Form follows function, the famous expression from the mid 20th century when industrial design almost held a status of celebrity. This adage unpacked gives the reader an immediate order of precedence. Function is primary, whilst form is subservient. This is a somewhat binary and oversimplified view of product development; it can appear strictly regimented and ordered. It also creates an immediate association and implicit separation of mechanical engineering and industrial design. It can be difficult to break away from this view, but ultimately each area of expertise both lead and are dependent on the other at different times during a development cycle. When we bring the two disciplines together, we form that sweet spot of collaboration that creates products which not only function well, but are also balanced with user appeal, desirability and have low impact on the environment.
5 key principles we practice at Blender to stay within this sweet spot are:
BRING EACH OTHER IN EARLY
Some projects require more engineering input than design, and vice versa. Regardless of the split, to forgo one or the other in a product’s development is certainly likely to cause issues down the track. Take a children’s ride-on buggy for example. In their quest for superior aesthetics and usability, the designer may not consider the turning circle of the steering system, making the product prone to tipping over in aggressive turns. The engineer may be inclined to jump straight into the CAD and create a perfectly safe and functioning product, only to discover children can’t mount the seat easily and complain it doesn’t have a horn.
At Blender, the project owner is also assigned with identifying key points for collaboration and schedules a team from the outset to be used at these junctures. This approach forces a team briefing at the start of each project, even if one person’s input is listed as months away. In doing so, we produce a higher chance of detecting potential flaws and ensure proper steps are taken in a product’s development before things progress too far.
UNDERSTAND THE GREATER CONTEXT OF THE PROJECT
A single point of contact is assigned to each of our projects – depending on the scope of work this can either be an industrial designer or engineer. This singular ownership of a project improves the flow of information between the design team and the client in order to gain a deeper understanding of the project’s context. It is critical that all the product requirements, project timelines, use cases and stakeholder feedback is shared and understood by all team members through the project lead. Information withheld is like designing in the dark – engineers and designers need to follow the same guiding light and query any grey areas in the product requirements.
LEARN THE CHALLENGES AND STRENGTHS OF EACH OTHER’S ROLES
It is important to have a product development team full of “T-Shaped people” where everyone has a wide breadth of knowledge across subject matters, yet has their own depth of specialisation. This overlap of skills between engineers and designers allows us to review projects holistically together, to then divide and conquer specialist tasks. Because we work closely as a team and frequently engage with each other’s talents to get over project roadblocks. As an engineer, Greg frequently asks for design input to improve usability or aesthetics – and likewise he is asked frequently for engineering advice to optimize functionality. If he is working on a project and is unsure of a solution, he finds it reassuring to know that a remedy is only a 5 minute chat away.
DESIGNING FOR IMPACT TOGETHER
The considerations for a Life Cycle Assessment are analogous to the challenges of function and form and require similar input from engineering and industrial design perspectives. Many aspects are considered from material strength and durability through to user experience and interaction with different materials – the rationale between these choices will be negotiated between engineers and designers to find a solution that accomplishes both their requirements for success. Ultimately we want to create good products and solutions that are loved to maximise their use and minimise their burden on the natural environment. We use both our engineering and industrial design skills to analyse the journey of a product through its lifecycle – a factor such as design for disassembly is both a UX and engineering challenge in itself.
LISTEN AND EMBRACE THE DIFFERENCES
The key to achieving this synergy between the development team is communication. With a close knit team and communication channels that are opened freely, it is amazing to see the quality of work that can be produced in a short amount of time.
Designers can convey a concept and explain ideas very efficiently using their freehand sketching abilities. Engineers on the other hand, frequently deal in the realms of science and mathematics. This can lead to plenty of office jokes and banter but these celebrate rather than highlight our differences which we have come to understand and embrace.
If designers must remember that form follows function, then engineers must always remember to slow down and practice safe design – always use a concept!