An open letter to aspiring product designers

Last year – as I have documented in a prior blog post – I went about looking to find a young, aspiring product designer to join the Square Banana ranks. I utilised LinkedIn and Twitter to see who ‘bit’ and had a satisfyingly good response. However, I’m mindful that I sent out these ‘statuses of intent’ at an odd time of year.

Based on recent twitter feeds and my fading memory of my university days, I recall that this  time of year is when major projects have been handed in (or are about to be) and studious revision for final exams is finely balanced with the flurry of portfolio redesign and the scouring of design agency websites for contact details.

So, in an attempt to hear from product designers (graduates or otherwise), I thought I would take this opportunity at this critical time to spell out what I am looking for in a prospective Square Banana designer. I would stress that these criteria are very specific to Square Banana and not generic to all agencies. I would also encourage anyone who reads this to really ask themselves whether they can satisfy the criteria…and be REALLY honest with yourselves. It may well not be what you expect of a design consultancy role, but it is what I would expect of a designer who wants to grow and flourish in this environment. I rather suspect many experienced product designers reading this may well disagree with my requirements, but hey…this is my blog.

So. Here goes…the order in which I write them is probably a natural order of importance, but that’s open to negotiation.

1. The brief, the whole brief and nothing but the brief.

This might sound really basic, but an ability to fully understand a design brief is paramount. You might think you’ve got creativity spewing out of every pore and can – on a sixpence – come up with the craziest shit known to man, but this is as useful as a fart in a thunderstorm if you haven’t fundamentally satisfied the brief. It might be a simple one line verbal brief, but you have to ensure that the brief you have been given (or attempting to take) is fully understood by both parties. If it means you’ve got to ask the stupidest of stupid questions to ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, then so be it. The implications of NOT addressing the brief are much worse than the slightly odd looks you might get when asking for clarification for the fourth time. Without fail, I would much rather get tired of someone asking me incessant questions about what is required and if they are heading in the right direction, than not ask enough and head off into the wild blue yonder of virtual ‘creative’ oblivion for a few days and come back with nothing to show for it. As designers, we are contracted by clients to solve a problem they wish us to solve – for which they pay us a fee in return. They – quite rightly – expect us to deliver results to their conundrum and we – in turn – invoice them for the service. Simple. As long as the design brief is understood, addressed and satisfied. The level to which each brief is satisfied is another kettle of fish altogether, but it does require ‘some’ effective level of completion.

2. Gumption & Hunch

No. This isn’t a grainy, badly filmed 70’s US cowboy TV series. It’s a very important set of personality traits which will get you through more scrapes than you care to imagine – as you meander through your design career. The word ‘gumption’ may well not translate well into other languages – or even ‘US English’ for that matter. As a backup, I’ve looked it up. It means ‘spirited initiative and resourcefulness’. A quick click across to the Thesaurus also throws up some good alternatives; enterprise, acumen, common sense, pluck, savvy etc. etc. You get the drift. Basically, nothing to do with your overt ‘designery skills’ like sketching, 3D CAD or Photoshop, but an all-round determination and ingenuity in everything you do. Thinking about what might need to be done before you get asked to do it. Connecting the dots instead of simply following them. Not waiting to be asked or told to do something fairly bloody obvious. I’m not saying that you have to pre-empt every single request, and much of what you will be asked to do by those more experienced than yourselves will be based on knowledge you may not yet have, but in the everyday approach to your job, you should demonstrate a generous helping of good old fashioned common sense. If you are in any doubt about this one, then either a) don’t read any further or b) go ask your parents.

3. “Nice weather we’re having, don’t you think?”

