This article is a transcription of episode #3 of IDology - the industrial design podcast by Mindsailors. You can watch the entire episode on YouTube or listen to the audio version on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.
In this episode Voytek Hołysz speaks with Mikołaj Wiewióra, our senior designer, on what it is like to work for different industries as a designer and what is the most important aspect to keep in mind if you want to be a good fit for every project you find yourself in.
Voytek Hołysz: Mikołaj! Today we're going to talk about being a versatile product designer. You're a senior industrial designer here at Mindsailors. I know you have a lot of experience in many different industries with many different products.
Our clients often come to us with expertise in their field, with a product, or with their technology. Usually, they're way better experts at this narrow field than we are. Is it difficult for you, as a designer, to jump from one narrow expert field to another?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: As usual, it depends. If the client went through the industrial design process before, it's quite easy for him to jump into this process once again.
VH: So you mean if such a client has experience working with an external team?
MW: Yes. They know what to expect from an external service such as an industrial design company. But usually, when a company reaches out to us, it's their first or second attempt to design a product from scratch. And so, usually, they don't know what to expect. They don't know what kind of results they get after working on their product.
VH: So, you could say, it's less about expertise in engineering or design and more about expertise in the workflow or in the process of developing a new product.
MW: Yes, because in developing a new product, every brand or every branch of the market is nearly the same.
MW: We need to know what we want to design, for whom we are designing, and what the minimum estimated budget is for the project and the end product that we are going to deliver. So these four, maybe five, factors are nearly the same in each industry. But, of course, there are some little details that differentiate. For these different projects, for example, in medical instruments or medical products, we have to look at standards for some sophisticated laboratory tests, and so on. So we have to include this in the process so that the end product will meet those standards.
VH: Sure. But the general process of development for the new product is, as you say, more or less the same.
MW: Yes. It's more or less the same because the technologies involved are similar. This is not a very big difference. The difference is at the end of the process.
VH: My guess, as I have a lot less experience than you in this industry, would be that when clients come to us for services, they probably expect to find a company that has a lot of experience in their specific niche. Or should those clients, particularly those you mentioned, who are working on their first or second product and don't yet have a lot of experience with the process, expect to find a company with broad design experience or one that is more focused on a specific field?
MW: Usually, companies think that having a partner that has the same experience as them is a good thing. When they wanted to design, for example, a car, they would approach a company that had designed a lot of cars.
VH: Yeah, sure.
MW: But the car industry is actually a bit different because they have a much narrower field of expertise because a car is essentially a collection of products combined into one.
As a result, these companies typically seek only this style or styling in external companies.
VH: Oh, okay. Let's simplify. What if a company wants to make a toaster? Are they looking for companies that have experience designing toasters?
MW: And you got right to the point. Because when we want to design only toasters, it's not possible to make a living or make a profit as a company just by designing toasters.
VH: Yeah. And probably, if you had to design a hundred toasters in your career, the hundredth toaster would be either exactly the same as the last 50 or something totally unrelated to toasters.
MW: Maybe yes. But this drives creativity because once you get 10 of the same-looking toasters, you get bored of them. And you start to consider how it might look or function differently.
VH: Not only the look, right? Because we, too...Well, I'm not sure if it would be the same in the case of toasters, but using technologies that are maybe not standard in some industries is also innovation, right?
MW: Yes. This drives innovation, and those factors, like a new function or enhanced functionality, come from doing different designs for different companies.
VH: Not only do you have a wider perspective or more space for your creativity as a designer, but you also have the ability as an engineer to use different technologies.
MW: Yes, for sure. Sometimes we are forced to recommend a different technology. Because the technology that we would recommend as the first choice of technology for our client might not always be sufficient either for economic reasons or any others that come to the surface.
For example, it turns out that the client is going to produce 1,000 units in a year. And we would recommend that they manufacture in a way that is more suited for hundreds of thousands. Our plans change, and the design process changes as well. So we have to look for different technologies to make their plans possible.
VH: I get the impression the first thing that comes to mind when clients think about working with an industrial design studio like ours is not necessarily the technology part of designing you just talked about, but mainly the look, because that's something visual. When you, I don't know, search the web for an industrial design firm, the exterior design usually comes up first, and in fact, the mechanical and engineering are more important than the styling.
MW: Yes, there's a saying that form follows function, and function follows form.
But yes, I think that there is a space for design in this area. There is a place for companies like ours; we provide not only style, or external design, but also internal design, such as mechanical design and electronics.The idea of how the product might not only look but also work and be manufactured.
VH: I guess every aspect of your work benefits from working in different industries. For example, you can incorporate not only technology from one industry but also some aesthetics or solutions in the exterior design.You can take something you did for one industry and apply it to another.
MW: That is entirely correct because we incorporate elements from one design project into another.Ideas that might never happen in the industry on which we are focused are being translated from another industry, project, idea, or technology into the product that benefits from that. Mindsailors started as a company that was designing hundreds of pendrives.
VH: Okay, I didn't know that!
MW: We started by designing just one type of product. But it was a cooperative effort. So Mindsailors was an internal design studio for a bigger company. That's why we could focus on such a small scale for that product.
VH: You were experts in a narrow, specific field of pen drives.
MW: Yes. So basically, some quite impressive awards came because we were experts in making pendrives. But afterwards, Mindsailors transformed into an external design studio, a separate company. And then we designed Dice Plus. It had nothing to do with pendrives except the size. And this small world of electronics that we were familiar with from pendrives was integrated into a hardware gaming product.A platform. So ideas like mechanically attaching small little hinges or small ports or packing a lot of electronics into a really small volume wouldn't be possible without this expertise in pendrives.
VH: Maybe someone designing the new PlayStation also started with pen drives.
MW: Maybe. Or maybe with being a fisherman?
VH: Yeah! Do you have a favorite industry? It may not be your preferred industry, but do you enjoy working on products from that industry?
MW: Yes. I like designing medical devices.
VH: You've previously mentioned the medical industry, with its stringent safety regulations and additional steps in the development process.
MW: Yes. However, when it comes to the certification that these products must meet, they are usually near the end of the project's journey. So usually the client has his own team that works 100% of the time just on the certification because it's that difficult. That is difficult.But designing the product that is in the medical field is more satisfying for me as a designer because I know that I'm going to design a product that will help people, enhance their lives, or improve their health.
VH: So it's not your favorite because of the more complex process; it's because of the meaning and function of the product?
MW: Yes, it is far more satisfying to deliver a product that will benefit one person rather than one that will be useless to a million.
VH: Okay. We have many designs in our portfolio, and they come from almost every industry.Does every engineer or designer on our team have their own industry expertise, or how does it work with specific team members?
MW: It's quite a tough question to answer.
MW: Because gathering these people into a team is quite a sophisticated and time-consuming process, Once you get into the industrial design industry, you have to forget about being an expert in a narrow field. You have to open your eyes and your mind to learn things every single day that you never expected to learn before.
So what we have in common is that we have open minds and a really big eagerness to learn new things. This is a starting point for an industrial designer.
VH: But I'm sure there's something you could say that you're specifically good at, or that your expertise is something specific.
MW: Yes, because each of us on the team has our own strengths. When you know something about people, you know that they have strengths and weaknesses, and we try to enhance those strengths while working together on the weaknesses. Some people are not good at sketching, for example. You don't have to be a really good sketch artist to be a good designer.
MW: So we have experts in a more humanistic approach. They can ask difficult questions that can lead to a better understanding of the project because we have to ask these questions and know the answers.
So, if we were more technical guys who only expect a list of things to be done, we would do this. However, I'm not sure if this product would meet the client's initial requirements.
VH: So you mean that some might be more technical and like to calculate and analyze data and information, while others have a more artistic approach? They look for solutions in form, material, or what?
