Getting Your Hands Dirty – the Practical Side of Design

The world of design has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Once, design studios were filled with drafting tables and cork pin boards. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find Cintiq tablet monitors atop open plan desks, manned by smaller, more integrated teams. And instead of today’s precisely-accurate prototypes – 3D printed in hours, it previously took weeks to hand make models and in comparison these were a poor facsimile of the final design. As times change, so too do the ways we design and create – but has the practical, hands-on element of design been lost to time?

Robert Pataki, Melbourne-born designer of the world’s first PowerBoard says there’s not enough emphasis on “getting your hands dirty,” in the design world. Over the years, funding cuts to university workshops and an influx of design students has changed the way designers have learned to operate – putting more emphasis on the virtual elements of a product rather than being grounded on its physical constraints, materials or production processes. Kate Bisset-Johnson, senior lecturer in Industrial Design at Swinburne adds to this, claiming that students have become “seduced” by Computer Aided Design (CAD), which can trick you into believing the ultimate product will work, because CAD looks so finished and complete.

Take, for instance, touchscreens in modern cars. In theory, they’re aesthetically clean, technically advanced and allow you to precisely control all of your car’s functions from one point.

However, in practice these systems require direct attention and multiple inputs to perform any task. For example, in older cars selecting heating or music was as clear and simple as turning a knob or pressing a single button – a far cry from navigating through today’s multi-level menu options to turn the fan up or down.

While you’re driving a car, this is counter-intuitive, not to mention potentially deadly. Obviously, the designers of these early touchscreens were more enamoured with the technology than truly improving the user experience.

At Cobalt, we know the practical, and not the theoretical or digital, has to be at the core of every design. Safety, simplicity, and ease-of-use are paramount to the user experience. You could spend days and days of looking at a design through a computer screen – and while it may look fantastic, that doesn’t mean it’s going to perform well – if at all.

According to Warwick Brown, one of Cobalt’s Principals, “the importance of the three Ps (physical, practical and production) within the design process is paramount. Good theories have to work in tandem with tangible evidence, and we’ve spent over twenty years balancing these two over every project.” Both Cobalt’s designers and our engineers are in our prototyping workshop as often as each other, creating an integrated team which produce great product outcomes. Simply put – we know how to get our hands dirty and make products that work as good as they look.

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