Conversation. Patter. Gab. It’s the best weapon in your armoury in getting the best out of people. Don’t confuse this with ‘boring the tits off people’ or ‘hard nosed negotiation’, but a warm demeanour and a subtle charm offensive can often disarm and defrost the hardest and iciest of new clients. It could simply be a slow investigative line of questioning or a warm handshake and a chat about what they did over the weekend. People do business with people, and – in the main – people do better business with people they like. As much as this can often be hellish frustrating to the ‘better qualified’ designer knocking on that client’s door (and sometimes that may well be you), whomsoever strikes up the best rapport and connects with the client will ultimately bear greater fruit and most likely establish a better, longer term relationship (assuming of course that you similarly deliver great design work in the course of that professional relationship!). Throughout your design career, you will be required to deal with all manner of different people; assembly workers, toolmakers, sales reps, marketers, research scientists, kids, the infirm, CEO’s, the office cleaner…the list goes on. Your ability to interact, connect with and get the best out of each and every type of person will ultimately define how successful you are. You don’t have to be a social PR butterfly or a ‘jack the lad’…just someone with whom anyone can have a conversation without feeling alienated, but included. An old-fashioned village shopkeeper’s demeanour is probably the best ‘ideal’ I can think of.

4. Can you read an IKEA instruction manual?

One of the things we pride ourselves on is the appreciation of the full design service i.e. from the nebulous opportunity discussions right through to full production data specification. Whilst much of this can be learned through time served and projects delivered, there has to be general and holistic appreciation of how stuff works in order to properly deliver this ‘complete’ design service. I’m not talking about calculating gear ratios or knowing the difference between a Torx and Phillips head screw per se, but a sensible understanding of the practicalities of putting stuff together, getting it apart, making things easier to use, reducing part count etc. etc. I know it sounds incredibly dull and dare I say it, a bit ‘engineering-y’ but a good, broad-brush knowledge of what needs to go inside and how best to arrange it, will – without exception – result in better, more holistic products. The default back-story to this type of thing in the past was a fascination with Lego or Meccano but I appreciate that times have move on a tad. Some university courses have a strong ‘make it work’ ethos, and whilst this can sometimes limit the visual aspects of some degree show output, it can only help to demonstrate an appreciation of the difficulties inherent in the product design profession. I – for one – have come to value those skills a great deal.

5. Keen as mustard

OK. I don’t mean the kind of enthusiasm akin to a small, ever-leaping puppy, and one can tire of eternal optimism, but a positive approach to everything is a worthy attribute. It doesn’t have to be a ‘high-five’ and a whoop every morning, but an infectious passion for what you do and the ability to impart that enthusiasm and passion to all that you come into contact with is a very powerful thing. You should never sound like you are reading from a PR crib sheet or presenting re-formulated work. You should look and sound excited by what you are doing. This can manifest as quiet humour or wry appreciation of the difficulties ahead, but it is our job to take the difficult and make it look easy. Delight and astound your clients. Do this with enthusiasm and your job is that little bit easier.

6. “Think, Think, Think” – Winnie The Pooh

This might sound ridiculous, but I need people who THINK THINGS THROUGH. You might be forgiven for assuming that all design graduates are capable of such things. Apparently not. When presented with a brief, a client conundrum or something requiring a solution, you will be required to THINK. This doesn’t mean furious sketchwork, or elaborate 3D CAD models or any other such demonstrable ‘effort’. I mean really think. Consider the problem and use that old grey matter to figure out how to solve it. Question the brief. Question everything. If it means sitting on a park bench for a couple of hours watching the world go by then so be it. Beautiful work is only brilliant if the underlying thinking behind it is robust. Without it, is it merely coffee table fluff. I have seen countless student projects created with no apparent ‘thought’ being employed. Lots and lots of research, sketching, modelling, prototyping, styling, development and ‘Ta Da!’…but not an ounce of honest-to-goodness, unadulterated, clear-brained thinking. Commendable industry and effort but no further forward in addressing the brief.

7. ‘Appropriateness’

I have debated including this one as it can often be mis-construed. By ‘appropriateness’ I mean that each and every project, and each and every client has a set of requirements and emphases that differ. Some require lots of free thinking and crude concept investigation to establish a direction, where others may need focused, detailed thinking in a specific area. It is why we do not push a pre-defined product design process of any form. The process should suit the project, not the other way round. Each brief is different and requires a different recipe to blossom. The work delivered to each client and at each stage should be appropriate to the task and level of thinking necessary of that phase. That is not to say that everything you do is not of the highest quality and ill-considered because the budget is tiny. It means that the work that you present should be appropriate to the brief, the deliverables, the decision requiring of the client and the expectations of the project. Appropriate and brilliant. It’s a bit like choosing a different car to drive across different terrain. A Smart car for inner-city, urban rat-runs, and a 4×4 for mountainous terrain. Each car is no less capable, but it is tailored to its purpose and to the driver… and does the job brilliantly. You should be able to do the same.

8. The Usual Suspects

You may have noticed that very little of what I have described above is ‘what you are taught at university’. That’s because – despite all your hard work and relentless endeavour over the past few years…and particularly the last few months – when you start work, your major project will become history very quickly indeed and you will have to rely on your core ‘human’ abilities much more than your learned ‘design’ skills. That’s not to say your design skills are irrelevant, but it’s often a massive wake-up call for many students when the realise that their awesome sketching abilities aren’t *actually* required as much as they thought. Having said that, it is handy when designers are well-versed in the ‘usual suspects’ of applications and can convert thought into well-considered sketchwork. From our studio perspective, a good knowledge of Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, SolidWorks and KeyShot would stand you in good stead and put you ahead of the pack. Similarly, an ability to sketch ideas well enough to convey a thought process or form factor would be beneficial (although not critical – I’ve known brilliant sketchers who are crap designers and brilliant designers who are crap at sketching – go figure!). A working knowledge of modern prototyping practices would be useful and the icing on the cake would include film making abilities, good web/coding skills (or at least up-to-date knowledge of what’s possible) and a keenness to explore animation.

If you are still reading this, you should also know that these criteria are based on the assumption that you are a capable and competent product designer, and have a decent portfolio to show for it. I guess the major thrust of this post is to explain that much of what you think you have as ‘design assets’ are not necessarily the ones you thought you’d need in a design consultancy environment – and specifically a small one working on about as wide a cross section of products as you could care to mention.

On a practical note, anyone who decides that they might like to work in the Square Banana studio should know that they will need to prove themselves first. This means ‘freelance’. And we are based in Cheltenham – which isn’t anywhere near London (for good reason). You do the maths. If you are confident in your abilities to perform and deliver great work, then you have nothing to worry about at all. We will continue to use you, find your skills invaluable and realise that we can’t do without you. As it should be.

One thing I can certainly promise to anyone who isn’t utterly terrified by this post, is that if you prove yourself worthy of responsibility, it will be thrust upon you …and in the bucket load. In a small design business, there is opportunity like no other. Opportunity to work on a vast range of project work, with some amazing clients, to choose and define the course of the business, to accelerate your learning and to lead from the front. The real benefit of a small business is in its dexterity and nimbleness – it can change direction and personality in a heartbeat. You are not a junior designer in a fixed hierarchical structure, with ladders to climb. You are an essential part of a manoeuvrable machine that you have the capacity to steer. I would say things about worlds and oysters but that might be over-egging the pudding!

So there it is. A very personal overview of what I would be looking for in a potential SB recruit. This isn’t really a job advert, but if you genuinely think you can fulfil the above criteria wholeheartedly, then you are either happily deluded or we should be having a chat over a coffee and your portfolio….soon.

I’ll leave it at that.

author : Russell Beard  |  Founder

2 thoughts on “An open letter to aspiring product designers

  1. What a load of old bol…. no… no… wait a minute… That’s SPOT ON!

    Now, all we need to do is get those dum feckers at the universities to design a bloody curriculum around developing exactly that sort of “talent” and then we’d have no shortage of people to employ.

    Great post as usual Russell and 100% agree with you… again.

    We have to stop doing that or people will talk 🙂

    BTW… I’ve put my CV in the post… but I can’t sketch for shit! 😉

  2. I might use this as my standard response to job applications from now on 😉 Nice thoughts Russ.

    Makes me recall the best job interview I ever went to many years ago. Walked into a small (now large) consultancy in Melbourne on a Friday evening after finishing work for the day, very nervous and worried I wouldn’t cut the mustard. The Director (who is a great bloke) greeted me warmly and immediately offered me a beer! Wonderfully relaxing ploy by him and very memorable for me. Got the job too which was handy.

    Cheers,

    Nathan.

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