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The Benefits of Design Language to Engineers

Design language is a powerful tool that adds amazing value to your business. Educating your engineering team on its benefits is key to successfully realizing that value.

Gray McCord

October 18 th 2019 | 5 minute read

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I am an engineer. I’m also going to admit that for many years, my understanding and appreciation of the value of design (sometimes called “industrial design”) and design language was minimal.

My first experience with designers was with a couple of guys in leather pants speaking to me using terms that I did not understand, much less know how to apply to my products. They were very different from me in terms of background and skill. I had no training or experience that could help me evaluate what they were telling me.

Naturally, I immediately rejected their input.

Over the years, however, I have come to understand the value of a well-crafted and well-implemented design language. Applying design language to new product designs results in improved quality, profitability, user experience, and R&D efficiency.

As the technology leader for a product development firm, I frequently work with client engineering teams that have difficulty with “design,” designers, and design language. Many confuse these with the engineering efforts necessary to create products. After all, we’re called “design engineers” for a reason. It also seems the more complex and mission-critical the products these teams develop, the more likely it is they will resist the design language concept. This seems to be true even if the company leadership embraces design language.

As an executive with an appreciation for the value of design and design language, you will likely have to face an engineering team that resists it. How should you deal with this situation? My answer is in two parts.

First, you must educate your team on exactly what a design language is and is not. Get rid of the misconceptions. Second, explain the value of design language to your engineers in terms they understand with a focus on how it benefits them.

That is all.

Of course, while this is simple in concept, it is challenging in practice.

Defining Design Language

What Design Language is not

Before we go any further, let’s look at what the common misconceptions about design language (and design) are from the engineer’s perspective. These are some common statements I hear:

  • “You’re just making it look pretty. Our customers don’t care.”
  • “This just makes my product more expensive and doesn’t add value.”
  • “This is just more work for me.”
  • And of course, words are not needed for this classic (no offense to pigs):

lipstick on a pig

The fallacy that leads to statements like this is the idea that design language is nothing more than a cosmetic addition to a product to make it look pretty. Look your engineers in the eye and say “No. That is not design language!” Yes, a product that is created using design language will look good. However, “looking good” is merely the byproduct of design language’s carefully considered approach to the overall usability and functionality of the product. Repeat as necessary. Be consistent and persistent!

Design Language by Example

I’ll give you a written definition in a moment, but let’s first look at a few examples of companies that implement well-conceived design languages:

deere, apple and bmw design language examples

What do the three companies represented above and their products have in common? