The 15 year scratch

Not the best title I’ll admit, but having been following a number of forum threads recently I’ve been interested by a number of them that seem to cite 15 years ‘experience’ as a benchmark for a ‘bit of a rant’….not that I’m one to shout about ranting!

It appears that there is a fair bit of scepticism kicking about for the skills apparent in young graduate or junior designers. The ‘old guard’ (and by old guard I think 15 years is the tipping point from what I can tell) are baying and lamenting the poor quality of overall knowledge and reliance on ‘Magic CAD’ seemingly inherent in the university produce of today. A line has been drawn in the virtual sand that sets apart the ‘Meccano’ generation of yesteryear from the ‘Wii’ generation of today. On the one hand, we have those that suggest that “decent” product (or industrial…see my earlier post) designers can only have a sound grasp of manufacturing and form vs. function awareness through the manipulation of modelshop and garden shed materials – who suggest that new graduates only understand how to create fabulously realistic renderings but have little or no ability to design goods that are manufacturable. On the other, there is a cocksure belief from newbie designers that the old guard are ‘lost in sawdust’ and marker pens and should leave the real designing to the hot young bucks.

I guess I am at the tipping point – as far as years of experience is concerned. I have been working at (or around) the coalface of product design consultancy for about 15 years, so I thought it was worth wading in…

I have been very fortunate in the timing and education of my career. I grew up just as the personal computer was taking hold, yet not enough of a hold to have the significant influence it has today. I played with the aforementioned Meccano and Lego, I drew aplenty with a pencil and paper (and even felt tip pens!), I was inspired to become a designer by reading Dick Powell’s ‘Presentation Techniques’, I went to a reputable university that was one of a handful in the UK with any sort of established reputation for ‘product design’, I was taught how to put together a ‘proper’ technical drawing with Rotring pens that dried up and spat just at the wrong moment, I was similarly taught how to use AutoCAD release 2.0 (and can remember the frustration of how un-user friendly it was), I know how to use a marker pen (thin and chisel tip…check me!) and entered the design workforce just as 3D CAD was coming of age. The timing of my career development has allowed me to jump on board the 3D CAD train with a grounding in the ‘traditional skills’ and see how things have changed as it has become the primary development tool. I’ve loved it and lapped up every bit.

One thing that has struck me throughout my career (to date) in consultancy is that it matters not a jot whether you entered the product design ‘club’ before or after the advent of 3D CAD…it simply matters if you can design. I know that sounds remarkably daft to state something so obvious but many of the threads I have read seem to miss this. Most of them seem to be soapboxes to allow various ‘experienced’ designers recall how many of their designs have been taken to production…(another bugbear of mine which I will spare this post for now…maybe another time!)

What has happened in the last 15+ years is that the sheer number of people who are aware of, and can claim to be product designers has exponentially grown. The access to software which can allow people to demonstrate a physical product idea (however virtual) is now instant and free (to a greater or lesser degree) and schools have realised and included subjects that teach ‘creative problem solving’ based skills. When I told my careers advisor of my intention to become a ‘product designer’, his brain ‘fizzed’ and ‘popped’ with incredulity as he attempted to steer me towards a sensible career as an ‘engineer’. Nowadays, the awareness of ‘product design’ (albeit a little confused and sometimes misplaced) is at school level and there are innumerable universities that offer such a course. As a result, there are thousands of new ‘designers’ being pumped out each year (in every corner of the globe) with a variety of skills, and the law of averages would indicate that approximately the same proportion of these are rubbish each and every year. Compare the X-Factor of today with the ‘Opportunity Knocks’ or Butlins ‘Open Mic’ type affairs of a bygone era. Because there are more of them and we have instant exposure to all (without any real form of 3rd party screening…thanks to the web), we simply get the impression that the overall standard has dropped. Not so.

I agree that there are many instances of designers who can ‘operate’ a CAD station but haven’t the first idea which way is up. Slick renderings and fantastical ‘tat’ litter the forums and galleries for us to sneer at…and the sheer volume of this makes us understandably sceptical of ‘all that glitters’. It’s just become harder for us to spot the brilliant amongst the buffoons.

It all boils down to ‘tools’. Whether it be a pencil or a 3D mouse, we simply choose the tools that best allow us to design well. There are designers who can’t even turn on a computer, but with a wave of a pencil or a fold of a card maquette, can mesmerise us with their brilliance and insightfulness. Similarly, someone who cannot even draw a box can flourish in the virtual world and design products in 3D CAD with jaw dropping effectiveness. Neither is ‘better’ than the other, and neither should snub the other. Indeed, if they are ‘good’ they should be able to discuss and convey their design thinking and problem solving with each other but in their own chosen ways.

