How many times have you heard...

“…and the industrial designer made the _______ look great, too.”
“…oh don’t worry about how rough it looks. This is just a prototype. We’ll be sure to throw on some industrial design.”
“…we just need a little industrial design help to make _______ look sexy.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard different versions of this throughout my career, even with companies or clients that seem to truly value the role of a designer. Most of the time it’s innocent and innocuous, simply a byproduct of the ignorance about what designers actually do, but it drives me crazy to have my profession seen as “stylist” by so many colleagues.

I’m sure others out there have experienced it, so my question is this: How have you affected change in your company’s and client’s culture to help them better understand that industrial design is more than making pretty things, or how have you sought out companies and clients that understand this in the first place?

Jeff, right there with you. I have to take a deep breath when I hear these and go into teaching mode. I don’t let them slide though.

The last one I heard was “oh great, we have 10 sketches” as if a number of sketches was a quantifying value for reaching a goal. I’ve had to explain to management that ID is not only sketches, CAD & “color”. I explained to them that it all stems from research and understanding the user. And then working with Engineering creating concepts to satisfy all parties involved (of course it took longer and a little more detailed explanation). Unfortunately there was an overlap with UX/Product designers and since UX is the new hot title they were defining the product. However, the UX designers were strictly from a digital background so defining the physical product was not getting done. Now I can say the ID team is much more involved in the product definition working together with UX and Product Managers.

Unfortunately you have to do the work (on your own time or even if it’s not in your role/scope) and present it accordingly for people to really understand the value ID brings to the whole design process. Keep at it and don’t stay quiet. Explain it visually, that’s what we do.

Some clients do not and will not understand. A client once haggled about designing a handheld tool saying “my graphic designer can do the concepts for x amount”. It had been a long day so I smiled and said "perfect! Have him do the concepts and if you need help later on making those concepts manufacturable and turninng them into CAD come back and we can talk then. That day or later on he agreed to our pricing but it was a struggle throughout the whole project. From experience, the clients that haggle the most want the most changes and most work.

Unfortunately we’ve also been hired to fix Industrial Designer’s (stylists) work. Client would say “here’s what our ID team did” can you make it work with our Engineering? This always confused and got me upset. How does a company spend X amount of money and X amount of time doing ID work without making sure it works w Engineering? I think there’s some niche work there of just fixing other companies ID to work w Engineering or make it manufacturable.

I got one of those save it from the fire project a couple of years back. The industrial designer they hired only produced a few side views, and when the client showed it to me with the explanation that the engineering team couldn’t implement it I said “of course they can, this is an MC Escher drawing. There is now way to resolve this as is in 3D.” … frustrating when you see other designers do that but it was an opportunity for me to pick up that business.

RE “my graphic designer can do the concepts for x amount”.

I love it when I get comments like that. My response is always “great, why are you wasting your time and money talking to me? It is your obligation to your business to use the cheapest resource if you really think they can provide the same amount of value that I can.” … it either flips the conversation around or ends it. In my experience when clients are difficult in the pre-project scoping and proposal phase, they will be difficult in the project itself. Best to understand that and move on if you can. You can only teach those who are open to it.

FWIW in my own experience it has always been important to get as much buy-in and set expectations before you pick up a pencil:

Discuss competing products, whether they succeed and/or fail from a usability, engineering and marketing perspective. Design language strategy too and try to use the same language as your client. You know- The Brief…

To avoid the “rabbit out of the hat” syndrome when presenting, remind the client of their brief and success criteria, then step through your rationale back-referencing their brief again.

The above may not be bullet-proof but it can help make the client feel invested. Without it they may not be able to rationalize the merits (or otherwise) of a concept, and things can fast degenerate into a “show me a rock, but not that one…” pissing match. You’re a “stylist” and court jester.

Ultimately it’s about giving the client enough tools to articulate feedback in a useful way that keeps a dialog going, and creates the basis for effective iteration.

I’ve seen other versions of this, too. I remember one client in particular with whom we had designed a large line of products with complex development needs simply due to the product type and the requirements of the brief. Lots of materials needed. Lots of construction methods used. We had been contracted for design and development, but the product managers that hired us started getting questioned by their higher-ups about why they needed to pay a design firm for development. Mind you this was a company that had been making product for over 50 years at this point, and the people in charge still thought all we were there to do was make some pretty drawings. Eventually, under the justification that they had to handle development in-house so that it was “their” product and not our firm’s, they cut us loose after tech pack hand off.

The line never made it to market.

Unfortunately higher-ups including project/program managers often times do not understand Design, Engineering or Development; or what it takes to bring everything together… Just enough to be dangerous and make irrational decisions.

I have a cautionary tale to add to this. If you are given the opportunity to expand the definition of design within a company, tred lightly and above all be willing to pivot even when things are picking up momentum.

Early in my career I got the opportunity to build an industrial design department within an company that manufactured sporting goods in California. The company had worked extensively with freelance and consulting designers prior to my arrival. I was given permission to work with all of the functional departments within the company and also responsibility for communicating the companies new strategy at the annual industry trade show. Business plans were written, budgets allocated, CAD systems spec’ed, office space blueprints created, designers and interns hired. The company was at the time a middleweight player in the industry, and hired a COO from the top brand in the industry to take the company to the next level.

After a few weeks of letting this new senior executive settle in, I put a copy of the business plan I had written into his mail box. This was my fatal error. After that moment, meetings were full of hostility and arguments when I would present designs for whatever we were working on. I was implementing all of the ideas that had been approved by the VP of Engineering (my boss) and the company President and he was to have none of it. This new COO had different ideas of how Design was executed at the top brand in the industry where he had previously come from. He set about thwarting my every move as he basically was given my play book…by of all people…me.

So…Be careful what you wish for. Plans to implement the full spectrum of what Design is capable of, does not always make it to the maturity level that you imagine. It still, to this day, seriously challenges the 20th century stylist stereotypes that are still in the minds of Baby Boomer and even GenX executives.

Designer as Stylist? Sure…I can do that. It is just one of the many applications of a designer’s skills and experience. If you deliver on their stereotypes, surprisingly you will be given more latitude to exercise more of your net worth…and you will get your billable rate as well.

So how does the story end? Did the new COO make the company grow to a top brand?

One of the top sporting goods conglomerate once bought a company we helped grow. The experts ran it to the ground in 2 years.

There’s always cautionary tales. And you should deliver on styling after all that’s probably the one skill that sets our career apart. However, always try to educate your boss, client, co-workers or you will always be relegated to the sketch guy.

6 months after I left the company, I heard from an engineering colleague that the COO had used the company to purchase some bulk materials that he then absconded with for his startup company that he left for. The guy was a real satan’s lieutenant.

Cautionary tales…