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The "I" in Team

By Anne Brooks Ranallo

It takes just one look around your office to realize that industrial designers devised everything you used today: the coffeemaker, phone, computer, desk, chair and even the vehicle you drove to work. “The number of conscious and unconscious decisions made for each of those products is mind-boggling,” says Scott MacInnes, Director of Design Operations, Project Studio, for 80-year-old industrial design firm Teague in Issaquah, Wash. No wonder designers draw their insight from so many sources.

Since the 1980s, more and more industrial design firms are building teams comprised of industrial designers, engineers, market researchers, architects, interior designers, graphic designers and human-factors (the study of consumer behavior and emotional profiles) experts. Outside of the firm, teammates might include manufacturers, distributors and retailers. “Your chance of an overall successful project drops the less you’ve collaborated. You need to understand and respect interrelationships,” says Bob Hayes, Vice President of Product Development for New Product Innovations Inc. (NPI) in Powell, Ohio, a firm that specializes in bringing products to market quickly, from research through distribution.

Continuous give-and-take with manufacturers makes collaboration second nature to industrial designers. Since manufacturers may be clients, project partners or both, the lines between roles become permeable. As an extreme example, a computer manufacturer asked Teague — whose staff of industrial designers, mechanical and electrical engineers, illustrators, architects and graphic designers serves many airline clients — to host a dedicated team for a fast-track design project. “Their engineers and marketers lived with our designers for months. It was exciting,” MacInnes says.

Sometimes, it works the other way around. Ken Dowd, Vice President of Teague’s Aviation Studio, works so closely with Boeing’s factory that he’s embedded in an office on the client’s site. He also works with Boeing’s marketers, engineers and brand differentiation group. “Working in a multidisciplinary firm makes it easier to work with others outside the firm,” he says.

Your chance of an overall successful project drops the less you've collaborated. You need to understand and respect interrelationships.  Beyond the obvious value of multiple perspectives, interdisciplinary design is simply efficient. “Design takes longer and many important issues are missed if you split up all the disciplines,” says Gianfranco Zaccai, CEO of international firm Design Continuum in Boston, which researches, designs and develops products and service systems.

In his book The Art of Innovation, Tom Kelley, General Manager of the design firm IDEO, refers to effective design teams as “hot groups.” IDEO’s hot groups are formed on a project-by-project basis, with members that possess diverse skill sets. They are free not only to choose their own teams and team leaders, but to bring in outside experts as needed. They have well-defined goals, tight deadlines and no defined hierarchy. Hot groups, Kelley writes, use their deadlines and freedom to generate energy and esprit de corps. They find an element of fun or inspiration in every project. They start by generating many ideas for prototypes, rather than restricting themselves to one idea early on.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. It’s more common in industrial design firms than in corporate environments, where engineering or marketing may drive interdisciplinary design. Teamwork varies with each product, client and schedule. But many designers, who create everything from thermometers to tennis racquets, agree that good teams follow at least a few principles that correspond with Kelley’s ideas.

Every project deserves a unique, fluid team. Teams should be custom-built, then reconfigured as needed throughout the design process. “The emphasis shifts. Fashion, emotion — industrial designers are better at that. Engineers are more concerned with performance and safety,” Hayes says.

Bring in all the needed disciplines at the outset, but not necessarily for the duration, says Steve Russak, IDSA, Vice President of Innovation and Design for Kaz in New York, a manufacturer of home environment and healthcare products. Russak chooses Kaz’s teams, which are organized by function and led by a design manager. Although structured, the approach still allows for changes in the team. “Designer, marketing, packaging design, research and development for mechanical systems design — the level of participation for some may be minimal, but it’s always enough to ensure the quality of that aspect of the design,” he says.

Observational research defines the problem, and everyone’s a researcher. Demographics and focus groups may rule in some marketing activities, but industrial designers say there’s no substitute for observational, project-specific research by design professionals from the start. “Great ideas are identified during research,” Zaccai says. “Phase zero of any project is to step back and do our own research: What’s the real problem? And based on what we find, we craft a design brief.”

