What is the Problem with Digital Design?

Tucker Marion, Sebastian Fixson and Marc H. Meyer, writes a wonderful piece for the MIT Sloan Management Review on the challenges of Digital Design without good Design Management. Here is an excerpt:

So, what’s the problem? There are potentially two. First, because the technology makes the work look complete at every step in the process, it can create a false sense of security. There can be a tendency to move on to the next stage in the process before teams have taken the time to deeply learn user needs, construct alternative solutions and vet both of these. In other words, the “fuzzy front end” of the design process may be cut short — to the company’s long-term disadvantage. This is, we believe, one of the major reasons product failure and success rates have changed little over the past several decades.
Second, the very ease with which designs can be digitally drafted and prototyped might afford engineers the opportunity to “try it again and then, again and again.” In other words, the final design process can remain fluid longer than is useful. The ability to quickly iterate designs can lead to a spiraling effect, chewing up time and labor expense and effectively mitigating the benefits of digital design itself. Research has shown that these “virtual design rounds” can account for 75% of total project development costs, and they can delay project completion. For example, Airbus suffered severe delays in the development of its new A380 due to issues with CAD revisions

While this is something I have observed anecdotally in my years in the industry, the authors have backed it up with some good research. The reality is that engineers and designers should NOT be designing in CAD. Period. The only time someone should get into CAD is when the design direction is finalized and you need a dimensionally resolve a design.
The challenge going forward is that CAD is getting really easy to use these days. So the problem becomes an issue of process and as the authors say an over emphasis on CAD leads to team shortchanging “…valuable activities such as extensive user research, intensive parallel concept development, and deeper systems and architecture design as part of the front end of development.”
This fuzzy up-front work should be kept fuzzy. However if CAD is brought in too early in the process, things look too complete. Especially when you throw V-Ray into the mix. Furthermore, you do not want a client to latch on to an idea early in the process, especially if you don’t really know if it is going to work of if the inside is not even shelled!
The author’s second insight on the repeated iteration problem is an interesting one. In many ways it feeds into a designer’s creation engine and his or her passion for perfection. A designer could spend a whole bunch of time tweaking radius and curves just to ensure it’s “right”. Again this supports the notion to stay out of CAD until the design is done.
Another way to look at it is that, if you find yourself tinkering around a design, it is time to step away from the computer and either get back to sketching or making foam models.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not have anything against CAD. I would even consider myself an expert in Rhino and have also been extensively trained in advance surface modeling in Pro-E. But just like a pencil, CAD is a tool and we should be very aware of what it can do and it’s limitations (which are often difficult to see).
Anyways check out the rest of the article, as it has some great real-world examples. Enjoy!

  • Blockbuster Diva

    September 14, 2012 at 12:08 am Reply

    Well if it can make the task easier for the person, I don’t see why he can’t immediately use CAD. It all boils down to how comfortable you are with the process of doing your projects. Maybe taking time can make it better.

  • Chewbyka

    September 13, 2012 at 9:41 am Reply

    The problems highlighted with CAD design software are analogous to any contemporary software
    Software makes the process look easy and therefore is used as replacement for good process, discipline and skills – CAD software does not make a draughtsman/designer, MS Project does not make a project manager, MS Word does not make an author or MS Excel an accountant – but they all make the task ‘look’ easy!

  • Guillaume

    September 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm Reply

    I work in the energy industry as an engineer, and i can not aggree with you more.
    People tend to think that the tool can replace the process…
    So we all end up “playing” with the tool, and forget what are the inputs and the outputs of our work.

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