Design in engineering: “There’s no room to be a prima donna”

Tight deadlines and billion-pound investment mean that engineering is one of the most demanding design sectors — so how can you maintain high quality in equally high-pressured environments?

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Rockwell Collins business class designed by New Territory

There is not much worse for an aviation company than a plane crash. Suffering two is even more catastrophic.

After Boeing’s twin-jet, the 737 Max, had a fatal crash in 2019 on a flight to Kenya, only five months after a crash on its way to the Philippines in 2019, people understandably sought answers. Combined, the crashes killed a total of 346 people.

Adam Dickson, an engineer who worked at Boeing for more than thirty years, blamed the working environment.

He told BBC Panorama that the “culture was very cost-centred” and “incredibly pressurised”.

“Certainly what I saw was a lack of sufficient resources to do the job in its entirety,” Dickson said.

Dickson’s portrayal of the design process is bleak but the “incredible” pressure is, in some ways, understandable: engineering projects have big budgets.

Whether it’s a new aircraft, high-speed railway or other infrastructural project, conflicts of interest — between cost-focused management and design teams — can lead to compromise or worse, poorly designed products.

Is it possible for companies to ensure a productive environment where the design process is not only efficient but potentially forward-thinking?

Dickson’s portrayal of the design process is bleak but the “incredible” pressure is, in some ways, understandable: engineering projects have big budgets.

Whether it’s a new aircraft, high-speed railway or other infrastructural project, conflicts of interest — between cost-focused management and design teams — can lead to compromise or worse, poorly designed products.

Is it possible for companies to ensure a productive environment where the design process is not only efficient but potentially forward-thinking?

“You have to be strategic from the start”

Paul Priestman, the co-founder of PriestmanGoode, a design consultancy which specialises in transport, product and environment design, says that there is a danger to viewing design as a “sprinkling of styling” when it comes to engineering.

This “dissonance” — compared to fashion or interiors where design is more “integrated” — means that designers have to be “strategic” about their projects from the start.

Priestman says that senior management, and anyone who is not involved in the design process intimately, will be “sceptical” from the start.

“When design is seen as a hindrance, rather than a benefit, there’s a culture that’s always looking to catch out and stop the design process,” Priestman says. “If you fall into that trap, it’s going to cost twice as much.”

A balancing act

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PriestmanGoode oversaw the internal environment at Heathrow Terminal 5.

It is a balancing act — a way of “working with people” and their different priorities.

Priestman, who is also global creative director for China-based CRRC Sifang, one of the largest locomotive companies in the world, says that it’s understandable for clients to worry about expensive design processes.

From the design side, he says: “You have to learn how to let go and when to dig your heels in.”

“There’s no room for being a prima donna,”Priestman says. “The things we design require millions – or billions – pounds worth of investment, and you have to think about that on many levels.”

The “saddest” result is one where the final “design doesn’t do any good whatsoever”.

The key, Priestman says, is to create a “simple idea” that everyone involved in its development can “latch” onto.

When he was overseeing the internal environment of Heathrow’s Terminal 5, his “philosophy” was that the design should be modular. The idea was simple; the wayfinding, graphics and signage had to be flexible in relation to the fixed surroundings.

Fostering a “consistency” means that everyone – not only the designers – can get behind a project and understand what they are aiming towards. This prevents conflict and streamlines the process.

“Often the designer is the only person saying: What about sustainability?”

While the company has had some “brilliant” clients, Priestman says that there has been work where he looks at a project and thinks: “If only they’d done that differently.”

One problem, he says, is that engineering companies can work to a “political cycle”.

Engineering projects often take five years to a decade, so if a senior member of management does not see a benefit to a part of the design — a sustainability feature, for example — it is unlikely to be approved.

“The champions within companies who say, ‘we absolutely need to do this’ are the unsung heroes,” Priestman says. Without these internal “champions”, the designer can often be side-lined.

Priestman says: “When everyone else if wrapped up in cost and time, the designer can be the only one in the room saying: ‘What about sustainability?’”

Public opinion as a driving force

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A conceptual drone campaign produced by PriestmanGoode

If it is just the designer pushing sustainability, it might not get through. Priestman says that the driving force will mostly likely be public opinion.

He recalls a hotel the consultancy was overseeing. Usually hotel bathrooms are made from plastics, built off-site in a factory and fitted into the rooms. That means when they’re taken apart, they’re removed and left on the scrapheap – not a sustainable practice.

The hotel was worried about the negative press that would result if photos were taken of discarded bathroom units, so opted for a more modular and environmentally-friendly solution. Is this what is going to advance design processes in a sector that is so cost-centred?
“It’s a little cynical but as long as it happens,” Priestman says.

There are practical measures that can be put in place to encourage change. PriestmanGoode became employee-owned in 2016 in an attempt to “empower” its workforce and “ensure the legacy of the company”, for example.

It also takes time out to run self-initiated campaigns, without briefs.

In 2018, it launched a conceptual drone campaign — reimagining how drones might be implemented in the city — which Priestman said was so popular that the studio was contacted by clients asking if they could reimagine their product in a similarly lateral way.

Its most recent project is an exhibition exploring travel waste, which might seem unexpected for a consultancy with such a transport-based focus.

“That piece of understanding and learning wouldn’t have been commissioned by a client, because it’s not got a necessary output,” Priestman says. “We just went out and looked and  came to conclusions, and that’s the luxury of being able to operate in this way.”

“Higher purpose”

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The EAV Cargo 2 bike, developed by New Territory

Luke Miles, co-founder of New Territory, a “creative lab” that explores design processes for the travel sectors, tries to find a “higher purpose” to drive design forwards. Although this might sound lofty, it is engineering projects which hinge on design innovation that he is really interested in.

“You can see businesses where you know there’s been a higher purpose and in turn, it gives a designer a higher purpose.”

Miles, who worked at Nokia, LG Electronics and Virgin Atlantic before setting up New Territory, says that having a “higher purpose” doesn’t just give the designer a sense of purpose — it affects the whole company.

He points to the story about American president John F. Kennedy visiting the NASA headquarters for the first time in 1961. When Kennedy introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor, he asked what the janitor did at NASA. The janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

What Miles is getting at is that a unified vision can have benefits for businesses.

“It helps you target the types of people you want to work with — to filter ideas and opportunities,” he says.

“Realigning people around a common goal often speeds a process up.”

“There’s a moment where you can unlearn things”

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The Zodiac Aerospace Desire Lines prototype, courtesy of New Territory

Miles says that a company overhaul can harness the full potential of the “exciting” engineering sector. When it launched in 2014, New Territory had a “pedigree” with aircraft interiors and consumer technology, but Miles says the company had a “moment where we thought we should be talking more about movement overall”.

“The sphere of ‘mobility’ lets us consider how we live, work and move broadly,” he says. “Mobility isn’t just about moving people, it’s about moving goods, how you get from one place to another, and connecting the dots between different sectors on that journey.”

This holistic approach, Miles says, means that designers are able to create a more “seamless and enjoyable” experience.

Part of this re-thinking is only possible at smaller consultancies — New Territory has around 12 employees. Their size gives the consultancy an adaptability that bigger companies lack, Miles believes.

“There’s a moment when you can unlearn things that might be around you in a larger company,” Miles says. “We’re at that scale where we can give a sharper point of view.”

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