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

The Cheltenham Design Festival 2013

Although this blog is really supposed to be a forum for our opinions on specific design related issues, the fact that the town our studio inhabits has just hosted a rather magnificent design festival warrants some form of posting.

This Sunday just gone, the 2nd Annual Cheltenham Design Festival came to a close just up the road at the Parabola Arts Centre. Four days of awe-inspiring speakers from the coal face of design thinking in the UK. I was peripherally involved, in the sense that I run a design business in Cheltenham and was invited (as a result of various chance conversations and email introductions) to be video’d, along with other ‘Cheltenham creatives’ in the run up to the festival – making comment on the benefits and delights of working outside of London in the leafy suburbia of the Cotswolds. There was a lot of inflatable yellow sofa and all-round shoe envy! Other than that I can claim no part in its organisational success but I am rightly proud of our (relatively) small town and the impressive list of names willing to travel to, and speak at the festival.

Before I go on, I’d also like to mention – for those of you that may have attended – the newspapers that were being handed out throughout the festival (at the front of the venue). These were a clever initiative from 3 undergraduates (Sam, Adam and Shaun) at the University of Gloucestershire – calling themselves ‘The Paperboys’ (@_ThePaperboys). For one of their module submissions they decided to do something that would both generate income and interest in their work. They basically rode the coattails of the festival (to which all of their design heroes – and therefore, prospective employers – were attending as speakers) and put together a tabloid newspaper containing articles on various aspects of ‘Hidden creativity within Cheltenham’ interspersed with their own undergraduate work and a number of pages flogged to local design agencies (myself dutifully included) to fund it all. All in all, a very savvy little undertaking and one which I hope will stand them in good stead as they approach their graduation. I know I’ll be keeping an eye on their careers!

For once, I was genuinely spoilt for choice at this year’s festival and had to make some tough decisions about who I couldn’t see. It is a rare thing indeed, to get the likes of Sir John Sorrell, Michael Johnson (Johnson Banks), Bruce Duckworth, Richard Seymour, Neville Brody, Sir John Hegarty, Deyan Sudjic and many other equally creative people in one place, let alone outside of London. This isn’t rhetoric – there literally are too many to mention here – and I could have done with the festival being a week longer to allow me to fit them all into my diary!

Anyway, from the rich pool of choice, I selected individual talks from Bruce Duckworth, Richard Seymour, Nat Hunter and Fred Deakin, with 2 ‘panel debates’ including Michael Johnson, Spencer Buck, Mark Bonner, Craig Oldham, Sir John Hegarty, Neville Brody, Deyan Sudjic and David Constantine.

On the whole, the individual speakers delivered exactly what I was looking for. Thought provoking, well structured insight into a world we all aspire to inhabit as creative design providers, working at the very pinnacle of their professions. Bruce Duckworth in branding and graphics, Richard Seymour in product design, Fred Deakin in the digital/musical realm and Nat Hunter spearheading a welcome pragmatic approach to design for sustainability (I will admit to not being particularly impressed with Nat’s co-presenter – a guy called Steven Johnson…but that is purely subjective…he simply didn’t connect with me. By all means have a look at his site at considered.org.uk to judge for yourself). I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I’ve been privileged to work for Richard as a senior designer at Seymourpowell, and have worked with Bruce and Fred (albeit only for a few days) on a collaborative project a few years ago, so it was interesting to hear their views on the developing design industry. I hold all of these guys (and Nat) in very high regard and they didn’t disappoint.

I won’t go into the ‘nitty gritty’ specifics of each of the talks as they differed greatly in their delivery, content and personality. However, what did come across was the overarching aspects of responsibility, integrity of ideas and honesty as designers. Bruce talked about their recent work for Coke and Waitrose and the ultimate simplicity and clarity of the underlying idea. Their work can only be as clean, witty and uncluttered as it is because of the sheer brilliance of the idea and understanding of the wider context of that brand’s implementation and exposure to the consumer cultures it develops. Like all great work, it appears ludicrously simple and obvious in execution, but all attempts beforehand could not manage their (Turner Duckworth’s) clarity of message in these instances. Incidentally – I would put the work of Johnson Banks in this same category, and it is one of the things I was disappointed not to see – a singular talk from Michael Johnson…maybe next year.

For a festival heavily weighted towards the 2D design fraternities, I was particularly pleased to see Richard Seymour on the bill. As a product designer myself, our world is often under-represented at such events and less understood by consumers at large – mainly as it is sometimes a more complex, muddy message to convey. It was good to see that Richard did not pull any punches. He spelled out the future that awaits us and the responsibilities we have – as designers of things – to treat our human ingenuity and technological advances with tender care. As he stated (and I paraphrase somewhat) “For the first time in human history, our imagination has been surpassed by our capacity for delivery.” In other words, we as humans can create and do things that we can not yet imagine easily. That may not make a great deal of sense in the context of this blog post, but I urge you to attend a talk of his in the near future if you get the chance. It is a proverbial gut punch to the moral kidneys of the so-called ‘responsible’ designer. We have a toolkit available to us that could very easily be abused and we need to ensure that we do the job properly as we meander through the near future.

In a very different style altogether to that of Bruce and Richard, it was good to hear the exploits of Nat Hunter (previously of Airside fame) addressing the ‘elephant in the room’ called sustainability. Now I’ve heard quite a few ‘sustainability’ talks and they tend to exit my brain very soon after entering it – mainly because they say a lot without any commitment or concrete examples – something that tends to frustrate the hell out of me. I don’t mind being told that something is necessary, but I like to see some evidence of success in practice. Nat’s talk was nicely pragmatic and resonated with much of the thinking that most decent product designers would attest to. She has been developing something (via the RSA) called the Great Recovery and the promotion of a more circular economy, but rather than simply pointing accusingly at designers and saying more needs to be done, she is engaging the people who have to deal with the end results of our product design legacy – the poor sods at the recycling centres who have to disassemble and sort materials for post processing and re-use. There is plenty of refreshing detail, but maybe not for here. Have a look at http://www.greatrecovery.org.uk for more info. I’m seriously considering getting involved in this…

Fred Deakin (also ex-Airside and one half of Lemon Jelly) was equally relevant as a speaker. He argued that we are in a fabulous transitional period; our grandparents were brought up with purely analogue products and our children are being brought up with purely digital ones, leaving us straddling the two worlds perilously. It is unlikely this will ever happen again – where such a monumental shift of fundamental delivery technology and interface ubiquity can be witnessed by a single generation, so we should thank our lucky stars and embrace it! As you would imagine from a guy so buried in the equally changing worlds of digital media and music, his talk was suitably charged and energetic and left the audience somewhat reeling with opportunity overload. I – for one – enjoyed it thoroughly.