MW: Each of them There's a pretty nice term for it. It's a holistic approach because we take all of the small pieces from the design subject's near field.And the faraway thoughts that may never come to mind.
VH: Okay. It's all about having a broad perspective.
MW: Yes. It's all about the broader perspective. Of course, because we have projects at various stages, we sometimes have to switch into less-expert fields, and people who are good at research, for example, have to jump into the conceptual phase or the more mechanical phase.But of course, they have help from more experienced colleagues.
VH: You said the medical industry is your favorite. Do you have an industry that is most challenging for you whenever you come across it?
MW: I think that every project is a challenge, as it should be, but the most challenging industry for me is industrial machinery.
VH: Okay. Why?
MW: Because of the constraints that we have. Usually, when we design for industrial machinery, we have to design another rectangular object.
VH: Okay. because the form factor is similar?
MW: Exactly. And to build a machine that is unique and that presents the concepts and ideas behind the brand that we are designing for, it's quite a challenge. We have to think of how to break this rectangle. Essentially, 90% of designs have a rectangular shape.
How do you break it into a shape that looks less rectangular but still retains its functionality?
VH: Also, production costs, probably?
MW: Yes, the functionality is simple, but the manufacturing costs are significant in this field.I think it's one of the most important things because, in this industry, margins are not so big because you have to invest a lot of money into manufacturing these goods. so that people can buy it. These are usually workhorses. They don't have to look pretty. They have to be stable, robust, and versatile.
VH: And that's what they need to project with their looks. that they are sturdy; that they are stable; that they are powerful
MW: Yes. But I've got one story about why design matters. We were visiting one of our contractors.
They were not our customers because they didn't manufacture the machines; they were using them. But as an example of how design can enhance their business, we looked at their old facility and the new one.
VH: You were able to see both?
MW: Yes. We were able to see both because they've just launched their new manufacturing facility with brand new machines that looked like they really cost a lot of money.
And they did, in fact. But the fun fact is that they brought some new clients into their company, and they could quote projects with a two-times bigger margin when they showed their clients their new facility compared to when they showed the old one.
VH: They were like testing their clients?
MW: Yes. They were running tests.
VH: And checking what sort of prices they can get when showing the old facility and the new facility?
MW: And they were able to put in twice the margin for similar projects with similar scopes of work.
VH: Just based on the looks?
MW: Just based on the look of the facility.
VH: Yeah, that is a fun fact. That's interesting.
MW: This taught us something.
VH: Yeah. We've been to some trade fairs this year in Europe and the US, and a couple of them were different kinds of industrial machinery expos.
And when we talked to companies that had already invested in nice designs for their machines, that's exactly what they said. That's it; it drives the margins, and it projects a sort of image that makes the brand more approachable or trustworthy. Maybe trustworthy is the right word. You said that those machines need to show that they're robust, that they're strong, that they won't break, and that they will do their job for ages, right?MW: Yes. And that's why, when we want to make an impression, we wear a suit, not a t-shirt.
VH: Okay, so let's circle back to working with different industries. not in the sense of industries per se but in the sense of working with engineers and the clients themselves. Like we said, they are experts in their fields. I assume that working with a company that, for example, does a product that is more on the technical side and less on the exterior design, for example, I assume working with such a client with an engineer on that side is a different experience or a different process than talking with someone who needs a consumer product, whose sales are largely affected by the exterior design. So they're very focused on how the product will look. Would you say that they're the same client? That's the same workflow? Or do you also specialize in working with not only an industry on a type of product but also a type of client?
MW: We do not feel comfortable working with only the clients that we wish to work with. But we are trying, and I think that we are able to work with a variety of different clients. Clients who are familiar with industrial design are easier to work with.
They already know that design takes time, just as any other aspect of developing a new product does. It takes time. And we have clients who do not understand it yet.
VH: So you wouldn't say that those clients differ, with one being super technical and the other, let's say, artistic, creative, or whatever. But they differ more on whether they went through the process before or not. Working with one or the other is essentially the same if they did.
