Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Speed Bumps in Design: How not to get slowed down

Anything that slows down your design process is a speed bump. Speed bumps don’t belong in conceptual design.

Let’s consider some of the speed bumps that can arise at the conceptual stage:
1)   slow decisions
2)   overthinking
3)   changing design goals.

Slow Decisions
Deciding on a best approach is stressful. You want lots of data and proof. You want to see what your competitors are doing. You don’t want to take risks. You want your bosses’ approval.

The speed bumps presented by slow decision making can be ameliorated by
1) recognizing there is no perfect design
2) authorizing a single decision maker who can decide quickly
3) accepting mistakes as part of the process. The speed of a design is slowed down in an environment where mistakes are not allowed, or when you can’t get a decision that lets you move forward.

The process of design usually causes interpersonal friction. You contend with the “my way or the highway” mentality as well as the harmonizer who takes a democratic approach to design. The harmonizer tries to make everyone happy. The autocratic route is efficient, but could miss the design goal, and the harmonizing path makes everyone unhappy. Sometimes the customer doesn’t even know what he or she wants.

‘Paralysis by analysis’ is a well-known aphorism. You are trying to do excellent work and create an excellent product. You want everything to be perfect. Unfortunately, design requires some intuition and guessing. This makes your stomach churn and anxiety swell. You want to solve a math equation and all we get is a mass of partial information. While you can structure qualitative information into themes and process it statistically, you rarely get pointers saying “this is the right design.” Designers make something from nothing. That is our burden. Nothingness is scary.

A good way to handle the overthinking part of design is to rely on time tested approaches that are commonly shared in design guides produced by manufacturers and professional associations. During my career, I have created several of these for a variety of products and systems. They are usually well thought out and completely grounded in real world experience. This may appear to close doors but it lets you move forward quickly. After a product is fully created, you can go back and optimize things.

Changing Design Goals
Changing design goals and “mission creep” are common, even though every bit of management advice you will read warns against this. However, in the world of product design, goals are established with incomplete information. While a product’s mechanistic goals might be clearly articulated at the start of a project, it often isn’t clear at the onset whether the goals are achievable. This goal glare is especially true for advanced designs that explore new territories of science, technology, and human interactions. The time, talent, technology, and resource requirements are speculative. Moreover, the connection with non-mechanistic elements can be difficult to initially identify. In addition, through market research and product experimentation, you may see that your original goal is not practical. Safety concerns and product regulations can redirect what can be accomplished with a new design.

Therefore, project schedules and Gantt charts need tweaking, and goals are often more fluid than we like. These design goal changes can be minor or so large they derail a project. Nevertheless, they can easily be the biggest speed bump in the design process.

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Design Checklist

These are helpful checklists to ensure you have thought through many of the problems your design might encounter and environmental assessments. It comes from my book, Intense Design: Product Design Lessons From Cold War Era Skunk Works.

I would be happy to send you these as Excel files if you email me at

Form 1
Design Considerations
Likelihood of Associated Problems

Definite        Possible      Unlikely      Never
Stress Concentration
Thermal Expansion
Material Compatibility

Dust and sand
Long nights
Monsoon Rains
Temperature Swings
Body heat
Pressure Difference

Inexperienced Users
Irrational Users

Form 2
Environmental Report Form

Initial Sensory Perceptions
1.      Initial reaction words
(What are the first three words that come to mind?)
2.      Dominant visual
3.      First color observed
4.      Dominant color
5.      Dominant sound
6.      Dominant smell

Human Observations
1.      Density (crowded, intermediate, sparse)
2.      Traffic flow or patron movements through the environment
3.      Patrons’ age
4.      Patrons’ attire
5.      Patrons’ activities
6.      Employees’ attire
7.      Employees’ activities

Environmental Perceptions
1.      Lighting (sources, intensity, color)
2.      Air movement (velocity, sound, temperature, humidity)
3.      Background sounds (music, type of noise)
4.      Flooring (type, color, texture)
5.      Ceiling (type, color, texture, height)
6.      Walls (type, color, texture)
7.      Architectural features
8.      Furnishings

Other Observations and Perceptions

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Designing with Conviction

Designers create order out of chaos, but design is not science. We need more than science and engineering in our quest to manipulate our environment.