So those were my ‘talks of choice’ and the ones I attended. I wanted to see more individual speakers and I hear from other attendees that most – if not all – were equally engaging, challenging and career-shifting. I think I’ll keep an eye out in the future for talks from Craig Oldham, Spencer Buck and Adrian Westaway – to name but a few of the ‘up and coming’ heavyweights on the design speaking circuit.

So to the ‘debates’…

On the whole, I was excited by the prospect of the panel sessions. Pulling together interesting, opinionated designers with proven track records to discuss matters relevant to design sounds intriguing and – on paper – can only be brilliant. I attended 2 such sessions; the first one at the start of Day 1 and the ‘biggie’ at the close of Day 3.

I must admit to leaving the auditorium feeling a little underwhelmed to be perfectly honest. Whilst the individuals themselves said things that made perfect sense, it felt a little like a polite conversation in a dentist’s waiting room. Everyone tripping over themselves in deference to their peers, not really having the opportunity to voice a truly gutsy opinion on any particular matter. It felt like they were all being a bit too polite to say anything ripe enough. To my mind, we were observing the first hour of a ‘drinks’ party, where everyone tiptoes around each other and dutifully hands around the hors d’oeuvres. What we needed (and I suspect… wanted) was to return to the party 4 hours later after a couple of bottles of choice had been emptied and the discussions were a little less cautious. THAT would have been interesting to listen to!

I have nothing but utmost respect for all of the panelists and tended to agree with much of what each of them said (even when they politely disagreed with each other!) but I would have paid more to see each of them talk independently on their subject of choice – to hear their singular, unedited opinion on a subject matter. Straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Individually unleash Michael Johnson or Sir John Hegarty or Neville Brody and the room would be captivated for hours. It was almost as though the sum was less than the individual parts.

I can’t put my finger on why exactly it didn’t work. The venue was great, the guest were spectacular and the chairs asked the right kinds of questions. Maybe it was the lack of time available or the generic blandness of the questions. To be perfectly honest, the BIG debate spent most of the time defining the question itself and ended up tying itself in knots. Maybe it was my expectation of what I was going to be seeing. Too high? Too detailed? Who knows.

As an aside…one thing that did resonate with me in that final debate, was something David Constantine (of Motivation) said… “Appropriate design is good design”. I couldn’t agree more. The panel was getting itself muddled with definition of ‘good’ design but David nailed it right there and then. ‘Appropriateness‘ is something I hold very dear to my own design thinking and to hear someone like David say the same felt very good indeed!

Despite this slightly empty feeling from the 2 panels discussions I attended, I think the festival was a resounding success and something I am very happy to support and help to develop in whatever way I can to ensure that it becomes a regular calendar event. The trustees have obviously done wonders to secure the consistent calibre of speakers and they should be doubly applauded for getting these guys to not only speak at a festival with a short track record, but more importantly in Cheltenham, which as we all know, is NOT IN LONDON. To be perfectly honest, and given the quality on the bill, I was slightly embarrassed that Cheltenham didn’t fill every seat in the house for every talk. We can’t very well sit here and complain about anything, when such a festival is put on for us on our doorstep and we find it hard to get bums on every seat. I for one, will be firing on all cylinders to promote it next year if the CDF team can secure anything like the level of speakers we got this year.

All told, I think it was brilliant. Well done chaps!

author : Russell Beard  |  Founder

Bashing heads together

Right. Here goes. A subject that has been both close to my heart and a spark to my proverbial touchpaper at the same time. Bloody ‘3D Printing’.

I’m not entirely sure where to start to be perfectly honest. This subject has been mulling around the Square Banana grey matter for months and months, attempting to structure itself into some cohesive, well balanced argument, but with limited success. My theory – therefore – is to simply start typing and see what happens…

Maybe I should start by ‘setting out my stall’. I am a product designer and I run a product design consultancy (just in case anyone reading this thinks I’m just a crackpot ranting machine…which I may not necessarily dispel in this post). I have used rapid prototyping in its many forms to develop numerous clients’ products for the best part of 20 years. I do not own a 3D Printer in any form. I am not affiliated with, nor have links with any 3D Printing company. I am not a ‘maker’ and I don’t have a shed…yet. I am simply a professional designer with pretty good experience of how the industry (design + prototyping) has developed over the last 20 years.

So here’s my beef.

I am frustrated by the constant barrage of press releases and news articles hailing 3D Printing as the next consumer ‘revolution’ and that it is going to herald a new age of ‘makers’ and entrepreneurs. Heck, let’s coin a new term; ‘homepreneurs’. Heart warming stories of little girls with bionic arms, printed in a jiffy on a 3D Printer, or fantastically customised iPhone accessories printed at the ‘click of a mouse’ while’u’wait at the local hypermarket. Yes these are possible – in the same way that it’s possible to cook a Michelin star meal for a room full of people – but it’s a very shiny side of a 7 sided coin, the other 6 sides of which are a bit mucky. I’ll apologise now, I like to use analogies…there will be plenty.

Let’s be clear. I’m not a naysayer of 3D Printing. I’ve been using it for the entirety of my professional career to date, to help me develop new things for people that can’t do what we do (thankfully). It’s brilliant and magical. The ability to physically replicate a virtual form, developed in software, relatively easily and at fairly low cost, has helped our industry (and many other industries) leap forward in terms of ‘speed to market’ and ‘proof of concept’ like nothing else. But it comes with downsides. It is certainly NOT the ‘one click wonder’ that we are often led to believe. The bit leading up to the ‘click of the mouse’ when it starts printing is complex and requires specific skills and knowledge. The object, once printed, is not smooth, clean and ready to rock. It’s a bit jaggedy (technical terminology!), is connected to all manner of supporting bits and bobs (to stop it falling over when it’s being built) and requires a not insignificant amount of TLC afterwards (depending on what it has been built out of). I apologise to those who are reading this with a good knowledge of 3D Printing, but I’m keen to keep things *really* simple. It also ain’t THAT quick. To print something the size of – say – a fist, that doesn’t look like it’s made out of LEGO, will take hours. Yes, hours. Not mere minutes. Not to mention that invariably you’ll need a couple of attempts at ‘printing’ your object of desire, given that it is highly likely that your first few attempts will fail miserably, the machine will invariably crash and you will waste a whole heap of expensive material in the palm-sweating, hair-pulling, swearbox-filling process. I’m sure these times, and processes will get better and become much less complex, but that’s where we are at, right now. That’s why I still use external experts who do all this for me.