MW: Yes. But the difference is when the company approaches us from a different perspective. When the company approaches us from the perspective of engineers or people who have a technical problem or an engineering problem to solve, It's a totally different approach compared to when we work with people who are based in marketing.
VH: So you're saying it's different when working with a person from an NPD department versus a person from a marketing department, basically because they're looking for different things?
MW: Yes. When marketing people approach us, they want something juicy and beautiful, something that evokes emotions in our clients—or, more accurately, in their clients.They are more focused on how this product might be perceived by their clients. So the difference is that marketing does not judge the project; their clients do.
This process is a little harder in terms of making a design or a style that is okay with their clients, or if the "wow factor," as we tend to call it, is big or small. but still, for the customers of our client.
And when we are speaking with the technical part of the company, like new product development or R&D, the engineering requirements are usually more on the side of manufacturing costs a result, they want to keep costs as low as possible while still having a good enough designign.
Not the best-looking design! They want to have a good design with still reasonable manufacturing costs, and the difference is that the difficulty lies on different sides. When we have to make something bold, it is usually more expensive to make.
It doesn't mean that it's more expensive than the competition, but it's more expensive than the product that's already on the market. that is manufactured by the company.
Production costs almost always ruin a good design.To make something cheaper, you have to use cheaper technologies to make or assemble the thing.
So the end product looks cheaper. That's why it's not possible to have a product that looks expensive but is cheap to manufacture.
VH: Yeah. But I assume, like you said, it doesn't necessarily need to look a certain way. So consumer products sometimes need this wow factor that you mentioned. Industrial machinery needs to have a very solid, robust look and not be too expensive to manufacture in order to keep up with the competition. And, I'm guessing, there are some industries where looking cheap is sufficient?
MW: Yes, definitely. Yes. They are not focused on aesthetics as much, but of course there's still room for industrial design when thinking of products that look cheap and are cheap.
Because the perfect example of cheaply achieved design or cheap design in manufacturing is Ikea, for example, They strive or conduct extensive research and trials and errors in order to make the product inexpensive while still looking good.
But it's not that easy either. Taking these costs down to the level of Ikea, for example, is simply a matter of quantity.
VH: Yeah. As a result of mass production, a unit can be priced lower.
MW: They can afford to put several hundreds of millions of dollars into developing a production line.
That will be, in the end, cheap enough so that every one of us can afford it, but we can afford it because of the fact that it is mass produced.
VH: Sometimes, I suppose, especially for companies in the process of developing a new product and this is their first rodeo, they see something on the market and it's cheap. So they probably assume they should also be able to make it cheap if they go to a design company, right?
MW: Yes. And this is the wrong assumption because they have forgotten that behind these cheap products there is a big brand that spends a lot of money on marketing and a lot of money on production efficiency because when they do the production, they do it efficiently.
As a smaller company or as a manufacturer that is already at the beginning of this journey of making a product, you cannot expect to compete on price. You have to compete with different values. You have to compete not only with functionality but also with the most important things like repairability, because of course, sometimes mass production leads to products that are single-use. And nowadays, having products that can be repaired or refurbished is important not only for the environment but also for the people.
So that the products can have their second or third life. So if you work on these values, an industrial design studio can help you with that, and you can have success. Of course, success on a smaller scale is easier to measure, because you can't compare your product to giants like Ikea, I dunno, Decathlon, or something like that because you can't compete on price.
VH: Sure. That must be difficult to understand for novice businesspeople.
MW: Yes. When you are starting your business or are aiming to start your business, you think that you can sell your product cheaper than your competition. You didn't do your homework!
We can help, at least with product development. We cannot help with marketing because it's a different area of expertise.
VH: When you worked with clients from different industries, some products made it to the market, and some naturally didn't. Working on those different manufacturing processes—basically knowing how a product will be manufactured by what sort of company or what sort of tooling will be used—did this also broaden your perspective when working with different clients? Does understanding the manufacturing process of industrial machinery aid in the design of a medical device, particularly a handheld medical device?
