A few months ago, during TED, Yves Behar, the designer of the OLPC and the Jawbone headset, was talking about "design driven engineering". The talk made me think how much more important the role of design has become relative to engineering in consumer electronics. He gave an example from the design of the jawbone, where designers controlled the size of the product and as they changed the size, engineering had to go back and re-layout the PCB (Printed Circuit Board, a.k.a the green thing on which chips are). Designers were telling engineers where to put their circuits. That is very very different from how things used to be done.
In my old days at U.S. Robotics, products sold in the same stores that sell the Jawbone were designed very differently. No designer had the power to touch the printed circuit board layout. Engineers defined the product (we had bad marketing guys, but the modems were flying off the shelves anyway so who cared) and they decided on what features a modem should have. Once features are determined hardware engineers figured out what chips and components to use, drew a schematic and gave it to the PCB guy, which was almost always a fat white guy who worked alone. A few weeks later, out came the PCB layout, which was the biggest determinant as to what the product looked like. The size of the board, thickness were all features that determined the cost, so people who were accountable for the cost of the product made decision on the board.
What was forgotten is that the size of the PCB determines the size and shape of the end product that some industrial designer would have to design around. That person had no say whatsoever as to what size the product should be. Even marketing people were scared, because the answer could be "can't be changed, too expensive, too hard or even impossible". So design was done AFTER engineers were done with the product.
Yves Behar (whose father is Turkish), says they do the design BEFORE engineers get to put their circuits in. That is a big change. Finally the designers can ask critical questions like "who will use this?" and "what is their context?" at a point in time in product development that can actually have an impact on the end result. That is design driven engineering.
So far this may not be all that new, but I wonder, why now? Could it be that all of a sudden society has got more "taste" and care for design. Surely not. What has happened that caused this shift and what more could be coming our way. I see three key factors that gave power to design and took it from engineering.
1) Moore's Law: There is enough processing power in small enough components that "getting it to work" is no longer the biggest problem. Chips have gotten smaller and better, and people have learned over the last 10-15 years how to do it. Just look at how small and powerful handsets have become. If the iPhone can run the same big OS that runs in desktops, we are "there" in terms of technology being able to deliver the features we want. Therefore, differentiation is less on making it work, and more on making it useful. Enter design.
2) Wireless connectivity: This is mainly WiFi and Bluetooth and Edge/3G. A lot of devices we want, now come in portable forms. Moore's Law has helped in that immensely, but so has connectivity. Take the Jawbone. If it had to have a cable instead of using Bluetooth, the options you have in the design of it is limited. Wires are clumsy, so are power supplies, they shadow what design can do. With connectivity, you don't need those things, and it opens up chance for good design to kick in.
3) Successful examples of winning designs. This is the most important reason why the "Design Era of Technology" is starting and the "Functionality Era of Technology" is over. The two examples I've written about over and over and over again in this blog is the Nintendo Wii and the Apple iPhone. They are proof that good design sells in a big way and is "impactful". Sony paid $1B to IBM to design the new processor for the Playstation 3. The rules of the game until the Wii was that better graphics, faster games was the path to success. Then comes Nintendo with a simpler machine, simpler technology but smarter and well designed technology and now you have a device that four generations of people can play and use. The iPhone is no different. Think of the billions invested by handset companies to build better more functional phones, think of the billions invested by VC's to reformat the Internet content to the phone. Apple comes and better designs the device and UI an boom the rules are changed. There are other good examples from the Internet as well, where a good designed UI has made the difference between one site winning over another (that's a whole other blog post).
In the end, I think we are squarely in the "Design Era of Technology" D-schools will become more prominent over the years, and the designer will be one of the first hires in any company (true in the Internet). The next question becomes, "where else can design take over?" and that's left to the reader to ponder. For a hint, look at Yves Behar's "seven axioms".
Thank you, Steve Venuto, for giving me the idea to write about this.