Timm Said


Tim Shih received a Bachelor's of Environmental  Design/Architecture from North Carolina State University, a post-baccalaureate certificate from the Vehicle Research Institute at Western Washington University, and a BS in Transportation Design from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. He currently works as an Industrial Designer for Volvo Trucks North America. His pride: a 1973 2003 tii, and joy: a 1982 911 SC.


The Business of Design

I'm hoping this piece isn't too "design-centric," but then that is
my job (being a designer, that is, not being -centric). The question
floating around my mind these days has been "What's the purpose of design?"
A query that ranks up there with "What's the meaning of Life" for potential
answers. To make it an easier enigma to resolve, however, the two choices I
have presented myself are: a) create better products, or b) make more

Ideally, of course, a design can do both, and the November 29 issue
of BusinessWeek showcases several such products. But even in this "Designs
of the Decade" competition, juried by both practicing designers and
economists, emphasis was placed on what each design has done for the
bottom line. It is a valid point, and a more quantitative means of judging
a very subjective and artistic profession. In fact, as I sat at the awards
ceremony at the National Press Club, it felt very reassuring to see those
outside of the design profession recognize the impact and importance of
well-executed design. In the transportation field, awards went to BMW,
Bombardier (parent company of Sea Doo and the inventors of the snowmobile), Volkswagen, and Volvo Trucks. Yet, as I sat in this black tie back-patting session, amazed by triple digit growths in annual profit, I wondered if perhaps we, as designers, were being fooled into accepting an outsider's validation of what we do.

I should mention, at this point, that I've been a practicing
designer for all of 13 months. This gives me not only the right to be
incredibly naive, but also idealistic when it comes to my profession. That
said, let's return to the debate.

Granted, nothing could be manufactured, marketed, sold, or
purchased--not to mention designed--without some sort of monetary
investment. That's just how our society and economy works. So the peril is
not in recognizing the profit-making potential of good design; in fact,
that is definitely a good thing for all of us involved. The danger is in
making the bottom line a higher priority than the product itself. In my
short time in the "real" world, I have heard the argument for the
all-mighty dollar more times than for a well-designed product. By far.
Again, because they are concrete, quantifiable figures, money saved and
money made is much easier for most to gauge than the impact of good design.
To give an admittedly simplified example, imagine an engineer presenting
two options for manufacturing an instrument panel. The tooling costs for
one process, let's say injection molding, is twice that for vacuum forming
(and if you don't think a dashboard can be vac-formed, welcome to the truck
industry). Using the bottom line as the only ruler, most project
managers/decision-makers/bean counters will opt for the cheaper product and
then pat themselves on the back for having saved the company X amount of
dollars. But what the more expensive process might offer, hypothetically,
is the wonderfully tactile material of Volkswagen's recent interiors, or
the contrasting stitching of the TT roadster, or even the satisfying
switchgear for which Honda has become famous. These are things that
frequently cost the company money up front, but are immensely valuable in
defining the end-user's overall experience with the product. And it is
ultimately the customer's sense of satisfaction (or lack thereof) that will
define a company's success in the marketplace.

In a different context, I have read that the reason Apple resisted
licensing its hard- and software to clones is that by keeping everything
in-house, they are better able to control the entire experience of using
their products. Everything from the look of the machine, to the feel of the
keys, to the on-screen GUI's affect the user's overall impression. I'm sure
both Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs can tell you how risky a business decision
this is, considering their slump in the not so distant past. Hopefully,
though, their recent return from the brink proves that a strong commitment
to all aspects of design and user interaction make for a much
higher-quality product--and higher profits--in the long run.

Unfortunately, there don't seem to be too many companies out there
that appreciate this fact. BusinessWeek's selection of only a handful of
products would seem to suggest that companies which recognize the
importance of product design and development are, sadly, the exception
rather than the rule. Profit is still prioritized over product. My own
opinion, however, and what is borne out by the pieces in BusinessWeek, is
that creating a better product will ultimately bolster the bottom line:
build it, and they will come (buy it). Whether or not a company believes in
this is up to its leaders and decision-makers. As for the designer's role
in all of this and the original query about the purpose of design, I do
think it is vital for designers to understand the context--economic,
social, environmental--in which we all live, work, and create, but the
ultimate priority for the designer should still be to create a better
product and, hopefully, a better world in the process. (Did I mention I was