Some of you might be familiar with Chris Bangle. He revolutionized car design in 2001 with the BMW 7 Series (you can thank him for any car designed after that with a crease in the metal–car design the decade prior roughly followed that of a bar of soap throughout its useful life).
He spoke at Stanford recently and shared an interesting thought related to how we as engineers work with designers, and how the process of making things is just as important as the thing itself. His comments are likely to resonate with any engineer who has been involved in building high-touch objects of design, whether they be physical or virtual. I’ll skip you right to the comment:
For those of you not involved in product development in the last decade, Apple popularized making stuff pretty “at all costs”–meaning you’d better have a darned good reason if you’re an engineer saying something is impossible. Though design has always been an integral part of Apple products, it wasn’t until the original iMac was released in 1998 that a new relationship between designers and engineers was broadly forged. If you can appreciate the difficulty of making a translucent object the size of the iMac case without any tooling marks, you can appreciate that designers were now empowered to overrule when engineers said something was difficult or impossible. The power of the designer over the engineer was cemented with the original iPod in 2001 (exposed fasteners–tssk!), the iPhone, impossibly-thin keyboards, laptop enclosures carved out of blocks of aluminum, and numerous other examples.
The industrial design world latched onto this newfound power–engineers could no longer tell them something was impossible. If something was deemed too difficult or expensive, fists pounded and the engineering team was sent back to the drawing board.
The Applefication of consumer product design (and design-oriented products in general) was a very good thing. It pushed the value of design and engineering excellence to a new level. We saw this firsthand–I can’t count how many of our clients said “we want this to look and function like an iPod.” No longer would our lives be filled with mediocre objects designed by committee and optimized mostly for cost. Hooray!
But there has been fallout. Less savvy designers (and at least some of the more savvy ones) think that concrete, uncompromising demands are the ticket to a great product. The best designers, however, realize that the real ticket to success is concrete, uncompromising commitment from the entire product development team to build the best product possible for users.
In that context, how do you engineers and product developers interpret Chris’ comments, and what does that mean for the work you do every day?