I was attempting to explain 3D Printing to someone with no knowledge of the technology the other day, and it felt to me like it was at the stage that ‘amateur photography’ was at when keen, inclined people were able to set aside a bit of their shed, install a red light bulb, buy some trays, some developing chemicals, a stack of expensive paper, a few wires and pegs, and some other paraphernalia, and develop their own photos. It became ‘hobbyist’. Those willing to commit to learning the basics of the craft were able to do it at home, play around with the limitations and potentially unleash the creative tiger prowling within themselves. Maybe 3D Printing will be the same? The point is, despite it becoming accessible (for all the right reasons), it still took commitment, and every home in the UK didn’t convert their shed into a darkroom. It wasn’t until photography turned digital and the establishment had to learn the hard way that things can’t stand still, that the opportunity and skills normally required of an ‘expert’ now became accessible by all and we all became so-called experts. But digital photography does not bear any relation to ye’olde darkroom photography of old….it is simply the petulant, arrogant nephew with better ideas and less time on its hands.

So, with that in mind, what would the petulant generational version of the current 3D Printing technology look like? That’s the game changer.

I’ll throw another analogy at you.

Remember that feeling you had as a kid, when you walked through a stadium tunnel, or leapt out of a car parked alongside an open field, or ran towards the sea. That feeling of being given ultimate freedom to ‘go’ wherever you want. Like a dog being let off its leash. It runs…and runs…and changes direction…and then runs some more. Nothing is constraining its movement and it has no idea why it is running in a certain direction. It just goes. Anywhere. Because it can.

Within reason, that is what 3D Printing should be letting us do, and is falsely purporting to allow us to do. Ultimate creativity and unconstrained boundaries. In real terms, it is painting this lovely picture of freedom and then quietly putting down those inflatable bowling alley bumpers which only allow you to travel in one direction, whilst gently and clumsily ricocheting from side to side. “Look at all the wonderful things that this technology can do!” *caveat – significant conditions apply. There is a HUGE disconnect between the reality and the dream weaved by the 3D Printed powers that be.

So? Enough ranting. That’s the easy bit. Anyone can rant.

As a product designer, clients come to us when they have a problem they cannot solve themselves, or they think someone else can solve more elegantly/cheaply/quickly etc. We are invariably presented with a number of constraints (usually quite a few), a cost target/budget, a timescale and a list of desirable outcomes. It is our job to then deconstruct the ‘brief’ (or create one in the first place) and then attempt to solve the problem within the framework applied. Sometimes this is possible. Sometimes you have to look at acceptable compromises or pull in a bit of leftfield thinking to break established paradigms. Whichever way it is done, the brief is fulfilled and the problem – invariably – solved.

My suggestion is to approach 3D Printing in exactly the same way.

3D Printing gives us fantastic benefits (let’s ignore the negatives for a moment). The ability to genuinely produce a 1-off. The ability to produce ‘impossible’ forms that traditional manufacturing processes do not. ‘Relative’ speed in comparison to other methods of production. Geographic indifference…you can technically print anywhere where there is power. There are others. Why can’t we use these positive ingredients as the initiator for a brief? A brief to determine the biggest ‘consumer’ opportunities for a technology platform with the advantages stated and the constraints I’ve griped about earlier. Let’s ‘ignore’ the niche applications which are tried, tested and well documented (and no doubt protected to the hilt) namely; aerospace, high end automotive/formula 1, dentistry, orthopaedics, prosthetics etc. etc. Let’s also try to ignore the whimsy of high end fashion, objets d’art and self-indulgent sculpture if we can. Let’s really try and find commercially savvy, consumer focused applications for this remarkable, ‘magic’ process that has longevity, growth, bandwidth and scalability. I got a bit excited the other day when I read a headline that ‘Sainsbury’s had embraced 3D Printing’ – thinking that they had done exactly the above and were about to lay out a strategy for their novel use and adoption of this technology, only to read the same guff about customised iPhone covers et al.

The thing is, I know it is possible. I did a project many years ago, where we looked at an emerging technology platform and applied this design approach to developing opportunities within a defined roadmap (all the business clichés are coming out now!) of 10-12 years. At the time, the company I worked for was working on lots of exciting, cutting edge stuff for all manner of corporate giants, but we couldn’t talk about any of it, due to confidentiality. So we pursued a self-initiated project which allowed us to investigate the various routes to market for this chosen technology, with the consumer at the heart of all of the solutions and with each opportunity based on sound commercial sensibilities. It is incredibly liberating to take the essence of a technology – the practical possibilities and advantages – and tailor these to specific applications that may never have been thought about beforehand, purely because that technology bubble was so focused on the ‘obvious’ applications and the more literal, immediately demonstrable quick wins. I firmly believe that – should a business have the foresight to treat this as an ‘opportunity brief’ rather than a PR exercise aiming to appease the ‘watch tapping’ investors, kickstarter fanboys and crowdfunding-delirious tech media – then we as consumers could see some really, VERY interesting things happening that will give us the creative wings and consumer power that the 3D Printing technology ought to be giving us.

Remember, 3D Printing has been around – and will be around – for a very long time as a tool for high end professionals to achieve their specific, expert goals. The interesting thing is the consumer proposition. The masses. How can it evolve from the darkroom into instagram?

We are currently in the darkroom bouncing off the walls.

A bit of proven, consumer-centric thinking is what is needed. With consumers and their individuals ways and differences at the core of it all. I’ve got plenty of ideas about where this could go, but I’d be shooting from the hip a little. We – like any other designers tasked with such a brief – would need time, energy and resource to deliver something strategic, considered and better informed. I have a hunch that we may all be blindly looking at the ‘output’ rather than the ‘input’ vehicle, but as I say…its a hunch.

There. That’s my piece. Make of it what you will. If nothing else, I truly hope a ‘product’ or ‘service innovation’ design business (he says through gritted teeth) gets a call from one of the major 3D Printer manufacturers and the opportunity to bash some heads together for a small proportion of the money currently being pumped into PR.

