An open letter to aspiring product designers

25 June 2013

Russell Beard, founder of Square Banana, is after a new recruit to join his product design consultancy. Instead of a job advert, he’s written a letter spelling out exactly what he expects from a young, aspiring product designer

1 The brief, the whole brief and nothing but the brief

This might sound really basic, but an ability to fully understand a design brief is paramount.

You might think you’ve got creativity spewing out of every pore, but this means nothing if you haven’t fundamentally satisfied the brief.

It might be a simple one line verbal brief, but you have to ensure that the brief you have been given (or attempting to take) is fully understood by both parties. If it means you’ve got to ask the stupidest of stupid questions to ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, then so be it.

I would much rather get tired of someone asking me incessant questions about what is required than not and have them heading off into the wild blue yonder of virtual ‘creative’ oblivion for a few days and coming back with nothing to show for it.

2 Gumption and hunch

Although it may sound like it, this isn’t the name of a grainy, badly filmed 1970’s US cowboy TV series.

It’s a very important set of personality traits that will get you through more scrapes than you care to imagine during your design career.

‘Gumption’ is a great word but for those unfamiliar with it, the dictionary defines it as ‘spirited initiative and resourcefulness’. A quick click across to the Thesaurus also throws up some good alternatives; enterprise, acumen, common sense, pluck, savvy etc. You get the drift.

Basically, nothing to do with your overt ‘designery skills’ like sketching, 3D CAD or Photoshop, but an all-round determination and ingenuity in everything you do.

Thinking about what might need to be done before being asked to do it. Connecting the dots instead of simply following them. Not waiting to be told to do something fairly bloody obvious.

If you are in any doubt about this one, then either a) don’t read any further or b) go ask your parents.

3 Nice weather we’re having, don’t you think?

Conversation – it’s the best way of getting the most out of people.

Don’t confuse this with ‘boring the tits off people’ or ‘hard nosed negotiation’, but a warm demeanour and a subtle charm off ensive can often defrost the iciest of new clients.

People do business with people, and – in the main – people do better business with people they like. It could indeed help establish a long term relationship with a client (assuming of course that you similarly deliver great design work).

Throughout your design career, you will be required to deal with all manner of different people; assembly workers, toolmakers, sales reps, marketers, research scientists, kids, the infirm, CEO’s, the office cleaner… the list goes on.

Your ability to interact, connect with and get the best out of each and every type of person will ultimately define how successful you are.

4 Can you read an Ikea instruction manual?

One of the things product designers pride themselves on is the appreciation of the full design service i.e. from the nebulous opportunity discussions right through to full production data specification.

Whilst much of this can be learned through time served and projects delivered, there has to be general understanding of how stuff works in order to properly deliver this ‘complete’ design service.

The default back-story to this type of thing in the past was a fascination with Lego or Meccano but I appreciate that times have moved on a tad.

Some university courses have a strong ‘make it work’ ethos, and whilst this can sometimes limit the visual aspects of some degree show output, it helps demonstrate an appreciation of the difficulties inherent in the product design profession.

5 Keen as mustard

It doesn’t have to be a high-five and a whoop every morning, but an enthusiasm and passion for what you do and the ability to impart that on all you come into contact with is a very worthy attribute.

This can manifest itself as quiet humour or wry appreciation of the difficulties ahead, but as designers it’s our job to take the difficult and make it look easy. Delight and astound your clients. Do this with enthusiasm and your job is that little bit easier.

6 “Think, think, think”- Winnie the Pooh

This might sound ridiculous, but I need people who THINK THINGS THROUGH.

You might be forgiven for assuming that all design graduates are capable of such things. Apparently not. Being required to think doesn’t mean furious sketchwork or elaborate 3D CAD models.

It means considering the problem and using that old grey matter upstairs to figure out how to solve it. I have seen countless student projects created with no apparent ‘thought’ being employed.

Lots and lots of research, sketching, modelling, prototyping, styling, development and ‘Ta Da!’… but not an ounce of honest-to-goodness, unadulterated, clear-brained thinking.

7 Appropriateness

By ‘appropriateness’ I mean that each and every project, and each and every client has a set of requirements and emphases that differ.

Some require lots of free thinking and crude concept investigation to establish a direction, whilst others may need focused, detailed thinking in a specifi c area. It is why we do not push a pre-defined product design process of any form.

The process should suit the project, not the other way round. The work that you present should be appropriate to the brief, the deliverables, the decision requiring of the client and the expectations of the project.

It’s a bit like choosing a different car to drive across different terrain. A Smart car for urban rat-runs and a 4x4 for mountainous terrain.

Each car is no less capable, but it is tailored to its purpose and to the driver and does the job brilliantly. You should be able to do the same.

8 The usual suspects

You may have noticed that very little of what I’ve described above is ‘what you are taught at university’.

That’s because – despite all your hard work and relentless endeavour over the past few years – when you start work, your major project will become history very quickly indeed and you will have to rely on your core ‘human’ abilities much more than your learned ‘design’ skills.

That’s not to say your design skills are irrelevant, but it’s often a massive wake-up call for many students when they realise that their awesome sketching abilities aren’t actually required as much as they thought.

Having said that, it is handy when designers are well versed in the ‘usual suspects’ of applications and can convert thought into well-considered sketchwork.

From our studio perspective, a good knowledge of Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, SolidWorks and KeyShot would stand you in good stead.

Similarly, an ability to sketch ideas well enough to convey a thought process or form factor would be beneficial and so will a working knowledge of modern prototyping practices.

The icing on the cake would include film making abilities, good web/coding skills and a keenness to explore animation.

That’s about it I think, but you should also know that these criteria are based on the assumption that you are a capable and competent product designer, and have a decent portfolio to show for it.

Our studio’s in Cheltenham and being a small design business, I can promise that you’ll be provided the opportunity to work on a vast range of project work with some amazing clients, to choose and define the course of the business, to accelerate your learning and to lead from the front.

So, if you genuinely think you can fulfil the above criteria wholeheartedly, then you are either happily deluded or we should be having a chat over a coffee and your portfolio…

To find out more and to read the original article in full, visit blog.squarebanana.co.uk | @rbsquarebanana

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