Balancing Compromises

When buying a mountain bike some time back, I was told by the man in the shop that I seemed to have three specifications in what I was looking for – These were Strong, Light and Cheap. He told me I could have only two of them, no matter which bike I picked.

Interestingly, he was right – each bike really did fall into categories of having only two of these attributes, leaving the customer to decide what they really want. It struck me that this is a key skill of a good designer – we balance our clients ‘wants’ in order to come up with a good compromise.

The industrial designer has taken on a more integral role over recent times, in the whole business function of a products value chain. Stronger than ever are the links to marketing and finance.

Designers find themselves in discussions of target pricing, colour psychology, product positioning to name but a few, especially as markets become more competitive or segmented – The integration and influence of design has led to a greater responsibility of the designer for the creation of value in a business.

The product plan for a lot of forward looking companies is becoming more ‘seamless’ and as a result the blurring of boundaries between what were traditionally distinct functions is a result. (It’s one of the reasons I completed my MBA, just to keep up!)

The designer must communicate effectively and respond to several different stakeholders holding perhaps several different viewpoints and interpretations of the brief.

It is not always possible to keep everybody 100% happy – a beautiful and functional product in high-end materials is likely to also be at the top end of the market in terms of price – this may not be a problem, if it is the market which the product is aimed at but to hit the target sales price whilst maintaining the ‘desirable’ profit margin, the designers job has just become a lot harder. Something has to give. A weighting of importance needs to be set early on in the design process as part of a must-have vs would-like-to-have list.

Whether we like it or not, often the industrial designers primary purpose is a service to add value to a product or idea – make it beautiful, functional, desirable and as cheap as possible. How we handle those and the priorities each attribute takes is a key success factor to a designers role within the project and their integration to the business as a whole.

The blurring of boundaries I mentioned helps to facilitate communication across an organisation so that a much more thorough understanding of salient issues can be assumed before marker meets sketchpad.

Right now, all I know is that I need to buy another mountain bike as I am missing a third attribute I mentioned earlier!

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