Conviction versus Doubt

Doubting is easy, conviction takes work. This is true in most parts of your life, from religious faith to writing fiction. Doubt is nurtured by laziness and cynicism. Conviction about what you believe and your course of action takes guts, work, and humility. It may require going against the cultural currents and will cause grief, frustration, and a lot of work. What do you really believe? What do you think is the right approach? These are questions which are easy to ask but are difficult to answer.

Running around being cynical and doubtful is not a virtuous state. Once you are convicted of something, you need to work it out in your own mind so it is not a conviction that is contrary to evidence. How do I know if I have a good idea? Part of the inquiry can be mental, thinking through the design carefully, but part of validating your conviction is experimenting and testing. You have to build the thing you are designing and test it. It doesn’t have to be a high-quality prototype. It just has to be something physical that you can work with. Many designers are reluctant to quickly move to a physical model—it is more peaceful to push a pencil or mouse.

One of the problems with 3D printing is you can tend to use existing designs because it is easier to throw those digital files at your printer than it is to create a time-consuming CAD model. You may be very reluctant to change a design after you have spent hundreds of hours drawing a model. That is human nature.

There are ways to avoid this problem of near plagiarism or overinvestment in CAD. Build your idea in cardboard, foam, clay, or wood, to name a few approaches.

Build your idea quickly. Test out dimensions, geometry, and mechanisms. Does it fit in your hand? Does it look like something will easily break? Does your design have a chance of doing what you think it should? These issues will be very clear with a simple model. Check on control actions with hard wired motors or actuators. You can couple your simple prototypes with a microcontroller, PLC, or circuit board taken from a device similar to what you are working on. Don’t requisition materials and issue purchase orders—just scavenge stuff and use some of your coffee money and buy what you need. Cardboard, tape, hot glue, and string aren’t expensive.

You can be creative with how you test things. I have tied thin strings to the discharge hose of a Shop Vac and moved it around a model to see air flow behavior. This system makes a great poor man’s wind tunnel. I have tapped into a self-service car wash to provide high pressure water for testing. You can throw things off cliffs, hit them with hammers, immerse them in water, and perform all sorts of other home testing before you move forward with your design. I learned this early in my career when I was trying to optimize a pneumatic starting system and had our machine shop make several air constricting orifices. These didn’t work very well so I just started experimenting with squeezing a flexible hose with a vice grip. This was a cheap and easy approach, and I was able to get an idea of what would work. I have done many other simple, embarrassingly low technology tests, even with medical devices (using screws and wood as a human analog before moving to cadavers.)

However, humility is required. Complex or high-speed devices will only operate reliability in a narrow band of optimized dimensions, tolerances, surface finishes, material specifications, etc. Complex machines require much more than hunches to make them work reliably. They involve solving a myriad of subtle issues that may not be identified in a lovingly guided working prototype.

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Monday, August 6, 2018

Accelerating product design in 14 steps

1. Get insight

Albert Einstein said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”
Understand the essence of the design problem. Insight doesn’t come from a customer statement or data—it comes from understanding the desired final result.

2. Take risks, develop extreme designs, and retreat as needed
Develop extreme designs—push the envelope of what can be done. Think broadly, then come back to the real world. You will not be respected as a designer if you proffer some small evolutionary tweak and never mention radical ideas to transform the product or entire market.

3. Identify deal breakers
Recognize foundational issues that will make your proposed design fail. The high temperatures produced at Mach 3 prevented aluminum from being using in the Blackbird.

4. Make decisions quickly
Identify baseline decisions required for your design. These are the big decisions that let you start. In addition to being fast, the SR-71 was recognized as needing to be a flying fuel tank.

