In the past decade, few design trends for electronic devices have had such a seismic impact as the revolution of smallness. It’s not just that the sizes of devices have shrunk; the mindsets of designers and the whole culture of design have shifted toward all things Lilliputian.
I’ve been an industrial designer for many years, and recently, while I was attending a medical device conference, I began to think about downsized designs and the effect that they’ve had on designers and device users. While medical device developers, as well as some others, have largely continued to observe the “form-follows-function” mantra of yesterday, I am spending most of my time focused on the mantra of smallness. Many of us designers are now dealing with problems that scale down to one-tenth of a millimeter, and our clients are, too.
Great skill at design and development of diminutive things is seen as a novelty by some, but is in fact rare — and in high demand. The types of decision-making and talents required to do effective design of small things differ quite widely from norms in the overall design field. Increasingly, these talents are differentiating the design leaders from the losers.
To get a sense of how companies and designers alike are affected by this trend, consider, for example, a design problem involving integrating electronics, batteries, an antenna and other components into the slimmest possible product possible. Is this just an engineering task? No, it’s a company-wide problem to solve, affecting product branding and more. Designers must develop the best possible relationships with clients and employers to solve such problems in a holistic way.
Here are some bottom-up ideas for designers and those who work with them to consider, especially when optimizing work done at the small scale:
- Management of vendors and manufacturers that you work with is critical. These are collaborative relationships where it may be very important for, say, a part provider to actually deliver products at below tenth-of-a-millimeter accuracy. Accuracy and skill at these kinds of tasks are rare. These days, a supplier who delivers “OK” quality can actually be a strategic impediment to an entire organization.
- Off-the-shelf part selection is essentially over. If you’re in need of a strategic part, you’d better secure a good source for it and work collaboratively with that source. Customization is in high demand. Components in devices now need to be nested optimally alongside others, which almost always rules out the use of off-the-shelf parts.
- Establishing a collaborative product design process means new kinds of interdependencies within organizations. No longer is it fine to just say, “First, let’s define the core of our technology, then let’s productize it with some secondary technology and then we’ll package it and ship it.” Customizing and optimizing parts and designs that are tiny and perfect requires that core technology and design teams work effectively with marketing, sales, and operations teams on branding and many more issues.
- Management has to adjust to new design paradigms that go on at the small scale. Executives overseeing the production of devices and components implemented at the small scale can’t get by with half-hearted, uninvolved managerial gestures. They may need to know exactly how a piece of detail done at the sub-millimeter level affects an overall product, or know when an engineering team has reached physical limits.
These days, device designers are used to hearing the annoying refrain that “This device is going to be bigger than the iPhone.” More likely than not, if a product really is going to be that big, it’s because shrewd people were thinking about small things.
Gadi Amit is president of NewDealDesign.