver) had been completely changed. The product was designed to come apart for ease of cleaning, but the manufacturer in it’s eagerness to please, did a drop test on the assembled product and found that it fell apart (of course) so changed the tool so that the clips were fit and forget. When we got the first off tool samples back, we had to saw it in half to get it apart and work out what had gone wrong. On another project I sent CAD data out to the FE and what came back as a sample was clearly hand made, it still had the hand file marks in it.

I have designed things that have had to be revised halfway through because the market price of steel has almost doubled, so I have had to try and loose 1/3 of the metal to try and make the product still competitive within the same project deadline.

I’d also add that I have made mistakes on some projects with really aggressive time scales, due to hitting a season, having to meet a product launch at a show etc.

In my experience, some clients will see you as low level no matter how hard you try to educate, hand hold or provide value. Others really appreciate that you add high value, but both are paying and often no matter how hard you try to cover all your bases, a spanner will some how find its way into the works. I don’t think it’s necessarily anything to do with a designers lack of efficiency, but all clients are different, all projects are different and there are many outside factors that will be out of everyone’s control. What ever you have heard, I guarantee there is always going to be more to the story.

I have been ducking in to see how this discussion has developed I find it to be very interesting. The questions are straight forward but the answers are not going to be. There is so many variables in the questions. Being a designer is sort of like being a weather forecaster and disaster relief all in one. You can predict the out come but rarely is it exactly what was predicate. So then you will need to fix it right away. I have mostly worked in house and freelanced. I work for small outdoor companies for the most part. So being there in house designer is usually a very complex job. There are a lot of responsibilities and some I know how to do very well and some I have to rush and learn very quickly to get the product made.

In the process there are a lot of inefficiencies on all fronts. Some times your product briefs are weak. Sometimes you expect a factory to make something one way they disregard your information and make it how ever they feel. Sometimes you will spend months just to have some high ranking person in the company come over and say “I don’t like that product and I will never use it” and that is were that project ends. Are any of these things something that a designer can fix either with a presentation or more time most likely but in realty you just don’t get those things.

Does that mean the design process is flawed no. It means that it is working because even with all of the unknown variables you will if you continue down the path you will achieve what your goal was. That is the design process it is not numbers it is a practical skill used to make something from nothing. Consider all of the challenges that face the making of a product just part of the process. Just because something does not work the first time does not invalidate the idea. It strengthens the understanding of what the idea is. This is the hope of the design process. To make, fail and make again in till you achieve a given goal.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears to me that many fails that you were talking about happened because of huge disconnection between manufacturers and designers. Products can be designed in US and manufactured in China, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding between two sides. Also, I get an impression that people don’t like subtractive manufacturing (i.e in order to make the product, you have to create an expensive tool within tight time constraints).

In conclusion, are the standard processes and models of manufacturing industry flawed, and are they calling for a radical change?

Who is the “they” in the question that is your conclusion?

It is pretty impossible to get a sense for these things from the outside. After a few years in a company and a few trips to factories you get a sense of it. The world is not a neatly oiled machines. It is an intricate system of human interactions with many individuals that have barring goals, objectives, strengths and personalities working on a program as it goes from idea to reality.

In absolutely anything, from global politics to making a paper clip, there are goin to missteps, false starts, unmet expectations, failures, learnings, insights, breakthroughs, triumphs, and successes. There are many factors at play in each of them. It is the human condition.

Afterall, if it was as easy as “follow steps 1,2,3…” Everyone would be doing it!