Non-designers have the misconception that design is easy. Any designer will tell you the polar opposite is true. Design is going up against a master ninja and his army of foot shoulders; when you are little more than a band of misfit humanoid turtle martial artist apprentice junk food eaters.

As humans we all have certain inclinations and abilities towards activities like singing, cooking, entertaining, and being active. From an evolutionary perspective, these traits helped us to survive and be part of a tribe. Many of us may think we have some degree of advanced aptitude at these things, and the people in our lives may be too kind to tell us otherwise. To an extreme, this leads to American Idol auditions blooper reels. I call this “the theory of natural human activity aptitude aggrandizing”. For better or worse, designing and building things are some of these natural skills.

We are also in a unique time in history, with the rise of the maker movement and start up culture. There is high visibility for crowd sourcing success stories like the pebble, the coolest cooler, or companies like Quirky. Look closer at all of these stories and it isn’t pretty. Many have been completed late, under delivered, or gone under. I don’t want to place any specific blame, but I think a certain show, let’s call it “Dangerous Fish Container,” might be a part of the problem.

This is a complex topic, and one without a clear cut cause or resolution, so I am going to try to cut this “abstract idea pizza” into slices so we can scarf it one piece at a time.

pizza-bulletA Historical Perspective

You know the adage of the “lazy” inventor? Of course not, because it doesn’t exist. If you read a biography of any famous inventor, there is one take away you will surely come away with, (cowabunga, dude!) they were work horses. Because design is hard, even for super geniuses who barely sleep. A great and conceptually correct idea may seem to fail during the design process because of some material or equipment issue that is caused by something the designer is unaware of that is out of their control. There may be only one way for things to work, and an infinite number of ways for things not to work. Real materials, real people, real world, and reality is often dirty and grimy, like living in a sewer.

Long gone are the days when engineers were put on a pedestal for feats like putting astronauts into space with little more than a slide rule and their brain. Perhaps we have all grown up never knowing anything besides ever increasing feats of engineering and have become desensitized. But that is a lofty subject for someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson. The reality is that we are in an era where the perception is that engineers are elves in Santa’s (or Keebler’s) workshop, mindlessly hammering at the input until the desired output comes out. The reality is that we are unique craftsman, and if we were all given the same block of marble, few if any would cut away David.

pizza-bulletThe Catch-22 of Great Design

Great design is a paradox. There is a phenomenon where the more elegant a design is, the more obvious it can seem to the first time observer. This is because a great design gets to the essence of something, and essence is hard to describe and conceptualize, but easy to visualize. In the same way a riddle, or trick is easy once presented. A great design seems like it fell from heaven and has always been here. People will exclaim “I could have thought of that!” Well, I could have invested in Apple or avoided ever watching Entourage. But the thing is, I didn’t. Although the design may seem to have been floating on the surface for anyone to grab, the reality is that it was drilled from deep down in the earth’s crust. For this reason great design stands the test of time. There have been improvements in technology that allow for new ways to get to this essence, but the basic principles remain the same. Go to the world’s top design museums and you can see products from decades ago that are still beautiful to look at, still amazingly functional, and that people still want. In contrast, people may look at old computer programs or electronics with nostalgia, but that’s about it.

pizza-bulletWe Make It Look Easy

While I do not claim to be any sort of master, I will humbly say that there are things that I can do pretty durned well and pretty durned fast. The current version of myself could run circles around the rookie version. The work hasn’t changed or gotten any easier, it is simply that my abilities have slowly and almost imperceptibly over time gotten better. This idea has been popularized by the Malcolm Gladwell “10,000 hour rule”. There is an Italian word, sprezzatura, exemplified by renaissance artist such as Raphael that means perfect conduct or performance of something without apparent effort.

A great case study of this in modern day culture is the stand-up comic. Many of the great stand-ups started out bombing. The ones that became great like Seinfeld and Louis C.K. will universally talk about it as a craft that develops through hard work. They describe going out night after night, telling the same joke that at first nobody laughed at, until they are able to tweak the words and timing in subtle and seemingly inconsequential ways. This process often goes on like this for years, just to get okay, and it eventually leads to an hour long performance that appears to the audience effortless and spontaneous. They may even think, that looks fun, I could do that!

pizza-bulletIdeation versus Implementation

The want to be designer has an idea. Their plan is to go into the garage and glue one thing to another thing and presto change-o a new thing! First of all, we designers call it “adhesive”. The end result could be a Carrot Top prop, but nowhere near something ready for market. As a society, we glamorize the “tinkerer toiling away in their garage”. There is one key word “toiling”. People are used to interacting with finished final products all day and don’t see all the sweat, decisions, grime, tears, and burrito farts that went on behind the scenes. Talk to anyone that has brought a product to market, and they will inevitably tell you just how much harder it was than what they had initially thought. Orders of magnitude harder. Once a conceptual design is completed, there is a whole next phase of sourcing, processes, vendors, and regulatory certifications.

It is accepted that if a person wants to create an app or design electronics, there is an obvious barrier to entry (humans don’t naturally do these things). One has to learn to code or do circuit layout. Screw that! I don’t want to learn any stuff I just want the payoff – is what I imagine our little Red Hen designer is thinking. Not to say that one can’t teach themselves what it takes to create software or electronics hardware. People are doing it with great success. But to think that simply by creating a more traditional physical product, they are somehow short cutting the system can be seriously wrong thinking. What people don’t realize, and what I would argue, is that the barrier to entry is as hard as or even harder than software or electronics products, due to the logistics, and the risk is high because of the potential for repair and recall.

I love design. Part of the reason I embrace it is because it is hard, and most things in life that are worth doing are hard. If anyone has a natural inclination and passion for design, I would encourage them to pursue it. My only hope is that they start with a more realistic understanding of what it takes, in order to prevent themselves from falling short of their goal, and consequently cheating themselves and the world from reaping the benefits of their idea.

“The path that leads to what we truly desire is long and difficult, but only by following that path do we achieve our goal.”
– Master Splinter –

Image: TMNT design by Kelton Cram.


Dan Slaski is the Lead Renegade for Renegade Prototyping and your new secret weapon/best friend for design domination. A Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineer with a long list of credentials to accompany his years of industry experience in fields including the medical, robotics, and military sectors. He has designed assemblies with hundreds of unique parts and moving components that have gone high into the earth's atmosphere, deep below the oceans and everything in between. All of this has contributed to his vast portfolio of knowledge dealing with difficult engineering problems, and a wide repertoire of skills in prototyping, manufacturing, and sourcing. Yet he still finds a way to remain humble. If you have a project that demands success you need to get on his client list ASAP.