5. Think of your design as part of a system. Be willing to change the system.
Does the system that supports it have to be changed or should a new one be created? Remember the SR-71 could not achieve its missions without aerial refueling. The F-117 could not be flown by a pilot; a computer operated the actual flight controls.

6. Trust your gut and chase your hunches
Design is not analytical or linear—it is something else. Trust your hunches. You are a creative beast. Your computer is not. You can process information and do magical things. Human insight is the spark we bring to design and engineering analysis.

7. Design by building
Move quickly from mental concepts to sketches to rough prototypes—at home if necessary. Flesh out concepts in a no pressure environment—not at work.
The SR-71 engineers were a short walk from the shop floor, so they could try out ideas quickly. Making an object real reduces dumb mistakes and helps you work more communally.

8. Design for 99% of optimal
Who wants to be 99 percent excellent? However, approaching perfection takes time. It can drain every resource available and the somewhat less than perfect answer may be the most efficient.
Ben Rich, one of the Cold War presidents of Skunk Works, put it this way: “The only areas where the final result must be one hundred percent are safety, quality, and security. That final ten percent striving toward maximum perfection costs forty percent of the total expenditure on most projects.” Skunk Works required that a design only be “80 percent effective” and look at what they designed!

9. Don’t be a zealot
If something can’t be made to work, redesign it. Don’t fall in love with your design. The fighter/interceptor (YF-12) role was not a good one for a Blackbird and was discontinued (although it would serve as a flying wind tunnel for NASA for many years).

10. Champion your design
Groups of people are good at generating ideas and providing helpful contributions; however, communal decision making can lead to bad things as you try to make everyone happy.

11. Share ideas
Make sure you bounce problems off of coworkers and anyone else who will listen. The solitary genius makes a great movie or magazine article, but this is rarely the case.

12. Use existing designs where you can
Keep the big picture in mind and use products or systems that have had commercial success. You don’t want to reinvent the nut and bolt—or the wheel. The SR-71 cockpit is a tried and true oldie with nearly no innovation. However, it worked and could be trusted.

13. Don’t be enslaved to procedure
This comes right from Johnson. The design is the goal, not the procedure.

14. Test until you can sleep soundly
Your tendency will be to achieve a good night’s sleep by developing designs that are ultraconservative or overbuilt. It is easy to overdesign things and make products that are too strong or have too much redundancy. You need to fight this tendency. Overdesign increases embodied energy, environmental impact, and cost, among other things.

Design Efficiency
It seems hard to be a non-zealous product champion who takes risks, offends friends while seeking their input, and strives to design something less than perfect. Welcome to the world of professional design.
However, let’s not be melancholy. You know how to aim for perfection, how to create something radically new, and how to love your design. You just elect not to do these things for the sake of time and efficiency.

This is an excerpt from my new book, "Intense Design: Product Design Lessons From Cold War Era Skunk Works"

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 Image Credit: By Paolo Villa - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Friday, August 3, 2018

What kind of employees did Skunk Works hire during the Cold War?

Skunk Works had developed a unique culture—one that motivated employees to develop remarkably creative products. The employees worked on projects that were personally interesting to them and they had a clear design goal. Major technical decisions were quickly provided by [management] as required, to maintain the flow of development. Lockheed management would rarely challenge these decisions and designers did not worry about backtracking or nefarious political consequences.

The designers worked in an environment where paper work was shunned, sketches were preferred over time-consuming, detailed drawings, and small groups eliminated major communication problems. They were isolated from the Lockheed parent company’s bureaucracy, and worked with the esprit de corps of an organization entrusted with vital government needs. The designers were generalists who were selected because they had a wide range of experiences within technology. Skunk Works managers tried to avoid people who viewed all problems through their own field of specialization.

