‘God is in the detail’

17 February 2016

The phrase ‘God is in the detail’ applies just as much to the internal details of your product as it does to its outer shell, says Russell Beard. Just because unseen details are unseen doesn’t make them less worthy of consideration

With every New Year, we are bombarded with column inches telling us how to simplify our diet, clean ourselves up, detox and get back to basics. Well, to draw a very poor parallel, I’d like to talk about how this advice might apply to product design and, in particular, the ‘innards’ of a product.

Much of what we see as a result of fervent product design activity is the outer shell of a product — its colour, finish, form, interface, branding, texture, messaging and style. The visual, tactile and emotional side. The face, smile and handshake of the product.

These facets of product development and refinement are hugely important, but I would like to see more focus on the inner workings of that very same product — the tiny screw bosses, location ribs, snap fits, alignment widgets, sub-assembly gizmos and cable tidies that some poor sod has had to cram into a space that probably isn’t ideally sized to accommodate them and has needed to be rearranged countless times in response to project feedback.

I have to admit to finding this stage of design work incredibly fulfilling. I know I could so easily place this rib or that boss in whatever position I’d like and, as long as it does the job, no-one will ever notice. But, at the same time, there’s an obsessive little corner of my brain that wants this rib or that boss to be positioned and located in an inherently logical way.

It’s what makes part of me die a little death when I open up a ‘quick and dirty’, copycat product from China to find a bodged piece of design work that displays no awareness of the finer nuances of why that boss has been positioned in a particular place or why the ribbing is so vital to improved mould flow or — better still — to create a subtle, yet distinctive, sink pattern on the upper surface of the moulding.

Great design should showcase an in-depth knowledge of product functionality and manufacturing processes to create geometry that has purpose and meaning, inside and out — deliberately, purposefully, carefully.

When it comes to internal detail, to use the excuse that ‘no-one will ever see it’ is to admit that you haven’t given your product the time and consideration it deserves.

It ignores the beauty that can exist in a well-balanced fillet in a complex internal surface or in internal angles designed to ensure that a tool will last that little bit longer.

There have been countless products that I’ve designed into which I’ve built all manner of little, deliberate features and logic, that will go unnoticed, not just by the end user but also by the immediate client. But just because unseen details are unseen doesn’t make them less worthy.

It’s a bit like having visitors to stay and ‘tidying up’ by cramming all the rubbish into cupboards and under-bed drawers, along with other nooks and crannies, in order to get it out of sight. The outward impression of harmony and togetherness you’ll achieve is a sham.

On a more pragmatic note, those finer, unnoticed details could give your product the edge over its more hastily considered competitors. Get these right and, because of the consideration you’ve given to the inner workings of your design, the tooling goes exactly to schedule, the parts measure accurately after T1 sampling, part moulding is consistent, component parts fit perfectly, assembly is seamless and the product ‘feels’ solid.

Now, it may be that nobody notices that it was the way that the product designer had considered all the tiny details upfront that meant the product passed through typically problematic stage-gates without fuss or bother.

They may just assume it was down to the efficiency of the toolmaker, the complexity of the moulding machines, the skill of the assembly team or the care of the user. But as designers, I see it as our job to anticipate and preempt a bumpy product journey by designing in those features, details and subtlety, wherever possible.

In other words: measure twice, cut once. Don’t neglect the hidden details — and don’t hand them off to someone else to sort out.

See the project through to the end. The best designs are those that have had continuity, a steady hand on the tiller throughout.

In client expectation terms, this can be difficult to manage. Thanks to rendering software, products can be visualised at a very early stage, leading clients to believe that the design is pretty much ready to be sent to China for tooling.

Designers have to be careful to push back against these expectations, explaining that time is still needed for the invisible detailing and development that will ensure the product is as great as the renderings so prematurely promise.

What clients don’t see are the hundreds and hundreds of tiny component reshuffles, the dimension tweaks, assembly modifications, parting line alterations, wallthickness adjustments and other edits that ensure that everything works in harmony.

These edits can arise from seemingly throwaway project-review comments — such as ‘Can we make it 2mm shorter?’ or ‘Can we add in this extra battery, please, it’s only small?’ — but can involve countless hours of extra work if product integrity and design intent are to be maintained.

I, for one, love these seemingly ‘dull’ phases of work. It’s incredibly satisfying, despite wanting to tear your hair out at times. But when you’ve finished, you know that every square millimetre of your product, inside and out, has a harmony and balance about it — regardless of styling — because you have considered every aspect, however tiny and (apparently) worthless.

Designers often use the phrase ‘God is in the detail’ to refer to the smaller features and refined aspects of an external product form that delight the user and set the product apart from the market competition.

The phrase, to my mind, is equally relevant to the inner skeletal structure and unseen detailing that silently and efficiently ensure that your product goes that little bit further, works that little bit harder and lasts that little bit longer.

Russell Beard is the founder of product design consultancy Square Banana. On Twitter, he’s @rbsquarebanana. Read more of Russell’s thoughts on design challenges at: blog.squarebanana.co.uk

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