Whoever gets the chance…good luck and a following wind!

Recent addition (25th June 2013) >>
————————————————————–

Following a fairly positive response to this post, the Community Manager from Seymourpowell asked if I might publish this video they recently completed – interviewing Marcus Fairs, the editor of Dezeen about the future of ‘on demand’ manufacturing if you will. So here it is.

I have to say that whilst I don’t think it does anything to help dispel the clichéd view of slightly affected, designery, London types, and the less said about his term ‘genuine revolution’ the better, I think he touches on some interesting subjects. My views are fairly well documented in the preceding blog article, so I immediately balked at the ‘mini me’, shuddered when he mentioned ‘3D Printed buildings’ and had to stop myself from spitting my tea all over the keyboard when he mentioned ‘specialist technologies which allow us to print on demand’. However, I did agree with the need for advancement in input technologies and found the concept of 3D Printed food very interesting indeed. If you separate yourself from the idea that 3DP is a box on your desk with wires that connects to your computer, and you think about the possibilities that being able to produce something of your own, deciding at a point immediately prior to consumption exactly what that should look like and ‘be’ like, then I think you start to realise the core potential for this technology. Not the most appealing vision I’ll grant you, given what we see coming out of our current 3D Printers, but our future holds nicer things I hope.

Printing is simply the recreation of something you’ve ‘designed’ (and I use that term loosely) elsewhere in a form that the printer is capable of producing.

So whilst I wouldn’t say I agree with all that Marcus says (and I feel he is typically falling into the very same trap that many of our journo friends who don’t *really* understand WTF its all about, do) there are some snippets of something interesting in there and it certainly provokes.

author : Russell Beard  |  Founder

Coming up for air…

Despite numerous car journeys during which I made a promise to myself to write more blog posts (there’s no shortage of subjects which incur my opinionated wrath, as you can well imagine), I find myself looking at the last date of entry and realising it’s almost a year since the last posting.

Gulp. Never mind. I’ve been busy.

2012 was a formative year for Square Banana. Whilst nothing significant per se actually happened, it was a year where I gave myself a virtual kick up the business butt.

Square Banana has been trading for many years now (since 2005 in fact), and we have completed all manner of exciting projects for a whole host of reputable and emerging brands, businesses and individuals. Having said that, I had developed a knack of working ‘in silo’, operating from modest premises and coping with the extreme workloads by sacrificing evenings, weekends and family holidays to deliver work that I was proud of and that represented the Square Banana brand. However, in late 2011 and into early 2012, I decided to see if the business had any scope for growth. I had spent long enough ‘waiting’ for it to grow, but it was clear that growth wasn’t going to come to me…I had to go out and grab it by the ‘short and curlies’ (as my grandfather so often put it). I had also – prior to that – taken my eye of the business in an attempt to develop a product of my own, which in turn (ironically) made me realise how much I loved the design consultancy game.

I engaged in some business coaching. To be brutally honest I wasn’t sure what this meant and what to expect, but it felt like a good idea. I needed to talk *at* someone who wasn’t another designer, family member or well established client, whilst hoping that they had some wise, sage-like words of wisdom to enable me to miraculously sprinkle some magic dust upon the Square Banana floorboards, thrusting forth the business into unforseen territories. Well, it wasn’t entirely so. But as it happens, it was amazingly liberating. When someone (who has no vested interest in fluffing your ‘design’ feathers) asks you fairly direct personal and business questions about your skills, your ambitions, your priorities, your family, your turnover and your profitability, you soon realise how much you’ve brushed under the ‘proverbial’ carpet and hoped would resolve itself. It’s actually quite embarassing when you are asked what you’ve done to achieve A, B or C and you find yourself struggling to answer. Sure, I did some ‘profiling’ (to which there was no conclusive answer…I seem to be a right royal mix of all ‘types’) and some objective ‘mapping’ but the most rewarding part of the exercise was the open discussions about what I wanted the business to become and some steps I should consider in getting there….and the bloody obvious realisation that no-one is going to give me those direct answers on a postcard.

So 2012 was the year where I ‘started’ to investigate Square Banana’s potential and make some decisions about how to go forward, prompted by the conversations and results from this business coaching.

I won’t go into the detail, but the initial steps seemed to have worked. I evaluated the type of work that was ‘high maintenance’ and ‘low reward’ (‘reward’ is a multi faceted thing BTW…it ain’t just money) and looked at ways to minimise these whilst not offending clients or risk alienating myself. I also started attempting to define what it was about our offer or skillset that set us apart from the competition (this is still work in progress as it happens!) or that appeals to the types of clients that I wanted to secure. It may well have coincided with an upturn in business sentiment, but the steps seem to have reaped the appropriate rewards to date – not necessarily in terms of monetary value, but more in terms of the structure of the workload and the types of projects we are now doing.

Another key decision was to locate Square Banana in a more urban, upbeat location and throughout last year, we’ve been scouring the county for a suitable base. After a great deal of internet trawling, arguments with office space brokers, negotiations with landlords and last minute changes of mind, we have finally moved into a great studio space in the centre of Cheltenham – Gloucesteshire’s spa town. It’s been frought and frantic at times, but we are finally ‘in’ (3 weeks and counting) and are currently making efforts to turn it from an empty space into a creative hub (we would have sorted this sooner had it not been for unforseen, last minute overseas trips and a whole heap of inclement snow!). I will post again in a few weeks to show you some appropriately arty photos of our spangly new studio space and no doubt a false impression of how tidily we operate! BTW – if anyone finds themselves in the centre of Cheltenham and fancies a coffee and a chat, feel free to pop in.

So a creative space is all well and good, but we needed bodies to occupy this space and help develop the business. So, I also set about trying to find the right kind of Square Banana designers. Very long and convoluted story short, I put the feelers out for seniors who might want a strategic move and middleweights with a bit of experience, but it soon transpired that most interested ‘experienced’ designers who hadn’t already taken the plunge into business ownership were a little too cautious to risk their comfortable salaries for a new venture in a small design business – despite the potential rewards, or if they were, they didn’t really ‘fit’ (a quick caveat – despite not securing a senior, I’m not averse to hearing from people who might consider a ‘strategic’ move in the future…I don’t want to burn my boats just yet). As such we soon turned to recent graduates or juniors as a viable option.