These tools obviously change as technology evolves. There are things that can be acheived in 3D that could never be acheived otherwise, but this does not exclude those that can’t use it from being respected as brilliant designers. Sure, it helps, and I am the first to admit that its a skill that I enjoy and benefit from (as is the magic of sketching an idea in front of a client with a simple HB pencil). But, most importantly, none of this relates to age or experience. Typically the youthful will tend to be trained (and prefer) the more modern techniques and vice versa, but this is more circumstance that anything. I know fresh graduates who still love to do the majority of their designing with an A3 marker pad and bits of modelling foam, as much as I know ‘long in the tooth’ veterans who have whole-heartedly embraced the virtual world of 3D CAD and will never pick up a pencil again. If you are a good designer, it doesn’t matter what you use…if the thinking is sound then the idea will be good and the product a worthy one. Simply choose the medium, technology or skill that best allows you to eek out those thoughts into something that most effectively and efficiently brings it to life.

I suspect that the ‘old guard’ who lament such new ’empty headed’ graduates are the very same that have resisted change and would rather we all did everything the ‘old way’, and – in countenance – the ‘hot young bucks’ who sneer at the ‘older guys’ probably couldn’t spot good design if it stood up and slapped them. I suspect the real divide is between average designers and brilliant ones. Good design stands up to critique without fluff, bluster or justification. How it gets there is irrelevant. Products don’t succeed because there were developed in 3D CAD or on a drawing board…they succeed because they have solved a genuine need and have been nursed and cajoled into reality by an individual or team that has good design thinking at its core….be they 17 or 70.

Rant over. Comments please.

author : Russell Beard  |  Design Director

4 thoughts on “The 15 year scratch

  1. Enjoying your thoughts so far – keep ranting.

    I think your thesis here points to a broader problem in design education, namely, the discrepancy in quality amongst courses and institutions. A number of lecturers I spoke to at this year’s New Designers show were concerned that certain courses were short-changing students in terms of the depth of study and skills development provided. The old/young and analogue/digital oppositions are, to an extent, false dichotomies; what really matters is deep versus superficial engagement in design.

    Nevertheless, the ‘democratization’ of product design through the increasing availability of CAD software and, perhaps more excitingly, affordable 3D printing technology can only be a positive thing. These tools do not make the ‘old’ skills of sketching and model-making redundant, rather, they further facilitate creative thinking and experimentation.

    See the next issue of New Design magazine for a comprehensive report on New Designers 2011 and Dick Powell’s blueprint for the future of design education.
    @alinewdesign

  2. Well, for once in my life I’m left with nothing to say. I totally agree with you Russell.

    As a boy apprentice toolmaker some 27 years ago, I was challenged by an experianced peer about the method I chose to machine some parts. Having already had some workshop experiance from my fathers machine shop, designing and building at one point a metal turning lathe, I robustly rejected the challange. The retort I recived was a rather sour and pithy “I’ve been doing this 22 years son” to which I replied in cocksure maner, “well it isn’t my fault you’ve been doing it wrong for so long!” Quite naturally that got me a visit to the directors office.

    Over the years I’d like to say I’ve mellowed, but the truth is I have’t, in fact I’d say I’m ever more hard bitten.

    I saw some work on a well known product design forum a year or two ago by a very tallented young man of 15 years old. His work recived intence critisism from his older and ‘better educated’ peers, opon explination of his design thinking one could clearly see this young mans visionary insight to user needs and desires. He had a pretty good handle too on the comercial constraints and admirably justified his solutions.

    In my personal opinion far too many folk are happy to be mediocre and justify it by attempting to pick holes in others in order to justify their feeble and oft times pathetic efforts.

    I’m persistantly flaberghasted at the ill concived, poorly executed and moronically managed product designs I see every day.

    When I see a potential employee who is able to concieve multiple solutions, intelegently assess them and perform realistic FMEA, who.is able to ballance a bold aesthetic against market acceptance, commercial constraint, technical feasability and prudent attention to ecconomic and enviromental sustainability… Then, no matter how old, or how experianced, then I give them a job.

    Ha… Even with nothing to add I can still wobble on in some sort of pseudo rant 🙂

  3. I’m glad that my brain dribbles are finding resonance with others…I must admit that it is rather cathartic and writing posts that relate to polarising subjects is fun. Much better than simply posting a picture of a new design for all of us to fawn over!

    Design education is a sensitive subject and one which seems to be kicking up a storm of late. I genuinely feel sorry for new graduates that are ‘good designers’ as they have to wade through the detritus of useless peers to make themselves heard and seen. Yes the internet can help, but the sheer numbers are stacked against them. I guess…like a marathon, the decent ones eventually end up at the front 😉

    Thanks for your comment Lloyd – not a bad addition given that you opened with “I have nothing to say”!

    I’d quite like to hear from some younger designers and see if they see it the same way.

  4. Well it seems we are all in agreement 🙂 Just need to tell the design courses to up their game… Like you say Russell there are good designers and bad designers. Identifying them in a bigger crowd requires a bit more effort. However I still think that the lack of understanding around manufacturing is the biggest issue for graduates. PS. In the last year to practice hand drawn technical drawing on my degree course – don’t miss it

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