Things I learned from my first Flawesome design
I know, I know. What IS that thing? It’s the incredibly flawesome Reach ‘n Spray! [Such an awesome name, huh?] This was the very first product concept I created in design school. Well, technically, it wasn’t really the first, but it was the first project in a class full of only product design majors. I guess I should give some background information on the design program at OSU. Students who want to major in design at OSU have to apply and take a portfolio test. Apparently, this is somewhat different than many other schools, since whenever I’ve told this to some of my peers, they’ve replied with “Whaaaaa…??” OSU releases a design portfolio test once a year. From what I remember, the test takes a good 2-3 weeks to complete, and you have to do projects based on the specific track you planned on entering: visual communication, interior space, or product design. Everyone and their brother applies, but [at least when I applied] the department only chooses 18 people for each of the three tracks. So, there hundreds of applicants, but only 18 “win” for each area of design. If you’re one of the lucky 18, starting the next Autumn term, and the following Winter term, you will be in a class that is a mix of all three tracks, learning about general design. The third term of the year, the students are separated into their respective tracks, and those people in your class will be the same people you’ll see for the next 3-4 years. Every. Single. Day.
The project shown here is the first assignment my product design class had. We were supposed to design a plant watering device; basically, a watering can. But, my professor didn’t want to use those terms, as it would limit our ideas. And of course, look at what I designed: a weird-looking watering can. But this post isn’t about my flawesome design, it’s about what I learned from designing the most hideous watering can ever.
1. TRUST AND BELIEVE IN YOUR IDEAS
The horrible-looking watering can didn’t just come out of my head like that. It took weeks of designing and self-doubt.
As you can see that looks nothing like the final product.
Also, I don’t know why my drawing is so small on this presentation slide. That should be an additional thing I learned:
1a. Make sure your drawings are large on your presentation slides.
But yeah, my original concept was nothing like my final concept. My original concept was a watering device that could be poured like a regular watering can, but also had the ability to electrically pump water to feed tubes inserted in house plants automatically, so plants could be watered while the plant owner was away. My final concept was a large, bulky watering can that could be used conventionally, but also had a detachable spout containing an electrical pump that allowed one to water plants…that were hanging…? Because the giant watering can was too heavy to lift…? WTF?? I have no idea what I was thinking.
Those are two completely different products. So what happened? I’ll tell you what happened: I doubted myself. My professor, being the omniscient, old German professor that he is, said he wasn’t thrilled with my concept. That’s all he said. He didn’t say “Turn it into a weird thing with a spout!” He said it needed work. And it did. This was my first concept. Of course it needed work. But at the time, I thought, “OMG, he hates my design! I need to design something totally different!” It’s kind of like when you like someone, and you hope they will talk to you, and when they don’t, you just assume that they hate everything about you, and you run away and cry on your bed and vow that you’ll never love anyone ever again. Or maybe not. The point is, I was wrong thinking that I needed to radically change the design. This design had some value, value which I believed in…before my professor said he hated it. After that, all I wanted to do was create something that he would like. But you don’t design to only please someone. You design to solve a problem. Your design is your best solution to the problem at hand. If someone [a client, a professor, etc.] has issues with it for some reason or another, you must ask whether their problems with the design are valid. If they are, you should consider addressing them with a change in design. Other than that, you should believe that your solution is a good solution, and most likely, the best solution, especially when you present it to others.
2. DESIGN TAKES LOTS OF THINKING AND LOTS OF TIME.
This is a really poor drawing of a second concept. I actually had a physical model of this design. Why is there no photo of it? I present to you, Concept III:
“Huh…that model looks a lot like Concept II, but with pieces cut off.” That’s because it IS Concept II with pieces cut off! Why did I throw this foam model into a band saw? And why didn’t I have a pic of Concept II? Because I was stupid. Here’s how it went down: my professor gave me more input regarding my design. By ‘more input’, I meant that he sighed a lot, and shook his head disapprovingly. He thought the form in Concept II was “getting there” , but it wasn’t quite right. He said it seemed to have a lot of volume. Being stupid, and not thinking, I decide to reduce the volume by cutting parts off the model. Why did I do this? And why didn’t I take a photo of the model before I hacked away at it? It’s because a) I wasn’t thinking and b) I didn’t want to waste any more time. I just wanted to get this done. In the context of projects for normal college courses, like writing a paper for Underwater Basketweaving 230.02, I’m sure that idea is perfectly fine. But in design, it doesn’t fly. In design class, you’re learning skills that you’ll need when you’re working. Yes, working quickly is a good thing, but one can work quickly and smartly. Or one can say “Oh, I’ll just cut off some parts of this first model so I don’t have to build another one”…which is exactly what I did. I should have made a separate model for Concept III. Hell, I should have probably made models for every idea that I had. I didn’t because that first model took me awhile to make, since I had little experience working with foam. The frustration I experienced making that first model made me not want to spend the time creating more models. What’s that joke? “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” You’re not going to learn unless you spend time doing. You have to spend a lot of time thinking about what you’re going to do, then you have to spend a lot of time actually doing it. There’s no way around this. There are no shortcuts. This doesn’t mean you spend days on something that should take hours. There’s a learning curve to working quickly and smartly. But at least initially, you’re going to have to put in the time.
