the design issue

My September column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

This month Mechanical Engineering is all about design, with a bend toward the human side.

The true essence of design is, after all, rooted in the human element, as it is meant to stimulate the senses. Aesthetics is a big part of it, as is functionality and ease of use. But the complexities of design are broad.

In consumer products, for example, design focuses on how it touches the user—from product to packaging, to market, to how it makes the customer feel when he takes it home and uses it. It is a long-term engagement. It is the human factor.

From an organizational perspective, design is driven from the top. Successful industry executives understand the importance of engaging in a strong relationship with the creative side of the business. They nurture creativity and innovation and also the success of cross-function teams, such as marketing and engineering.

From a designer’s perspective, it’s about understanding that failure is part of the process. It is through refining and redefining an original design that a designer can meet the highest standards and achieve the greatest success.

In the shadows of the bright lights cast by big-ticket consumer product designers lies another kind of designer, one who works without much ballyhoo. He’s the one that designs for people living in developing countries.

For this issue, we called on nine designers from different fields—among them are engineers, architects, and even a physicist—who are working on devices and systems developed locally and aimed at consumers who live on less than $4 a day. Every designer, regardless of her customer, is inspired by inherent creative forces—those who focus on the developing world are also inspiring, in their own right.

Amos Winter, one of those designers we talked with, says in his introduction to our special section that a key to working in developing countries is designing with local stakeholders, not just for them. “People have an intimate knowledge of their own environments and their needs as consumers, and the challenge for us is how to connect with them.”

What Winter points to is a fundamental lesson successful designers have long ago learned: A design, regardless of its aesthetic appeal, is worthless unless it successfully responds to a need. James Skakoon and Michael Wiklund explore this concept further in their article, “The Human Touch.”

We bring you a number of other design perspectives as well: David Prawel talks about the paradoxes of CAD; Kazuhiro Saitou discusses designs that recognize their inevitable demise and disassembly; and Harry Cheng and his collaborators tell us about robots that can adapt to conditions. Fittingly, we are also including a supplement from ASME’s Design Engineering Division.

When we set out to plan this issue of Mechanical Engineering we hoped to piece together a mosaic of different voices that would combine to tell a story, the story of design… in the real world. Let me know if we’ve succeeded.

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

September 2011

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