Delightfully dull

Happy New Year!

I look back at my previous blog post and notice it’s been 6 months since I put fingertips to keyboard. The only excuse I have is the complete lack of any time. It’s been utterly manic. Good manic…..but nevertheless manic.

I could so easily spend another blog post lamenting the recruitment process I have attempted to find a new Square Banana designer. To make a Star Wars reference, it feels like I’ve entered the belly of the Sarlacc monster with a Groundhog as a pet …slowly left to endlessly endure interviews and negotiate terms before being notified of a change of heart or finding yet another way to let someone down. That is for another day. Today I’ve decided to write about something much less stressful but no less important.

The – so called – dull stuff.

With every New Year, we are bombarded with column inches and news feed items telling us how to simplify our diet, clean ourselves up, detox and go back to basics. Well, to draw a very poor parallel, I’d like to talk about a similarly tenuous aspect in product design.

The innards of the product.

Much of what we see as a result of fervent product design activity is the ‘face’. The outer shell of the product. The colour, finish, form, interface, branding, texture, messaging and style. The visual, tactile and emotional side.

The face, smile and handshake of the product.

Whilst I’m certainly not belittling these facets of product development and refinement – they are hugely important – I would like to focus more on the hidden treasures…the inner workings of that very same product that will never see the light of day to anyone other than either the robot or assembly worker who was responsible for putting it together. The tiny screw bosses, location ribs, snap fits, alignment widgets, sub-assembly gizmos and cable tidies that some poor sod has had to cram into a space that probably isn’t ideally suited to and has been changed and relocated countless times, based on feedback from people that will never care.

I have to admit to finding this stage incredibly fulfilling. I know that I could so easily place that rib or boss in whichever position I choose and as long as it does the job, no one will ever notice, but there is an obsessive little corner of my brain that wants that specific rib or boss to have an inherent logic, beauty and poise in its position and location. If, on the rare chance – that someone may indeed open the product up, they *might* just notice that the internal skeleton has been considered just as much as the outer skin, if not more so. It is what makes a little bit of me die a little death every time I open up a ‘quick and dirty’ copycat product from China. It has been bodged. Quickly copied with no awareness of the finer nuances of why that boss has been positioned in exactly that place, or why the ribbing has a physical balance to allow for improved mould flow or – even better – to create a subtle yet deliberate sink pattern on the upper surface of the moulding. Using an inherent and in-depth knowledge of the entire product functionality and manufacturing processes to create geometry that has purpose and meaning. Deliberately. Purposefully. Carefully.

To use the excuse that ‘no one will ever see it’ is admitting that you have not given that product the time and consideration it deserves. There have been countless products I have designed into which I’ve built all manner of little, deliberate features and logic, that will not only go unnoticed by the end user, but often go completely unnoticed by the immediate client. The beauty in a well balanced fillet in a complex internal surface, or the consideration given to the smaller internal angles so that the tool will last that little bit longer. The clever way that a light pipe fits snugly into a plastic feature without the need for fixings or the fact that you’ve managed to create a whole suite of tools without a single side core, snap fit or undercut…no matter how cheap it is to do. No bugger will ever know…..but I know.

People often say that great design is stuff that goes unnoticed. If you don’t get annoyed by it, or it simply does its job without interrupting your day, it has served its purpose. It has done what it was DESIGNED to do. So too the unseen details. Just because it isn’t seen, understood or talked about, it doesn’t make it any less worthy.

It’s a bit like having visitors to stay in your home and cramming all the rubbish in the various nooks, crannies, cupboards and under bed drawers to get it out of sight and to give the outward impression of harmony and togetherness. It’s a sham. The place was a tip 10 minutes before they arrived! The same can be said of product design. If you treat it like you treat your home with visitors, eventually those proverbial drawers will open and the wardrobes will creak revealing that prior panic, sloppiness and lack of integrity.

It’s similar to a magnificent story having spelling mistakes. You are no less a storyteller, but you’ve only managed to go 80% of the way. You’ve failed to commit and complete properly. It doesn’t matter if no one will ever see your handiwork and admire the careful consideration of the minutiae. What matters is that you gave every inch of that product your undivided attention and no part was more or less worthy or meaningful than any other.

On a more pragmatic note, the finer, unnoticed details will give your product the edge over the – more hastily considered – competition. Because of the consideration you gave the tiny aspects of the inner workings of your design: the tooling went exactly to schedule, the parts measured accurately after T1 sampling, part moulding is consistent, the component parts fit perfectly, assembly is seamless and the product ‘feels’ solid. The product has passed through typically problematic stage-gates without fuss or bother. Nobody notices that it was the way the product designer had considered all those tiny, little aspects which come together to ensure that the product gets from A to B as quickly and as true to the original intent as possible. Those hours staring at the screen, seemingly doing nothing, but considering the various eventualities and possibilities before adding that feature in exactly that position. They just assume it is the efficiency of the toolmaker, the complexity of the moulding machines, the skill of the assembly teams and the care of the user. I’m certainly not taking anything away from these ‘others’, but you can be sure that if any one of these stages ‘glitches’, it will be the designer who is called to blame and to find a solution to the glitch! It is our job to anticipate and pre-empt this problematic product journey and ‘design-in’ features, details and subtlety which prevent problems from happening – wherever possible. In all honesty, it makes our job easier.

Measure twice. Cut once.

That’s as much our job as ensuring that the product is fit for purpose, meets the needs of the user, aligns with brand promises, is produced to a budget….etc. etc. but the hidden details are so often neglected. Rushed. Hastily added. Worse still….handed over to a third party to ‘finish things off’. The best designs are those that have had continuity. A steady hand throughout. A hand on the tiller if you will.

It is actually often a very difficult phase to manage – at least in client expectation terms. In an age of prolific and ubiquitous rendering software, products can be visualised at such an early stage to appear fully considered, that clients (quite rightly) expect this apparently complete product to be ‘sent to China for tooling’ soon after. Designers have to be careful to push back against these time compression expectations and ensure that the right amount of time is given to the invisible detailing and development that will ensure the product works as promised – so alluringly – in the renderings. I can well imagine how frustrating it must be to some clients who see no apparent development of the product over weeks and months. What they don’t see are the hundreds and hundreds of tiny component reshuffles, dimension tweaks, assembly modifications, parting line alterations, wall thickness adjustments and other ‘seemingly pointless’ edits that ensure that everything works in harmony and does what it is meant to do. Edits that often come from a throwaway project review comment like “Can we make it 2mm shorter?” or “Can we add this extra battery in please…it’s only small?” and that add countless hours to ensure that product integrity and design intent is ensured.

I for one, love these seemingly ‘dull’ phases of work. It is incredibly satisfying, despite wanting to tear your hair out at times. By the time you have finished, you literally know every square millimetre of your product, inside and out. It has a harmony and balance about it – regardless of styling – because you have considered every aspect, however tiny and (apparently) worthless.

Designers often use the phrase ‘God is in the detail’ to refer to the smaller features and refined aspects of an external product form that delight the user and set the product apart from the market competition, but this phrase is equally relevant to the inner skeletal structure and unseen detailing that silently and efficiently ensures that your product goes that little bit further, works that little bit harder and lasts that little bit longer.

Just because no-one will see it, there is no reason to give it any less consideration.

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