MW: Sometimes in small details, yes, because we get to know different technologies. For example, five years ago, 3D printing was very visible in the world, and you could have a 3D printer at home and prototype whatever you wanted.
Five or seven years ago, something changed in the area of manufacturing with 3D printing. Because several years ago, 3D printing was perceived as just a prototype technology, Nowadays, we've got implementations of this technology in mass production. But of course, these are small details or things that can be manufactured in different ways, for example, by injection molding, vacuum casting, or whatever it is.
But it's more economical to 3D print these parts. As a result, we tend to use industrial machinery technologies in consumer electronics.For example, we can 3D print a part that is not visible but can be customized. Even in mass production, they can all be customized.
And you can do this by injection molding, but it's expensive. more expensive than when you have these individual parts 3D printed. Especially when they're not visible to the user.
So you don't care, for example, about the surface treatment. Because we are still, and this is something that needs to change in our perception of good design, it is happening but slowly and not at the scale that I would like it to be, that 3D printing and surface finishing, as well as our perception of surface quality, should change.because 3D printing does not produce the same surface quality as injection molding does. It's just not possible.
But it doesn't mean that this product doesn't serve a function for you. It usually performs as well as or better than the injection-molded part because it is manufactured without the expensive large tooling equipment.And when it doesn't work, you have to have a place to store it.
VH: You said before that 3D printing is still an industrial solution and a fairly new technology. And it does produce a different kind of surface. It is different stages of the technology's maturity, knowing or becoming accustomed to the surface structure.Maybe this is something that also needs time.
MW: It needs time. It is distilling into our reality because some designers are focused just on 3D printing things. And they are showcasing the 3D-printed objects that they have. These unique surface finishes That is produced by 3D printing because 3D printing has its own layer appearance. But I think that it's going to change in the future. It doesn't have to still be layered by layer in 3D printing.
VH: So the technologies and other things you've mentioned before—the knowledge about different materials used in different industries—may also, with your experience, be used in a non-standard sort of way. Something might be standard in this industry, and you might use it as an innovation in another.
MW: Yes. Because, in my opinion, innovating today does not imply creating something completely new.
VH: Yes, we've already invented too many things!
MW: I think that these times have passed. Maybe they will come back. Maybe they will come back with changes to some basic principles of physics, for example.
Because the physics that we know already has been in our minds for over a hundred years, we cannot extract anymore from it. So, of course, we have quantum physics, which is looking deeper at smaller scales in order to benefit us.Even the CPUs of today are benefiting from quantum physics.
VH: What's innovating today, in your opinion?
MW: In my opinion, innovating today is about merging ideas. It's bringing an idea from another industry, bringing a second idea from a totally different industry, and putting these ideas into the third one so that you can make a small, small market or a small branch of an area that you are focused on better with these changes.
VH: I would like to go back to when we talked about working with different types of clients—the technical and the artistic sort, the NPD department, and the marketing department.
And on that topic, how important is it for an engineer, an industrial designer, or any kind of designer to be able to communicate with those who speak a different language? Because I imagine that when either you are an engineer or an artist, you're still in different industries with different types of people. So I wanted to talk about communication and how to communicate with those clients.
MW: Okay. The question is more about the overall experience that you get as a specialist, as a professionalist. I am an industrial designer, but at the beginning of my career, I wasn't an industrial designer; I was more technical. I was a constructor. I was a guy who was helping salesmen sell some products.
And what I've discovered during this time is that communication is the most important aspect of any professional worker.
Because if you cannot communicate effectively with your team or client, you will not get the results that are expected. Your question is really important, and the answer to this question is that communication is the most important.
VH: Is communicating effectively for our team also a matter of some people feeling better communicating with the technical engineers and others feeling better communicating with the marketing engineers? Is it also something like having a preferred or favorite industry or type of project?