With this I decided to experiment. Having been to New Designers and – as a direct result – having had my faith restored in the emerging design talent, I decided to see if there were any young designers who might respond to a slightly less orthodox method of recruitment. I decided to spend 1 week posting a request for junior product designers on my LinkedIn status and my Twitter feed. 1 post per day over the course of a week. My logic was that – as a small business – I am looking for people who have their eyes peeled and their ears to the ground (notwithstanding their abilities as a designer – something I can validate in an interview and a review of their portfolio) so by posting it on a social media site (both semi-professional and professional) I could at least see that they were looking for opportunities rather than waiting for opportunities to find them. This yielded a mixed bag of applicants; some great, some good, a few mediocre and whole heap of crap. It still amazes me that some of the ‘designers’ (note the inverted commas used) who applied, seriously thought themselves worthy of serious consideration, let alone an interview. To my mind there seems to be a groundswell of young designers graduating who appear to ‘expect’ a job from the industry, at a time when many bloody good designers are losing theirs due to larger agencies ‘scaling back’. Once again, I’ve dipped my toe in the festering pool of another subject which could so easily consume this entire post…I will return to this another time!

I interviewed a handful and all seemed competent and able, but I was looking for someone who wasn’t necessarily brilliant at 3D CAD, or could operate rendering software in their sleep, or regurgitated the expectant ‘design phrasebook’ in every interview reply. I wanted a ‘thinker’. Someone who looks at a problem brief and has a good long think about it. CAD skills can be taught, rendering software is only going to get easier to use, but ‘thinking’ appears to be a rare skill, often missing from many graduates (from my direct experience I hasten to add). Incidentally, I contributed to a comment/advice article on Develop3D shortly after New Designers which can be found here.

So after a raft of interviews, I whittled the field down to a few, of which I chose a recent graduate from Northumbria Uni. A young lad called Robert Sloan who started at Square Banana a few weeks ago and who has already been heavily involved in delivering concepts for a future healthcare/wellness product. Whilst he’s obviously still finding his feet, he’s a keen asset and is helping to propagate a creative, ‘thought-led’ ethos throughout everything we do. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can bring to the business and – more importantly – how he can help it evolve.

So, there it is. This time last year I wasn’t entirely sure where we were headed. Now at least there is direction and vigour to enable and promote growth (albeit ‘tortoise’ slow compared to many recent tech businesses out there).  It’s been bloody difficult trying to shoe-horn these initiatives into a year crammed to the gunnels with new and exciting design projects, but we’ve managed it…somehow (and I have the ‘silver fox’ swathes of grey hair to prove it). We have a new studio, new people, a new website (have a gander here), a revised sense of purpose, an awareness of our strengths and a hugely positive outlook.

That can’t be bad can it? Regardless of how it all shakes down.

author : Russell Beard  |  Founder

The spectre of collaboration

Well its taken far too long for me to get around to writing this. The reasons are partly festive, but in the main I’ve been too busy with work – who would have thought!

My last post about ‘innovation‘ was an interesting contrast to the one previous about the ‘the 15 year scratch‘. It appears that quite a few people read it but no-one commented…maybe it was too contentious or didn’t quite strike a chord with anyone. Who knows. I’ve got plenty of spam comments attempting to get me to buy a cheap Mont Blanc mountain pen though!

I’ve given a fair bit of thought to what I would write about this time around, and true to most such instances, it has been recent online chatter that has prompted my subject matter, which is…. ‘collaboration’. You will probably see as you read on, I have a meandering view of this and I’m very keen to hear what others think of it, and their related experiences. Before I go any further I should re-iterate that the contents of all these blog entries are drawn from personal opinion…as if you haven’t already guessed.

To my mind the term ‘collaboration’ within the context of product design is viewed with a certain amount of cloaked skepticism. Idealistically it makes perfect sense. The coming together of suitably paired and appropriate minds to solve a common brief can only create something better than that created by a single mind. It’s the overwhelming basis of brainstorming, creative think-tanks and so forth. No arguments there.

The problem arises when payment is involved. As soon as someone is charging for those ideas generated via collaboration, there initiates a hierarchy. An ownership structure I guess. Someone has made the initial introduction to the client, or they are seen to be the primary supplier of goods. Therein sets off a chain of events that puts someone within the apparent ‘even handed’ collaborative network at the top of the feeding or responsibility chain. It then becomes – in essence – a skewed collaborative model.

As intelligent, polite and collaborative folk, we all say that we are happy with the idealistic collaborative model and work together towards the greater good of the project, but there will always be a ‘master/servant’ or ‘agency/contractor’ relationship, no matter how professional and ‘open’ we all claim to be. Someone, somewhere within that model always holds a few more cards than another. I often liken these scenarios to a music group or band. Within every Take That there will always be a Gary Barlow and a Robbie Williams. And there will always ultimately be a battle for power and supremacy happening silently within.

Now if this is verbalized and openly discussed, then it can be managed. A bit like ‘top trumps’, there are going to be certain unwritten rules that count. The larger the agency, the bigger the clout …for instance. The collaborator with the higher fee structure will tend to absorb the lower fees of the others rather than the other way around. It kinda makes sense. I guess it depends on the rules of collaboration and the strength of the relationships between the collaborators.

I have an example to include drawn from very personal experience. Names have been removed to protect the innocent (and not-so innocent).

A large product design consultancy who had good ‘design for manufacture’ credentials entered into a ‘collaborative’ business model with a large graphics and branding agency – both of whom were based in the same approximate geographical area. The concept was that the overlap of the two businesses could create a new business offer where branding was manifested and embodied in 3D and designed to be manufactured within the highly creative framework of both businesses. The aim was that it would appeal to brand managers who could take their spangly new brand through to the FMCG physical retail space in one seamless move. The logic was good, but it ended up feeling like a supplier relationship. The branding agency held the ‘client’ cards and wasn’t going to relinquish them for anything. The product guys ended up responding to the branding guys’ brief and there was forever a layer of client ‘handling’ and ensuing interpretation in any and all feedback loops. It failed miserably despite the intelligence of the creative logic. The brand guys had too much to lose by being truly collaborative, yet wanted to widen their ‘offer net’ and seduce clients with ‘more’. The end result was a more formal ‘sub-contract’ relationship with traditional work patterns and project management within internal teams. Needless to say it didn’t last long, and rightly so.

It is interesting to notice that several years after the demise of this collaboration model, several large branding agencies have taken to ‘acquiring’ smaller 3D/product agencies and ‘borg-ing’ them. That probably makes more commercial sense when there is a disparity in size and business clout.

