4 Non Obvious Lessons from an Industrial Designer for Microsoft, Dell, Kodak and Yeti

4 Non Obvious Lessons from an Industrial Designer for Microsoft, Dell, Kodak and Yeti

Are you a designer too?

A few years ago, like every non-designer technology person out there, I caught the design/design thinking bug. I became that annoying non-designer who read Don Norman’s ‘Design of Everyday Things’, Jay Greene’s ‘Design Is How It Works’ and Tim Brown’s ‘Change By Design’ but stopped just short of calling myself a designer. The products that captured our attention and money were, all of a sudden, design-centric. It’s still the case.

Only recently have I come to realize how annoying that must have been to folk who actually got an education and have years of experience designing stuff. To those people, including L my Industrial Designer friend from undergrad, I apologize.

Change cometh…only learners will thrive.

As the pace of convergence between the built environment, technology, energy generation/management has picked up, I’ve come to the heightened realization that experts across all these industries have to engage at a much deeper level than before when our industries were siloed. For this reason I’ve started to spend a lot more time with experts in these industries (architects, industrial designers and natural born tinkerers) that are becoming more relevant to me as a technology strategy expert in the utility industry. A few weeks ago, I had a fantastic lunch with 3 world renowned architects and must have annoyed them with all my questions which they graciously answered. The conversation centered the large scale economic systems and physical infrastructures of the energy world, as well as the more tangible scale of use and experience. I’m excited about continuing the conversation about how design is a point of contact between these scales.

Naturally, my next conversation had to be with an industrial designer. And that was a recent chat with Dan Phipps at his Axis Design and Prototyping studio in downtown Round Rock TX. Like a rookie, the first time I met Dan I pitched an IoT idea, and I should have shut my mouth to just listen. Second chat I decided to shut my mouth and learn how designers bring those two scales I mentioned above together through their work.

Non obvious business lessons

Dan Phipps is extremely understated. Knowing I would share this blog post made him uncomfortable. For someone who’s worked on iconic hardware products and brands like Kodak, Crockpot, Dell, HP, Bose, Polaroid, SnapOn, Yeti and a few others that can’t be named, Dan is too understated. In his position I’d have made t-shirts with all those logos and plastered ‘I Designed For Them’ and I’d only wear those t-shirts. All the time.

Along with thoughts on design, Dan shared some non-obvious lessons that I couldn’t resist sharing with designers old and new. The lessons are also applicable to those of us who work, and will do more work, with designers as all these industries converge.

  1. Learn as much about the industry climate as you do about the client: Dan shared a story about a client who was a pleasure to work with and had some cool projects. Within the organization Dan’s client had great products that were responsible for the only growth and profits the larger organization was seeing. Fast forward a few months the organization files for bankruptcy and Dan never got paid. Worse still, and when Dan decided to add the modelling shop to his design studio, Dan had paid vendors for work that he was now not getting paid for. It was a lesson in understanding the industry, and market conditions, as a whole instead of just focusing on the work you do for the team within the organization. This story reminded me of a similar story Tim Brown shared in ‘Change by Design’ where he talked about his good work with the Wadkin Bursgreen company, a company that is no longer in existence, designing circular saws and spindle molders. Tim Brown shared that As a designer I didn’t see that it was the future of the woodworking industry that was in question, not the designs of its machine.
  2. When clients tell you who they are, listen: Dan has found that the level of communication between his firm and the client is a great indicator of how well the project will go. It determines the level of excitement with the work and aids or impedes the flow of ideas. He once had a client who was a bad communicator who nonetheless expected the ideas Dan’s team brought to him to match what he had in his head. This non-communicative style didn’t start midway into the project. It was the style even when the contract was being signed. Listen to the signals. The start of the discussions is a good sign of how the engagement will go.
  3. It’s about intangibles: In Dan’s own words ‘A good customer can communicate what they want from you. Not the solution, the vision’. This is not about a client telling the designer what to do but the client sharing enough that the designer knows where to go with the work. Statements like ‘we want you to design this new marker, we really need to stylize the cap’ or ‘our vision for the marker is what is Marker’? are good indicators of clarity of vision on the customer’s side. Seek that and nurture that from your clients.
  4. Watch out for Corporate Antibodies: Hand in hand with #2 and #3 is how the client organization communicates internally. How do employees navigate decision making within the business? Even when the client has the vision nailed down, you’re collaborating with the client to enhance and fulfill that vision and it’s going well, how does your contact fare when they hit the Corporate Antibodies who see change and new thinking as a disease to be killed? They exist in all organizations big and small and play a big role in whether the project is successful or not. Sidenote: The relationship between this and my industry the utility industry: change is going in the industry but the antibodies within and without and resisting and preventing the growth that can come from embracing the changes.

These lessons apply in every industry and at one point or the other you/me/we are either the client or the designer. Managing engagements with an understanding of these things does not have anything to do with how innovative we think the client is. It truly is about how well we communicate. Come to think of it the four lessons can be boiled down to one; listen. It means no egos, a learning mindset and an open ear. It’s about how well we listen whether we are the client or the designer, especially in industries where the tradition has been to not listen to the customer at all (cough, cough, utility industry, cough, cough). That will no longer do in a world that is fast changing around us…

The other Daniel on the team at the CNC machine

Dan P had one last piece of advice for all young designers (having been in this business for the last 20 years or so); work hard and hone your craft. ‘It’s about developing a habit for working hard so that when you do find the thing you are passionate about?—?a project, a client, a business?—?the habit will translate and it will set you apart from the competition.’ And don’t we all want to be set apart from the competition…

I’ll make a plug for Dan here (he wouldn’t do it himself), if you’re looking for great product design work from a great team check out axisdesign.com or email me seyi at asha-labs dot com.

originally published here.

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