3. DON’T BE A DOUCHEBAG WHEN YOU’RE A PROFESSIONAL DESIGNER.
At the end of the term, everyone in the class was rushing to complete our models and presentations. A few days before our final class presentations, our professor said there was going to be a change of plans. Instead of presenting at school, we would be traveling to a local design firm, to present in front of the head designers there, including the founder, who was a close friend of my professor. I think many of us in the class just about died. This was our very first product design project. All of us didn’t know what to do or what to expect, and now we had to present out projects in front of seasoned professionals. Let’s just say that those presentations…were not good. AT ALL. The presentations at the firm were scheduled from 9am to 12pm. That gave about 10 minutes for each student to present, then we would have lunch and go home. Instead, those presentations lasted from 9am to 5pm, with no lunch or breaks of any sort. Why did it take so long? Because that’s what happens when design professionals tear apart every single detail of your project, to make sure you know that you’re a first year student that doesn’t know much about design.
The following final concept sketches were part of my presentation at that design firm. Again, I have no idea why I didn’t make them larger in the presentation.
Yeah, they’re not the best drawings, but they’re okay. Clearly, it’s work from someone who is still learning design. When I finished my presentation, I stood there, nervously awaiting feedback from my professors, as well as the design professionals in attendance. The founder of the design firm told me to go back a few slides in my presentation, back to these drawings. When I did, this is what he said:
These are the worst drawings I’ve seen in my life. Don’t believe that you’re good, because you’re not. I would seriously consider getting out of design, and picking a different major.
Uh, yeah. That hurt. The founder of a local design firm just told me that the one thing I was passionate about—so much so that I went back to school, and worked my way to be one of 18 people selected out of hundreds of applicants—I was not good at doing, and that I should have majored in something else.
I stood there, waiting for my professor to defend me, or say something that, you know, didn’t feel like someone stabbing me in the chest with a dull knife. Instead, all I heard from my professor was, “You know, I told him to ask for my help, but he didn’t…and this is what happens.” For the record, I was never told to ask for help by my professor. Also, if he saw I needed help, that I was struggling, shouldn’t he have just offered it, instead of telling me to ask him for help…? At that moment, I felt like I was being stabbed in the chest with a dull knife AND my professor was now twisting that dull knife. Greeeeaaaaat. However, there was one other professor in the room and he…actually gave me a fair critique. He told me the drawings weren’t great, but they were clean, and detailed. He told me the overall form of the product could be improved, but he understood the idea, and thought it needed more work. This was a critique I expected.
But honestly, those first two critiques? Those are pretty much the same kind of critiques we received later in the program whenever design professionals would attend on our project final presentations. Many designers are fuckin’ douchebags when it comes to critiquing students, and I don’t know why. Is it because they were treated badly by professionals when they were students, so they feel they have to do the same? If so…what kind of thinking is that? What the hell is wrong with them?? All the times I’ve been invited as a professional to critique student work, I actually critique. And you know what? I’ve pointed out some pretty big flaws in students’ work, or have told them that their designs just won’t work. But I always explain why it won’t work, and how they can improve their designs. And I always make sure that the students know that none of what I say should be taken personally. This isn’t an attack on them. I was a student at one point, and I know how it can be. When you’re invited as a professional to critique a student’s work, you do it because you want to help the student grow and learn. You don’t do it as an opportunity to flex your muscles as a professional designer.
I know that I have written a lot on this site about poor designs I’ve seen, many of them being student work. The point of all this isn’t to belittle someone’s work. It’s to point out that maybe the designer’s thinking is off, and that better solutions can be created when the designer really understands the problem at hand. Ideally, professors or other design professionals in the student’s realm would help with this. Then again, I designed the worst looking watering can ever, even with other people’s expertise at my disposal, so I’m sure it depends on the situation at hand.
4. DON’T USE POWERPOINT OR KEYNOTE. ONLY PDF.
This seems like a minor point after the previous one, but it is just as important. When my class was told that we would be presenting at the design firm, we realized this was the first presentation we’d be giving using a computer. Our previous presentations were done with printed boards. Naturally, most students jumped on the Powerpoint bandwagon, with a few of us opting for Keynote. The day of the presentation, we were informed that we would not be using out own laptops to present, but would be using the laptop connected to the projector at the design firm. On the day of the presentation, we found out that the laptop was 2-3 years old, and was running an old version of Microsoft Office. Things did not go well. Some presentations had images missing; some had complete slides missing. Colors and fonts were strangely substituted. The computer froze a few times and had to be rebooted. My Keynote-file-exported-to-Powerpoint had some slides out of order. It was incredibly frustrating for all of us, and honestly, gave the douchebag designers more ammunition to berate our designs. After that day, our class vowed to never use Powerpoint again, and to only create presentations in multi-page .pdf.
Note: my original Reach ‘n Spray presentation from 2005 is available on Slideshare! Feel free to wonder in amazement how a presentation can suck so bad, and ponder why my drawings are so small.