Back in the late 1950’s. I was involved in the beginning of the Product Design program in the Stanford School of Engineering. The chief instigators were Professor Bob McKim (degrees in mechanical engineering and industrial design), Matt Kahn, a professor of design in the Stanford Art department, and Professor John Arnold (recently hired from M.I.T. to “modernize” the design courses in mechanical engineering. I was then a Lecturer and my credentials were degrees in engineering, a year’s study in art school which included several courses in industrial design, a love of design, and experience in industry. As I remember, Bob McKim was the person most influential in naming the program “product” design, instead of “industrial” design. I thought this a bit strange, since I had been exposed to a lot of conversation with Henry Dreyfuss, an industrial designer (one of the founders of the field with large and influential offices in Pasadena Ca. and New York) who used the same words as Bob. But “Product Design” it became, and many years were spent teaching the university faculty,industry, and the world what these words meant when applied to products requiring an interdisciplinary approach.
Now, “product design” and “design” seem to be favorites in engineering and business, and more and more universities are moving in that direction. Students are very interested in invention and innovation, and courses and projects having to do with such things are cropping up in many parts of these universities. But they often focus on clever, relatively simple products with potential high profit and large potential market. Many start ups are also often based on such things. Certainly such products as Tesla cars, DaVinci surgical robots, and Lockheed spy satellites are not simple, but such things as new apps, software for the internet, and digitally enhanced existing tools and appliances seem to outnumber them.
The lead article in the February 15th New York Times business section is entitled The Invention Mob, and concerns Quirky, a start up that seeks inventions and provides the necessary design, manufacturing, and marketing to get them to market. The article is here. Quirky keeps 90% of the sales, with the rest divided between the inventor (s) and other contributors. Typically the inventor(s) get 4 %. The company seems to be doing well so far, having raised $185 million to date, including $30 million from General Electric, as well as investments from venture capital firms. As to its future, who can say?
But much of this seems to be focused toward clever products that can be thought up and designed by one or a few people, and do not require a large amount of complexity or sophisticated technical sophistication. There is a reason for this, since many would-be entrepreneurs are looking for quick success and ownership, and developments in software and hardware (computer-based design and manufacturing, available software modules, more sophisticated marketing information) have drastically simplified the process of coming up with clever new gadgets with consumer appeal. Clever new products mentioned in the Quirky article include a device for separating egg yolks, a plastic device that inserts into a lemon or lime and becomes a push-button spritzer, a corkscrew that cuts the foil off of a wine bottle and doubles as a pour spout, and a drinking fountain for dogs.
Cute, but perhaps not likely to have large impact on the quality of human life. Quirky is aware of this, and according to the article, is trying to think more at a system level by focusing on the smart home—an anticipated large market. But the example of a smart-home product in the article is an attachment to the motor of a garage door motor allowing it to be controlled by a smart phone. As the article explains, the inventor was growing weary of the hassle of using his garage door opener (poor man). He did not want to take the clicker with him when doing such things as running and taking his kids to the playground, so since he always had his smart phone with him (while running and playing with his kids?), Why not be able to open the door with his smart phone. This is a system?
I am personally very fond of working on products that do involve complexity and many people. I loved working on spacecraft design, testing, and manufacturing at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Hundreds of people were necessary, no one “owned” the products, and no one became rich from them. Nor could single individuals or small groups be thought to “design” them. I worked in design at General Motors a bit, and enjoyed the essential, if sometimes grudging, cooperation between the “engineers” and the “designers”. I was involved in testing at The Air Force Flight Test Center when in the Air Force, and again liked mingling and arguing with a wide range of specialists. When I came to Stanford I was involved in teaching systems engineering and have consulted a lot in connection with product design and development necessarily involving large numbers of people, many disciplines, and continual interactions between functions. I am a subscriber to the viewpoint that to best enjoy Silicon Valley these days, one should have a job in a large organizations (Stanford University in my case), and watch it, rather than experience it through working 24/7 on a start-up developing a highly specialized product . I must admit sometimes I do feel like a member of a minority.
To me, the products that are needed now in the U.S. have to do with transportation, energy, resource management, affordable and uplifting housing, medical care, and other such things that most of us realize need improving, but seem to be neglected with respect to building the “information revolution”. As an example, The U.S. lags terribly in trains. The BART system in the San Francisco is a good system, but needs extending, and upgrading so that one does not need to wear ear plugs. A north-south high-speed train is an obvious need in California, but is being held up by political wrangling. I no longer take U.S. highway 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles, because it is two lanes each direction, and often both lanes are occupied by trucks heroically attempting to pass each other, even though they are both going as fast as they can. And flying? If you are lucky, four hours for one hour in the air.
Were I graduating from college these days, knowing what I now know, I would not try to start a company based on an app or a widget. Nor would I try to become incredibly wealthy (if I did, I might consider lottery tickets). Nor in fact, would I move to Silicon Valley. I would go to work for a reasonably large company in a nice and more affordable area that produces complicated and much needed products that will increase the quality of life for the human race. And the products would be bigger than a bread box.
*For those of you who have never encountered a bread box, they were once a standard fixture in kitchens in which two or three loaves of bread would be kept to minimize the moisture loss (maybe 20 inches square and eight inches high. Bigger (or smaller) than a bread box used to be a commonly used rough magnitude measure. I like the expression and continue to use it around students, even though I pay the cost of explaining what a bread box is.