Kelly Johnson defined the organization that he created as “a concentration of a few good people solving problems far in advance—and at a fraction of the cost—of other groups in the aircraft industry by applying the simplest, most straightforward methods possible to develop and produce new projects. All it is really is the application of common sense to some pretty tough problems” (Johnson 171). Gary Ervin, a vice president of Skunk Works, corroborated the concept of a critical mass of suitably talented people. Ervin claimed that the Skunk Works’ creative and productive environment resulted from small groups of scientists and engineers who were selected based on their propensity to be “free thinkers, creative, and don’t let conventional boundaries get in their way” (Sawyer 2). A critical mass of talent can be a powerful force, as is demonstrated by such collections of talent ranging from the artists in Paris during the 1860s to the engineers in Silicon Valley during the 1970s.

This is an excerpt from my new book:

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Thursday, August 2, 2018

Why study Skunk Works during the Cold War Era?

We all seem to share a universal goal to be successful. We want to succeed in the arena we have entered. We want to develop a vision, execute the vision and see it become successful. This human ambition is a noble thing and it takes many forms, from matters related to faith, family, experiences and even inventions. Moreover, the definition of success takes on many forms, all of them uniquely personal.

My motivation in selecting Skunk Works is that their products have a beginning and end. They were designed, built, operated, and retired. This complete cycle of product existence gives us the unique insights such as can be gained by the short-lived adult mayfly, where you see the life cycle at a glance. This long view is different than the metamorphosis of a caterpillar. With a flurry of flapping wings and color the butterfly flies off followed by photographers and poets. When something germinal happens in your lifetime, like the internet and smart phones, it can be hard to place it in context, critique its merits, and cast an historical eye on it. Rather, we tend to gush with emotional stupor at what may be a development that creates unintended consequences and an uncertain future….

This initial investigation into Skunk Works isn’t intended as a love fest or adulation of its leaders. We need to understand that during the Cold War Blackbird era, they worked in a unique environment where global war was a profound concern. Therefore, product performance was often more important than cost. Moreover, the top manager of Skunk Works would have access to high government officials. This association would elevate and reinforce the Skunk Works manager’s authority and the importance of the Skunk Works projects. Furthermore, they had patriotic motivations and accepted some loss of life during testing, which are atypical of most commercial businesses.

Critically read this presentation of Skunk Works and the guidance generated from their experience. Take what you like, discard the rest. This investigation into a remarkable organization during the Cold War does provide helpful lessons to the designer, but we must be careful citing it as if it is an ultimate authority on how to design products. It provides valuable lessons. Lessons that need to be moderated by contemporary issues and technology. Moderated by the beautiful creativity of young designers who dream of designing wonderful things.

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21st Century Sketching

The role of drawing skills in 21st century design is contentious. Are pencil sketching skills still important? We love the look and the theater, but do we need these abilities?

One long term study I conducted with students sought to find the relationship between work environment and creative expression. (1) The survey instrument inquired about work environments that promote creative design and the preferred rendering medium for developing a design concept…

About 70 percent of designers preferred pencil and paper over CAD for ideation. This value has remained in the same order of magnitude over the last eleven years even under the swell of technological innovations in file sharing, projection, and digital interfaces. The ancient rendering method of hand drawing has remained surprising resilient.

Twenty-one percent of students specifically stated silence in their environment was conducive to creative design work. This is a large proportion in light of students’ typical musical immersion. The preference for silence has been virtually unchanged in the last eleven years. Moreover, this assertion of the importance of silence is contrary to the rapidly increasing musical exposure during this same time period….

Smartphones and their propensity to isolate do not seem to have worked against creative design environments. However, the internet has motivated students to pursue image searches as the first step in the design process. This design approach provides instantaneous visual exemplars that can’t be forgotten and therefore could reduce radical departures from past designs and provide a broader global material culture through shared images and social media. Perhaps removing access to smartphones (or other internet devices) can inhibit this rush to view search engine-based popular designs. This digital valley of darkness can subsequently provide relief from external visual influences upon the creative process.

(1) Ask, Thomas. “Creative Environments in the Age of the Smartphone.” Spring 2015 Mid-Atlantic ASEE Conference, April 10-11, 2015 Villanova University, 2015.

This is an excerpt from my new book, "Intense Design: Product Design Lessons From Cold War Era Skunk Works"