I think there is a marked difference between genuine collaborative business models and a collaborative, project related, design team. I have worked with BOS: (formerly FLB in Cheltenham) on several projects where I have brought structural packaging expertise and product manufacturing knowledge to the table for the greater good of the project – essentially to complement the predominant branding and graphical work done by BOS:. Behind the scenes, the relationship is still very much that of a sub-contractor i.e. we submit a price against a work phase and invoice accordingly once the phase has been delivered as agreed and described. The rules are simple. Square Banana is contracted to do what we have been briefed to do and BOS: own the client ‘cards’ and run the project. That bit isn’t collaborative. The collaborative bit is around the client meeting table or at early stage project discussions. Despite BOS: being significantly ‘bigger’ than Square Banana, there is no indication of this when it comes to the specific project. With the client and within project meetings, we have as much ‘clout’ and ‘opinion validity’ within the context of the project as BOS:, and yet the client is fully aware that BOS: are running the show and we are a sideshow…so to speak. That works very well as all expectations are managed and the groundrules are clear. A collaborative project relationship but not a collaborative business relationship. There is no ‘cloaking’ of us as BOS: in front of the client. Everyone is aware of all parties and the specific skills and responsibilities each has in respect of the project.

I often read about recent graduates who get together to form a co-operative – which is in essence a collaborative business model. I can understand the logic and commend many of them. But they are useful when everyone is at a similar level i.e. just graduated and looking for work. You maximize your sales force and generate a team spirit without the complexities and commitment to build a singular business and becoming co-directors. However, it works best whilst all participants are unknown. As soon as the collaborators become even slightly recognized or complete a number of projects, a hierarchy will form. Be that a by-product of apparent skill, confidence, business acumen, sheer ‘front’ or price, at some stage there will be those within the group that appear to do better and will see less need to be truly and evenly collaborative. They will perceive (rightly or wrongly…there are plenty examples of both) that they can ‘go it alone’ and as soon as that happens, the collaboration starts to crack and ultimately crumbles. To use the band analogy, think of all those manufactured groups who appear to be ‘tight knit’ and yet a couple of albums and several well chosen public appearances later, one of the group rises to the surface and splits – like disproportionate cell division – from the group to ‘forge their own path’. Fame, success, money and the rallying cry of surrounding sycophants prevents all but the most genuine of such groups from longevity.

To my mind, it boils down to the desire to truly collaborate – and the interpretation of the term ‘collaboration’. If we are to be honest, many collaborations are veiled attempts to make more money from the skills of others, without the commitment to building their own business to encompass those skills. These will never work.

But if all parties are aware of the value of each skill set and the relevance within a project structure of those skills, then I believe collaboration can work wonderfully. Set the ground rules and expectations out in ‘simple to understand’ terms. The business framework that supports the collaboration model may not be particularly evenly distributed across the participants, but as long as within the project structure, the relevance and opinion of each and every collaborator is valued equally then the project is likely to be better than it would have been without collaboration. Surely.

I suppose the best collaborative relationship is where different skillsets and disciplines can be involved as necessary to suit the project mix and where every participant understands the cost base for each other. Much like baking, the fundamental base ingredients are often always needed, but other more specialist ingredients are required from time to time to create something new and exciting. You just need to ensure that your pantry has sufficient stock of all possible ingredients to allow you to create whatever recipe you may need to. To step out of my analogy, all collaborators need to be ‘on-call’ and understand the unifying ethos that makes that collaboration seem a singular creative unit. Otherwise it simply becomes a little black book of sub-contractors who are at liberty to charge whatever they choose whenever the call comes.

I don’t want to get all ‘cub-scout’ on everyone, but personally I find that honesty tends to be the best policy. When I first started Square Banana, I had no real legitimate casestudies to shout about and no staff to ‘profile’. I decided to promote an ‘associate’ model (which could be construed as a collaborative approach) where I asked 4-5 selected small business owners if I could profile them on my Square Banana website. If ever their services were required (at the time, they  included web development, Alias rendering, automotive styling, animation etc. etc.) I would mention them (by name and business) in my initial proposal to the client and provide a short business summary/profile for their information. My intention was that it would make Square Banana appear bigger than it was, but the result was much different. Clients responded well to the fact that each specialist was brought in only to do what was required within the project and that I was only charging for the services and hours necessary to do the work – an optimized billing model to suit the project needs. No fees to cover large overheads or multiple software maintenance contracts etc. It worked well enough for me to make more of it over the next couple of years – a form of collaborative framework I guess.

The only thing that ultimately made it unworkable was the unreliability of those small businesses and the ensuing recession which meant that one day you had a web developer who understood your business, and the next they had folded the business due to poor trading and they now worked in full time employment with no scope to help out. I ended up spending more time finding new suppliers who I trusted and could confidently put forward in such an open an honest way, than it benefited me to do so. Nowadays, I am still honest with clients about the network I deal with and often let them buy direct, but at a more informal level and to suit the project and client!

I am ever hopeful that a good collaborative model can be created by other small creative businesses as I genuinely believe that it benefits the project and is likely to generate more repeat business. An ‘A-team’ of small’ish creative, expert services. I will be watching the exploits of a recent such collaborative project in Cornwall – known collectively as Mudskipper Ltd. – the brainchild of Lloyd Pennington from Buff Design and enabled (as I understand it) by a Cornish ‘partnership’ initiative. This particular project has been part of the reason I’ve been thinking about ‘collaboration’ per se and I wish it well. I hope to pick Lloyd’s brain on this at some point in the future.

I told you I would meander somewhat!

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts and experiences as my opinions are based purely on my own – I would love to hear about successful collaborations that contradict my thoughts.

author : Russell Beard  |  Design Director

Innovation saturation

Once again, I find myself approaching this next empty blog page with an overactive bee in my rather tattered bonnet. I was going to write this about a month ago, but then a not inconsequential thing happened…Steve Jobs exited stage right.

Before this happened, I was thinking about what I would tackle as my next blog entry, and – as usual – found myself venting in one of the various LinkedIn discussion groups about the misuse, overuse and general misrepresentation of the word ‘innovation’. It felt like a good topic to wrestle with and I was all ready to approach the keyboard. With the sad passing of Steve, I found myself thinking about this word ‘innovation’ more and more as he seemingly forged from one to another, leaving a trail of establish consumer electronic behemoths in his wake. In the weeks that passed since, the word innovation has been rightly used as a watchword for his legacy and I think Apple will need to take some time to find their ‘post Steve’ personality (what happens with Apple is for another post methinks) in order to find the most appropriate tone of innovation with a somewhat more considered chap at the helm.

