Since May is our annual NeoCon® preview issue, it seems appropriate to write something about product design, a hugely important segment of our industry without which the A&D community would not be able to create the aesthetically superior and highly functional spaces that they do.
As an editor in this industry (with this magazine for 20 years now), I myself—and many others like me—have sat through any number of product presentations by industry manufacturers. The best ones, at least for me, trace a logical path from market awareness and research, through product development and design, to product launch and marketing—making it clear where a product idea germinated, the thought and technical processes by which it was realized, and the significance to the industry of the final result. And always the most interesting stories are those that involve students in the design process, because of the fresh perspective they bring to the table.
Recently, I had the pleasure of serving as a guest critic for an integrated product design course at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, a graduate-level course that was conceived and taught by Jordan Goldstein, a principal in Gensler’s Washington, D.C., office, and supported by Transwall, the West Chester, Pa.-based manufacturer of demountable and movable walls. At the beginning of the spring semester, students were challenged to work in small groups to design a movable wall system suitable for a live/work environment that serves the needs for both residential and commercial applications. Transwall was involved throughout the entire semester as a sponsor, consultant, and ultimately, perhaps, the producer of some of the design concepts. I was there on the last day to help judge the results of the product design exercise. The things I learned in the few hours I spent interacting with this class were interesting and even a bit eye-opening.
First, Goldstein deserves considerable credit for putting together a smart syllabus for the course, which included sessions focusing on an examination of the very concept of the product type (in this case, walls), market analysis, product development, manufacturing, prototyping and product engineering, protecting intellectual property, product launches, and marketing communications and presentations. In essence, this course was structured like a real-life product design process, something I always appreciate as opposed to a pie-in-the-sky creative exercise with no regard to production limitations and marketability. I mention all this to stress that this program sets a good example for design education in general, which too often ignores real world context, leaving young designers in need of too much on-the-job training.
So what did I learn? Well, I guess I learned a heck of a lot more about moveable walls than I ever knew before—and I admit that was not much. I learned that even the most (seemingly) mundane products can be rendered sexy and exciting when conceived by a designer who takes a fresh approach to form, materials, and function. I learned that collaboration among individuals who start out with different ideas and cultural perspectives will drive a design project to the next level. I learned that it is possible to innovate while remaining grounded in reality. I learned that even an individual who has great expertise in some particular area, but keeps and open mind, can be surprised and delighted by a new idea.
None of this is new, but it drives home the point that the best product design is not just in response to obvious market needs, but lies in addressing the more obscure and creating a need in the market that may not have previously existed.
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