conveyor belt design

The project team met and the representatives from the various departments gathered in the so-called war-room. This room showcased the state of progress concerning the running project by means of posters stuck on a wall. My contributions to the war-room – the design proposal – were covered with neon-coloured post-its, which made me wonder if this meant any good…

A couple of weeks before, I had newly joined the consumer electronics design team. With that, the way of working took a fundamental different twist. Up to then I was able to develop design proposals based on my own interpretation of the brief I received, and as long as the result made a perfect fit to the existing product portfolio (and would not blow the cost restrictions) all was fine. Now another approach was required: I had to deliver designs on a conveyor belt.

Here the intention was not to develop one design solution that would logically build on its predecessors and make the product and brand stand out in the market place. No, a whole armada of design proposals had to be generated, in order for somebody to choose one. And in case none of the proposals would please the selector’s eye, the designers went off to generate another round of proposals. “That’s where the designers are there for, or?”

This was not what I was used to. To me the work of a designer is the one of a specialist, just like the work of an electronic engineer: would he also generate ten different configurations of a PCB, for somebody to select one? Do marketers also generate ten different business plans for one proposition, so that the boss can select? No way, that’s way too expensive!

So, why do designers have to generate various proposals? Why is a choice needed to pick the design, whereas elsewhere not?

The intention of the neon post-its soon became obvious when the meeting hit the ‘design’ agenda point: the senior product manager immediately became passionate and very outspoken, arguing what the heck was wrong with the design team. “How can we have to select from these proposals, they are just iterations on one theme! You guys are endangering the success of the project, we need more choice!” And then he added some remarks on the quality of the prints, the colour choice, on the typography and graphics used and on the distribution of the controls…

Repeatedly he stressed that design is the utmost important purchase decision criteria for consumers in this product category, and therefore it was key to the success of the project!

That’s why I could not understand that a choice out of a variety of proposals by a committee (or whatever panel) should lead to the final design – to me there could only be one proposal, the one that was developed by the specialist him or herself, the designer in charge. Why would you hire a designer in the first place: because you can’t draw yourself?
Designers are very well able to test their proposals based on a set of criteria in order to choose the right direction – it’s part of their job.

Despite the fact that I could explain the criteria, which I used to come to the proposals I put on the wall, nobody wanted to listen. They only wanted to listen to the preference of consumers in a face value test, or to the feedback of the trade. Even a dinner party at the product manager’s house was considered as a valid source for making a decision: “The ladies like the blue version the best, and in the end, they rule. That’s the one we should pick!”

In this conveyer-belt design-approach, the winning designs are selected by amateurs before they are further processed – here the tail wags the dog!

Gritting my teeth I succumbed to the situation and the approach to design. But insisted to make my point clear, and introduced separate stickers marking the choice of the design-department, carrying the words design certified.

Well, in the end, the certified designs did prevail in face value tests and in trade meetings and turned out to generated large profits, which made the job easier for me the next season, and subsequently helped to grow the standing of the design team – the certification made some impact.

Nevertheless, they still stuck with the choice, loosely based on the motto: rather scratch something with a shotgun, than missing it completely with a deliberate shot!

But, in order to hit the bull’s eye, you have to aim well and rely on a steady hand – the hand of your designer!

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