However, it got me thinking and observing quite how much the word ‘innovation’ has been touted to represent abysmal and mediocre service.

I did a bit of basic dictionary referencing. ‘Innovation‘ is the action or process of innovating. Fair enough. ‘Innovating‘ is to make changes in something established by introducing new methods, ideas or products. Again…makes sense. The key word for me is the word ‘new‘ in this. ‘New‘ is – according to the dictionary on my Mac – ‘not existing before; made, introduced, or discovered recently or now for the first time‘. This certainly resonates with my understanding of the word ‘innovation’ – the process of creating something (be it a process, product or idea) that previously did not exist…something NEW.

This is what galls me so about modern design marketing fluff. The word innovation is so overused and misrepresented that it has almost lost its meaning. If every single product, marketing, branding, graphics, media and engineering agency is genuinely innovating, then why are we not living in some Utopian future with perfect lives surrounded by perfect things? If innovation is so abundant, then how can someone like Steve Jobs make such an impact in the world that – when he departs – the world is left wanting. If everyone is telling the truth then we should be overwhelmed by new-ness every time we step foot out of our homes.

I appreciate that I may be over-egging the pudding here. Forgive me. I have to admit, that from my observations within the design industry, it is the corporate world that is often driving this horrible misuse. Much like ‘thinking outside of the box’ and other such stomach curdling phrases heard in those glass panelled board rooms all over the world, the client gets what the client wants. If they ‘want’ innovation, they will bloody well get innovation. Right? If UniGamble PLC wants to ‘innovate’ and ‘re-invigorate the category’, and are prepared to pay big bucks to be told how to do it, I do not blame any design agency with a sense of opportunity for saying “Yup…we can do that innovation thingy…and we’ve even got a bespoke, trademarked process (with post-its) to allow you to do it with us in a groovy holiday lodge somewhere remote. It’s called ‘The Innovation Station™‘ system.” And there’s not a suit in sight. How groovy.

You can probably tell that I have been part of this machine in my time. Talk the talk, walk the walk. I genuinely don’t have a problem with the concept of ‘innovation days’ per se. If they genuinely set out to try and generate something new…something genuinely innovative…then that can only be a good thing. Changing our world for the better. Using the assembled weight of multiple creative minds and experienced professionals to pool their thinking, spark off each others’ suggestions and nurture that tiny germinating seed of revolution into something mighty and ‘game changing’. That’s brilliant to be a part of and there is palpable sense of awe when it happens. If you can get the right people in the same place all striving for the same ultimate goal (rather than a freebie expenses paid trip abroad) then sometimes…just sometimes…it works.

As a design business owner, it is a struggle to find simple and straightforward ways to explain the benefits of the design process to those who often don’t see its value. It’s often a tough sell…trying to convince people and businesses to have faith in your abilities to take their idea or current product and allow you to re-craft it in such a way as to make it better (however that may manifest)…and at the same time part with hard earned cash to do so. No matter how much you use ‘convincers’ such as past case studies or client testimonials, it is an act of faith that secures that purchase order. Square Banana is just one in a large resource pool of design available to any prospective client out there, and with such ‘faith based’ purchase relationships, I don’t want that client base to feel cheated when they buy ‘innovation’ and simply get ‘mediocrity’. I’m a firm believer in ‘doing what it says on the tin’. If you say you can genuinely make that business more money by ‘innovating’ within their design project, then bloody well do you damnedest to achieve that. I appreciate that many clients do their utmost to scupper your efforts (despite what they claim to want from the project), but – as the chosen design partner – you should be aiming to genuinely innovate if you are claiming that as your core service.

I’m not discussing, devaluing or doubting the other noble and tireless services offered by product designers; breathtaking concept styling, cost saving through clever part design and arrangement, incredible material usage, complex 3D CAD assemblies, ingenious mechanical thinking, intelligent patent circumvention… the list goes on. My gripe is singularly with the word ‘innovation’ in its truest sense.

My worry is that product design is attempting the same language of deception and suggestion that is so prevalent in advertising. Advertising can get away with it because they are dealing in dreams and aspirations – their messages can penetrate your brain and monkey around in there – deliberately so. Product design is ultimately rooted in physics and reality. Often utter spectacular reality…but reality nonetheless. Using ad-speak to sell a pragmatic vision is complex and requires lots of intellect and confidence that the claims can be met when that ‘thing’ pops out the production line and into the hands of the intended user. Advertising innovation can live in our dreams, but product innovation has to live in our hands…and is HAS to deliver.

Many would say that Steve Jobs never actually innovated (I’ve yet to read his biography) and he has inferred as much in saying that he cherry picked ideas and simply made them beautifully commercial, emotive and relevant to consumers. There were phones before the iPhone. There were touchscreen devices before the iPad. There were MP3 players before the iPod. So if the guy that has been hailed as the ‘innovator of our generation’ didn’t actually genuinely innovate, then what right have the broad population of design providers to claim they are – in fact – innovating?

I know I’m ranting, and I know many of you will disagree with what I am saying, but I hope that most will see that there should be a more honourable sense of delivering what we claim to be able to. If you claim to be able to ‘innovate’, then please do so. If not, then please stop using the word to define something you cannot deliver. I don’t know why this specific word and its misuse bugs me so much…there are many other buzzwords that are bandied around with equal abandon and disdain. Maybe I hold that word and its resultant output in higher regard than I should?

I strive to innovate…every decent designer should, but I don’t necessarily promise it from the off. If a project allows me to find an ‘innovative’ solution which will fundamentally change the commercial landscape for my client then brilliant…but its rare. More often than not, the product is simply a beautiful resolution to the design brief which exceeds expectation and makes the client oodles of money.

There’s nothing wrong with that…is there?

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

Industrial vs. Product

I’m a little calmer now after initially reading an article about the activities of the newly-charged BDI (or British Design Innovation – a not-for-profit organisation aiming to represent the needs of ‘industrial’ designers). The article in question discussed the new PR and recruitment thrust by Gus Desbarats (the recently appointed Chairman of the BDI – and head honcho at The Alloy) as well as a talk he gave at the PD+I (Product Design & Innovation) event last month.