MW: Yes, of course we do. We do not specialize in speaking with people! But we have to be...
VH: But damn it, we have to!
MW: Yes. Jokes aside, communication is a tool in the hands of every designer or salesman. So when we speak with marketing departments, we usually tend to speak with the business developer. The business development side of our company is approaching these clients, but when the conversation turns more into a specific topic or a more technical topic, business development asks for help.
They cannot answer these questions, which probably can be answered by each of us, each of the designers that we have. But when we are speaking about the specific industry, I'm more specialized in surface design. So I come in when we're going to surface something more stylistic or when these surfaces just need to be neat or when we need to make a mold for it.When we are speaking about surfacing, we are speaking about different aspects of it. Sheet metal is also something that you can become an expert in. Our clients speak with someone else from our firm according to their expertise.
VH: Because they have a more common language and understand each other better.
MW: Yes. They understand each other. They can operate at a different level of communication. This level is more technical. I think we, as designers, can speak with everyone about the big picture of each technology, or of each design style, for example.
We are open-minded, but when it comes to the technical side of the project, we have to take the most experienced guy from our team to help us with this specific topic or question.
VH: Yes. My previous experience was also in the creative industry, but not in industrial design, and when it comes to working with clients, my perspective was always that no matter how good a job you'll do, if you fail at communicating with your client, the project will be dead.
So you can be on time and do a good project, but if you can't find a thread between you and the client, then you'll go into a spiral of arguing over details that maybe aren't important or have a very simple solution. I always thought that communication, like you said, so I agree with you, is the basis of any creative work.
MW: I agree. It's something that when you cannot communicate effectively, you will not sell. Not in the sense of money; you will not sell your idea.
VH: And this is important for a designer. Because you might be so in love with your idea, you might have great arguments that your idea is the best possible solution at this moment, but if you won't communicate it, like you said, in the right way, someone on the other side might think that I don't like this guy. I'm not going to like his design either.
MW: Yes. It's possible. It's possible, but there is something that is derivative of your sentence because when we as designers fall in love with our project, it's a crash prediction.
You mustn't fall in love with your project. I know that we tend to like our “babies”. It's our creative work. It's our time, it's part of our life. I've got my favorites, but I didn't fall in love with each of them.
VH: Yeah. It's not going to go well with YouTube, but in my previous company, we used to say that you need to learn to “kill your babies”.
MW: Something like this, yes. You have to be as objective as possible. Of course, within some constraints.
Still, you must sell this idea or your concept, project, or small piece of work that you have contributed to this larger project. Maybe you should sell it like you love it, but you cannot actually fall in love with it.
VH: Ah, fake love...
MW: Something after the presentation of the idea might happen that might ruin your whole idea. Like the client says, "Okay, it's good, but I don't like it."
What do you do with it? When you are more experienced, you ask questions and do not take things for granted. Just asking questions. Why don't you like it? Maybe we have missed something? Sometimes something that is not articulated clearly is just after this sentence, and if you don't ask a question, you won't get this simple answer.
For example, someone says “I don't like this color”. But if it were black or, I dunno, grayish, it would be okay. So sometimes those little things ruin the design from your perspective, but the client has its own perspective.
VH: Do you think your team could design for any industry?
MW: Yes, I believe so.when we have a good team on the clients' side or when our client has a team that is open-minded and he and this team want to deliver something good or something better than they have already.
VH: And, ideally, they have prior design experience.
MW: We cannot design in a void. We have to design with people and for people. And I believe that if we meet these criteria, we can create a product for any brand or market.
VH: Great. Thanks a lot for the talk today. I think we've touched on a lot of interesting topics. Till next time!
MW: Until next time, thank you.
Mikołaj Wiewióra is a senior designer at Mindsailors. He has extensive experience in leading teams of designers and engineers on all stages of the design process.
Voytek Holysz is the COO of Mindsailors with 15 years of experience in running a business in creative B2B services, marketing, sales and video production.
IDology #3 - Being a versatile product designer
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