Ride the train of real-world design solutions

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

We designers typically start doing what we do once we have a clear idea of a problem that needs solving. These may be very tangible and public issues or they may be more vague and personal. But the addressing of a problem is what gets us moving toward an outcome: a result or solution. It provides us with the focus that will guide our steps (in this case, the steps of our design process).

One of the most dominant aspects of design as we teach it is that our efforts are in the service of others. We solve problems that others have (perhaps in addition to ourselves). We serve. It is our strength and our value. It is also true that if we are not serving others, only ourselves, we must also be able to personally afford to do that, as no one else will be paying.

It is tempting for designers to feel that once they have identified a solution, their job is done. They have accomplished what they do best, their service has been completed and they ought to be free to move on to their next project.

But that turns out to be short-sighted. Until the solution is in the hands of those for whom it was intended (the end user), the service to humanity has not really been accomplished. So we can’t shake off our responsibility quite so easily.

Usually, our designed solutions will be put into some presentable form and then they will be shown to those who have the resources to actualize them. But we risk the premature demise of our design offspring if we don’t ensure that they are given a good shot at survival, which will involve additional efforts.

They need a vehicle to take them toward the users; the needy, the beneficiaries of our efforts. I sometimes refer it to the train that they ride. There are many (potential and optional) cars on this train: engineering, marketing, packaging, branding, finance, production, management, distribution, supply chain, graphics, standards, safety and more. Each train will be a bit different, reflecting the individuality of each problem and each solution. If the right elements are not attended to, the goods (or service) will not meet the user; the train won’t arrive.

Often, the designers are not expressly included in this process, either through their own choice, or the choices of others. But we ought not abandon these considerations too quickly anyway. Our chances for the success of our project will improve through offering more to our business partners in this venture. One obvious and even typical area of support is graphic design. Usually our design solutions require communication. What will that look like? Perhaps our solutions require multiple approaches, depending on the volume of production, so how will that roll out? What about packaging? How will goods be protected as they are being transported? Will there be some display considerations? What will that look like? At what cost? What will the best marketing strategy be? Designers are problem solvers and these are all problems that require solutions. Investment in new ventures (designs) is inherently risky. When this risk is minimized through careful and thorough thought and strategy, everyone will benefit.

This can be a lot to take on. It is increasingly unlikely that a single designer will be equipped to provide informed solutions to this wide array of problems. But we usually know who knows more than we do. Again, that puts us in a strong position to contribute, even if it is indirect rather than personal.

Designers are usually generalists, both by nature and by necessity. We benefit from knowing a lot. When we can’t know enough, we need to know how to find out what we need to know, or how to work around it, or with others. As our profession has progressed, the requirements for knowledge have accelerated as well. The train that we ride has become faster and more complicated. But that’s probably OK. We like trains.

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its industrial design department.



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