What initially caused my blood to boil was a statement within the article that read thus…

“He was also clear that the organisation is representing industrial design as opposed to product design as he feels the latter is too narrowing. He argues that industrial design is a more broadly-based strategic offer. Its skill sets extends (sic) beyond traditional object creation skills to include, amongst other things, innovation strategy, ethnographic research skills, brand narrative, software design, service system design, implementation feasibility specification and sourcing.”

I consider myself a very experienced product designer, and have always described myself as such. I have designed countless products for numerous clients, both individually and as part of very respected product design consultancies around the world (don’t worry, this isn’t a ‘blowing my trumpet’ moment) yet I read this paragraph and immediately felt like as a product designer I was somehow less worthy and more lightweight a designer than my industrial design counterparts….not that I know who they are. To my mind, every significant product designer operating today would count themselves (I hazard a guess) as an industrial designer if asked to – and if over a certain age no doubt graduated from a course in ‘Industrial Design’. The two disciplines – if there are such things nowadays – are not mutually exclusive.

Virtually every ‘design’ project that I have worked on resulting in a physical object – or product – and whose client owner can afford the variety of service phases, has included the various skill sets that Gus claims to be the stomping ground of industrial designers and not product designers. Lord only knows how we managed.

What particularly confuses me is the fact that the BDI gave a talk at the Product Design + Innovation event, entitled ‘Raising the profile of Product Designers’. Is it me?

Taking a step back away from the red mist clouding my keyboard at present, I will admit that I have never fully understood the clear and concise distinctions between an industrial designer and a product designer. The term ‘product design’ is certainly more recent and evokes a more consumerist society, whereas ‘industrial design’ has an ‘under the bonnet’, form-follows-function flavour. Whatever the distinction, if – as a design consultant – I were to meet and take a brief from a client who manufactures factory installed air conditioning units then I would probably use ‘industrial design’ terminology as it is likely to make them feel more comfortable in our abilities to understand their manufacturing sensibilities, cost of production and ‘metal bashing’ origins. However, if I were to meet a marketeer representing a personal care & hygiene brand and who is looking for me to create their next category busting pack, I would tend to use more ‘product design’ terminology as it helps to convey brand subtleties, emotional attachments and graphic sensibilities.

Admittedly, these are extremes, but it is just these extremes which drive a designer of ‘things’ to want to do this job. The sheer variety of markets, consumers and opportunities that await our investigative probing is immeasurable. I know it is what drove me to become a product designer. And the strange thing is that regardless of the brief, the client, the product, the manufacturing process, or the budget, the way a good designer ( I’m told 😉 ) approaches each and every task is with the same questioning mind. We don’t take the Worzel Gummidge approach and attach either our ‘industrial’ or ‘product’ design head. It’s a deep down desire to improve and better the world, inch by inch, product by product, sector by sector. There are plenty of terms given to identifiable design phases… ‘ethnography’, ‘insight activation’, ‘brand attack strategies’ – all things that a designer will do to a greater or lesser degree in their heads as they waft the pencil over the A3 pad following that initial briefing meeting. They are all valid approaches if the brief calls for such things, but to suggest that ‘industrial designers’ use a certain set of skills and ‘product designers’ another is – to my mind – a little naive.

Industrial design is what the discipline was called up until about 15 years ago. Product design has followed hot on its heels…but it is the same thing. Industrial Design vs 2.0 if you will. With the growth in the intangible product, it will be renamed yet again I vouch and yet the guiding principles that have run through all these like a stick of rock will remain. As an ex-employer of mine so famously put it, design is about ‘making things better’. The ‘things’ he refers to may not be recognisable as tangible, physical objects in the very near future, but the statement still rings true. It’s about making it better. Another respected design colleague also answered a recent question on a forum asking “What is the most important quality for a product designer”with the single word…EMPATHY. I couldn’t agree more. Industrial and product designers have no more or less ’empathy’ than each other. If they are good at what they do, they simply have it or they don’t.

With the DBI relaunch, I may be over-reacting to what may well be a misrepresented soundbite, but it has done enough to push me further from a professional body whose sole aim is to support my industry and people like me. That can’t be good can it?

I know I’ve got a little lost in my own rhetoric here, but statements like the one issued by Gus can only serve to confuse….surely?

author : Russell Beard  |  Design Director

Kids studying design

Quote

I was leafing through a trade rag yesterday – DEVELOP3D (a magazine the covers technology used in the entire product development process) – and noticed that I was featured in the ‘comments’ section regarding the following question posed by the editor on their LinkedIn Group page recently…

Should kids studying design and technology be taught hand draughting skills?

I had lots to say on the matter, and tended to get frustrated by the rather ‘dyed in the wool’ draughting types that regularly quote BS numbers and orthagonal references. It seems one of my rant paragraphs was deemed appropriate enough to include in the printed mag itself. This is the bit they printed.

“I think the term ‘draughting’ is a bit outdated now… I did it at school and then at university, whilst concurrently using AutoCAD release 2 to learn ‘CAD’! As a skill it never inspired me, but I do think that the ability to accurately produce a drawing of a design you wish to produce is a worthy skill…and the first steps to creating that ‘design’ should go from brain to hand to paper. No matter how skilled the operator or how slick the CAD platform, there is nothing that can quite beat the creative investigation of the pencil line – be it squiggled or ruled.”

Here’s the LinkedIn thread if anyone is bored enough to see what else I had to say.

As it happens, as I was leafing through the rest of the mag, I noticed an article about Gus Desberats and the BDI which got my shackles up…but that’s for another post!

*After I first posted this, I noticed a great video based on a discussion had between various design and cultural luminaries re:the potential demise of design technology as a subject…not a good thought and very short sighted by Dave C et al. Anyway, here’s the link. Enjoy.

 author : Russell Beard  |  Design Director

The ramblings of a Square Banana…

Welcome to the SB Blog.

As indicated in the ‘Square Banana Who?’ intro, we have started this blog as a vehicle to voice our opinions. Most of our work is by its very nature confidential, and this makes it difficult to have open discourse on a conventional website about specific casestudies, clients, design related ‘goings on’ and the like. Not that this is the ‘kiss and tell’ section of the Square Banana tattle rag….more of the exhaust valve of a well maintained still.

I hope you like what we have to say. I guess the ultimate proof is in how many people read, follow and comment. Time will tell.