Bridging the design gap: Interview with Gus Desbarats, TheAlloy

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

Industrial designers and design engineers need to work together, but do not often do so well, according to Gus Desbarats. Paul Fanning reports.

Gus Desbarats believes that the UK's engineers have a major shortcoming, which he sums up as: "Human behaviour is not taught in engineering school." Coming from a leading industrial designer who has spoken widely about the strained relationship between engineers and industrial designers, this could easily be taken as yet another manifestation of this long-standing friction.

This would be a misconception, however. Not least because Desbarats is an engineer himself, having gained a degree in mechanical engineering in his native Canada before coming to London to train in Industrial Design at the Royal College of Art (he also has a degree in Systems Engineering from Imperial College).

These qualifications have taken Desbarats to the top of his profession. He is chairman of leading product design company The Alloy, as well as being the chair of trade body British Design Innovation and having acted as an advisor to the Government on technology.

He is thus better placed than most to pronounce on the gap he feels exists between engineers and industrial designers and to bemoan its impact. While he concedes that design is his first love and that studying engineering was largely a means of ensuring he was "taken seriously" in his desire to design cars, he nonetheless remains proud of his engineering training, proudly drawing attention to the 'pinky' ring commonly given to Canadian-trained engineers on graduation.

Desbarats believes that the root of the misunderstanding between designers and engineers lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the two roles and how they need to interact. "The biggest problem we face," he says, "is when the R&D or engineering team we're working with doesn't see presentation as being something of value – they see it as a necessary evil. Therefore, they want to get someone to 'draw them a picture' and then get out of the way."

He accepts that designers are as much at fault as engineers in this mutual misunderstanding, citing a tendency in the past by certain designers to be "primadonna-ish". He says: "There are certain practitioners who would like you to believe that they are the geniuses and that's just not a professional model and doesn't work in good companies, but the caricatures are still lingering."

He describes the result of this friction as: "So you have the twin problems of engineers who don't value design and designers who don't respect the risks that they own. Sadly, there are too many of both in this country."

Clearly, then, Desbarats' company TheAlloy sets out to work in a very different way. He says: "We have one or two degree-qualified engineers, but what we do is teach people to understand the engineering risks they control: space; cost; understanding how a tool is made; understanding about undercuts, volume, stress and all these things. I believe that you don't need a full engineering degree to manage engineering risk."

One of the key roles played by the industrial designer, believes Desbarats, is to help the client manage human and aesthetic factors early in the process to ensure a commercially successful end product. "This," he claims, "is the bit that engineers struggle with. What we do is not deterministic: there are no equations we can run to predict the future. But what we do is run a continuous series of very rapid prototyping experiments. Because people react so positively to the superficial, you can show it to them before you engineer it and know that they will like it. This is where industrial design functions as risk reduction. It's crazy to go off and engineer something without testing how people are going to react to it."

This, he believes, is where many design projects fail. "Most innovations fail not because they don't hit their goals, but because they don't set the necessary goals in the first place," he says. This, he claims, is a lesson he learnt from his experience designing the body for the Sinclair C5 in the early 1980s, saying: "I had to work around the package I had, so I sculpted the forms, made it look modern, but the fact was that people were sitting at a very low eyeline height in a very exposed position – just not a way in which you're comfortable on a road. The psychological novelty and discomfort of the eyeline and the seating position was enough to kill that concept right from the start. I love [Sir] Clive [Sinclair] to bits and he's a great man in many ways, but he just had some real blind spots when it came to human behaviour."

This failure to connect between the engineer and the designer has, Desbarats believes, had a negative effect on British industry for many years. Indeed, he cites it as a key reason why many brilliant British technologies have not succeeded commercially. He says: "We need to get the message across to British manufacturing: we're creative, you're creative, but we have different skills. Let's work together to get a good end result."

An eye for design
Gus Desbarats has been designing and directing award-winning, commercially successful, innovation, continuously, for the last 28 years, for some of the world's top brands. In 1999 he founded TheAlloy, a leading, employee-owned, design consultancy undertaking product, interaction and service design as well as innovation strategy.

Desbarats advises and speaks frequently on why and how organisations can use a human-centric 'experience led' innovation approach to achieve better results, especially when the technology and value chains are complex. He will be speaking at the event as chairman of British Design Innovation, to highlight the need for a stronger voice for Industrial & Service design in the UK and to promote the role the BDI is playing to raise the profile and perceived value of all the designers in this space.


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