Before designing a luxury car interior, his firm produced 20 hours of interviews, 80 hours of video footage and 500 photographs, Zaccai says. Design strategists rode with drivers wearing pulse monitors and learned that parking produced more stress than any other situation. The team then devised a control that used sensors to inform the driver of available spaces and potential hazards.

“Firsthand observation is important because reports are filtered,” Hayes says. “No matter how well you plan, the goals change as you learn from the research. It’s important that your due diligence is on the right problem.”
When designing a user-friendly Boeing airliner to be delivered in 2008, the Teague studio and Boeing team members conducted archetype research to explore users’ core feelings, beyond what they said. They also tried to find out what users would want if they could design any feature from scratch.

The resulting design featured lighting that replicates night and day to maintain passengers’ circadian rhythms, a 10-foot vaulted ceiling in the entry and unconventional materials such as a pearlized window surround designed by Teague in collaboration with the manufacturer.

Maintain respect for each discipline, but think beyond your core competency. Zaccai attributes the respect among Design Continuum’s teams to “an absolutely level playing field” rather than hierarchy, and to the members’ ability to look beyond themselves and their own expertise to see the big picture. “We don’t know where the next solution will come from. It usually comes from multiple realms,” he says.

Hayes adds, “People have both inclination and education. Industrial designers want to work with those inclined to creativity, regardless of their discipline. Some engineers are open-minded and creative, so pull them into the creative phase.”

Hayes recalls the design of a high-end toaster, with engineers asking questions such as: “What is toasted? What has to occur for it to take place? Is the fourth piece of toast different from the first piece?”
Kelley recommends frequent brainstorming throughout a project to maintain a sense of possibility, and he advises that these sessions not be limited to experts. They should include people with any knowledge or experience that might start a new buzz at a given stage of the process.

Keep up with developments in creative professions. Progress in technology and social sciences gives more weight to design aspects such as human-factors research and design strategy.

In addition to design disciplines, design strategists at Design Continuum have backgrounds in business, anthropology, psychology and engineering — all essential to understanding users, Zaccai says. Their work includes qualitative ethnographic research, scientific analysis and competitive benchmarking. When a cell phone company wanted to redesign its stores, Design Continuum conducted observational research using video cameras in the stores, not simply to determine traffic patterns, but to analyze how customers processed product and service offerings.

Your chance of an overall successful project drops the less you've collaborated. You need to understand and respect interrelationships.  “We wanted to see why people came in, how they moved, where they looked, how they felt,” Zaccai says. Videography was an effective tool because it offered visual evidence of the users’ reactions, viewable whenever needed. Human-factors professionals might be grounded in cognitive psychology, ergonomics, engineering or other disciplines that could help make the user of a product feel natural.

Hayes says it can take time for engineers to learn to work with industrial designers, but working with NPI’s research group on human factors taught him and others to suspend judgment during the design process.

Look at the big picture, and keep watching as it changes. The big picture is made up of small pictures: the client’s problem and the user focus. Adages such “walk in their shoes” and “follow before you lead” are what Russak calls bulletproof concepts.

Sometimes, the problem is redefined along the way. Teague was asked by an airline to design a portable media player to be produced by a well-known electronics manufacturer. After benchmarking the pros and cons of existing media players, Teague designers found one made by a smaller manufacturer that was willing to tailor it to the airline’s needs.

Collaborating with the manufacturer, Teague wrote new specifications for critical mechanical needs — greater durability to withstand drops by passengers and easier cleaning to save staff time. Thinking of the passenger, however, the team realized that the most immediate appeal would be visual and tactile: touchscreen versus keys, color choices and numerous other small details that would add up to a favorable “first read” by the user.

“If you want to see the big picture, you have to blur your eyes. You have to step back from the details. It can be a convoluted process,” MacInnes says.  Design Continuum believes so strongly in this concept that when it came time to remodel its office, it went to outside designers rather than its own industrial designers, engineers, architects and interior designers. “We’d be our own worst client,” Zaccai says. “You have to be far enough from the project to be objective.”