Where's the Grill?

By now, as you are reading this, you've likely become bored of the Tesla Model 3 coverage. I will summarize it very quickly so you don't leave just yet. Tesla has introduced their $35k car for the masses (to the tune of over 300,000 pre-orders as I type this); its got one giant screen, and looks like an upmarket version of the new Mazda 3 (this is a good thing). One of the most stunning design elements of the car is the lack of front grill.  It has also caused a lot of uproar in the enthusiast, and non enthusiast community. So much so, that Elon Musk himself has responded to the squeaky wheels via Twitter, commenting that some  tweaks to the front end are being considered.

Hopefully none of these "tweaks" include adding a faux grill. The omission of a grill is an incredibly bold and exciting design decision that makes onlookers feel, well, rather uncomfortable. That uncomfortable feeling is one of the most exciting reactions that I have had when reacting to an automobile in a long time. It was like seeing the Ferrari FF (2 door hatchback) or angel eye headlights on the 5 series BMWs in the early 2000s. This lack of design element is not only fun and cool, but its functionally sound. The Tesla 3 (like all Teslas) has no internal combustion engine, therefore no radiator that necessitates a grill to feed it air. The Model S has a faux grill, which I can forgive, as it was Tesla's first large scale roll out and taking a chance like this was riskier at the time.

With billions of dollars of orders on Tesla's book, there shouldn't be any motivation to pander to the haters. Just because we've been conditioned over the years to expect to see a grill in that spot doesn't mean one should be inserted artificially. My hat's off to the design team at Tesla for making such a beautiful decision, and it will be off to Mr. Musk as well, if he stands by his guns.

What is Product Design?

If you were to search the internet for a firm to help you design your product, you'd likely be lead to an agency that creates digital experiences; mobile, web, native apps, things like that. This has been the thorn in the side of the industrial designer for the past half decade or so. We have been interchanging product design and industrial design for decades, so that designation belonged to us. This was my mindset until doing a bit more research.

I was listening to the Hustle Podcast, which is produced by a mobile application agency here in Austin called Fun Size. The designers on the particular episode I was listening to were explaining that they prefer to call themselves Product Designers, because their role was comprised of more than just UX, Visual Design, or UI specifically, but incorporated all of those things and more. They were designing the entire Product, which they referred to the definition on Wikipedia which explained that a product is "anything that can be offered to a market that might satisfy a want or need."

In this context, I had to admit, Product makes sense for both. Whereas we Industrial Designers typically think of the definition of product being something physical that you can hold, there doesn't seem to be a good case of why it should be limited to that. Furthermore, when you look at what "Industrial Design" really means, I would argue that it is deeper than "Product Design" in the specific world of manufactured goods. Industrial Design, in my opinion, implies the consideration of manufacturability, engineering, marketing and ultimately large scale production. Product Design, when applied to physical objects is less specific, with fewer implications of these factors in it's connotation.

Maybe we held onto "Product Design" with such tenacity because almost no one outside of our industry knows what Industrial Design means. "Oh you design factories?" Let's not get started on that can of worms just yet.

Consult an Expert

I once owned a BMW and it was the best car I’ve ever driven and the worst car I’ve ever owned. Maybe that’s not fair to the car. The problem wasn’t that it was fundamentally a bad car, I just couldn’t afford it. It was out of my price range when I bought it used, and therefore each maintenance issue that would arise would either be put off or send me further into debt. When the battery went bad, the bill was several hundred dollars. I did some research online and found what the MacGyver type home mechanics were recommending as a replacement and decided that I would rather spend $80 at Autozone and buy the battery that was “pretty much the same.”

I bought it, installed it, and was pretty proud of myself for a day or two. The regret overtook the pride soon after when the car started shorting out when taken over increasingly small bumps. I tried to tighten the battery down and shim it into place to no avail. I put my tail between my legs and took it back to the BMW mechanic, who promptly told me the ill fitting battery caused some electrical arcing, ruining the wiring harness it was connected to. I was very close to causing a fire in the car and possibly totalling the whole thing. I ended up paying much more than the $300 I was originally quoted.

That experience taught me quite a bit, namely, it pays to hire an expert and not cut corners. This is a lesson that I have been reminded of several times as a professional designer. Often times we have prospective clients come in that have hired a novice to do some preliminary work, and want us to make it into a functional product. Time after time, the concepts are not created with manufacturing or electrical components in mind and have little to no chance of making it to market. When you work with teams that have years of experience in product development, it's easy to spot those pitfalls and avoid them, making an elegant and exciting product that has the engineering and manufacturability built in. I can’t blame the entrepreneur for trying to save some money, I have been in those shoes. It can be a hard lesson to learn, but it ends up saving money to hire an expert the first time.

Subtle Design

“Wow, how did they do that?!” This is something that I exclaim quite often. The first time my wife heard me say it she was startled and excited, until she realized that I was trying to figure out how a manufacturer hid a parting line so well, or put a texture on an undercut and still pulled it from a mold. She has learned to ignore these outbursts, but I’m not able to overlook minute details on just about every product I interact with on a daily basis.

More than simply molding details, there are myriad decisions and details that adorn our things, and I am left to wonder, am I the only one who noticed this? Of course, the answer is no, I am not. A quick survey at work will be met with many interested responses from other designers, many of whom had the same thoughts previously. So sure, other people, especially industrial designers and mechanical engineers notice these things, but are they noticed by the general public? I would argue that the answer to that question is trivial.

Whether or not someone notices the interesting parting line strategy on their television remote, subtle texture change on their marker cap or clever placement of an audio port on their headphones is moot. These fine details, that designers painstakingly perfect, add to the overall feel of quality instilled in a product. Even if it’s a subconscious experience, quality is always felt. I hope there are some geeks like me out there that appreciate the attention to detail I obsess about when working on my designs, but I’ll settle for a general appreciation of a quality product.