Design should always be involved in the early phases of projects, right?
One of the key things in using design is timing: when should design and designers be brought into development processes and projects? The answer to this question seems self-evident: as early as possible because that’s when key decisions are made concerning, strategy, resourcing and the overall direction of development projects.
Moreover, if we are to design more sustainable products, it is the early phases of development where we should pay specific attention to issues such as material choice — and whether user needs are best met by products in the first place, but rather by services.
This is also how I thought for a long time, but as I began to study design in complex product development (shipbuilding and the development of the Viking Line Grace cruise ferry to be exact), I came to realise that things are not that simple.
For example, some textbooks suggested that design integration should be scheduled depending on the type of the product, while research papers would call for more studies on how development contexts influence design management (and timing) or outline how discontinuous R&D projects influence the role of design (and marketing). Studies and textbooks on complex products and systems and shipbuilding further underlined that the early phases of complex development processes are very uncertain, which means that extensive reworking of design and development issues in later phases is commonly required, beyond a normal level of design iteration.
What I discovered in my own research was that the issue was not necessarily about whether designers should join projects at the early phase, but rather a question of when does “the early phase” actually take place and how definitive it is in the grand scheme of things. As a result, I concluded that bringing in designers at the earliest phases is not always the best integration strategy, especially when dealing with complex products and systems.
So how did I come to this conclusion?
Searching for “the early phase” of complex product development
The first element behind the conclusion I arrived at is about the definition of when and where projects and processes actually begin. Complex development projects may take years of work and tend to result from an accumulation of multiple converging developments over a potentially extended period of time. As a result, defining an exact project start may sometimes be difficult.
Indeed, as I interviewed designers and developers and studied documentation of the Grace project which ended in early 2013, some referred to an earlier project initiated around 2007 between the to be ship buyer and a different shipyard as somewhat influential in setting the stage for the Grace project, but not to the extent that it would have limited design freedom of the designers joining the project around 2009 and 2010. Further, as it turned out, the ship architectural design had been scrapped midway in the project around the end of 2009 to come up with something that did not resemble ships designed twenty years earlier.
Other development areas in the project, such as the use of liquified natural gas as a fuel, had been in Viking Line’s plans for about a decade prior to the Grace project. So, not only did early phase design turn out to be influential only in a limited way, but it was uncertain how far into the past “the early phase” practically stretched.
The second element behind my conclusion relates to the complex and nested architecture of complex products and their development processes. Complex products typically consist of thousands of different parts — for instance, 250,000 in a crude oil carrier — which are more or less interdependent of each other. It is therefore notable that an entire ship architectural design can be scrapped in the middle of a project, and that designers entering the project around its halfway point consider having a great degree of design freedom.
As I learned through my research, there were distinct time periods for different kinds of design activities — rather than an open stage at “the early phase” of the project. For example, designers developing the ship architecture around the 2009–2010 period also fiddled with interior design, but as they knew they were not going to be involved in designing it later, they did not put deep effort into it. Also, the interior designers had begun working in the project way past its midpoint only in 2011 — in a project that put a premium on new kinds of experiences on the sea! These kinds of seemingly late integration times were not at all harmful for the end product — the ship has been awarded for exterior, interior and architectural design and it had a great deal to do with increases in passenger volumes, market share and profit for Viking Line.
A different set of issues to consider
These insights point to that there was not a single “early phase” in the project where all design issues could be defined, but rather multiple early phases where it was possible to influence different design issues in the project. Moreover, given that the needed design capabilities changed over the course of the project, not all designers were involved in the project throughout its duration — nor did they operate as a single and unified group in the project.
While it may seem ideal to involve all different designers in complex development projects as early as possible, it may be practically impossible as it would likely result in long and costly idle periods for the designers — unless the designers are widely competent in the industry in question and have extensive resources to implement design work at scale. In the Viking Grace project, this was specifically avoided to achieve a more innovative design and develop the passenger experience to a new level.
Therefore, the best impact from design is not always achieved by introducing it early on to projects and processes with the assumption that those involved in the early phase are capable or working, and actually do work in the project throughout its entire duration.
Instead, as complex development projects and processes need different kinds of design expertise in different phases, integration strategies need to be more precise and define what specific business or experience goals are to be met by design in the different phases of a complex project. For instance, ship interiors are typically best designed as late as possible in order to ensure them being up-to-date once the ship sails away from the shipyard and enters operation.
And although design may be able to influence the “big issues” in early phases of complex development processes, the big issues do not directly determine what happens later in the development processes. Instead, early phase design is better seen as providing a boundary and direction for later phase design. The way how this works is illustrated in the figure (below). As the figure outlines, different phases of complex product development projects have different issue sets for design, engineering, manufacturing, marketing etc. During development, different issue sets become “open” in the process at different times and not all design issues can be solved in the earliest of “early phases”.
But if the early phase is not the best way to define when to integrate design, what is? Stay tuned for another post where I dig deeper into how complexity gets managed in complex product and system development processes.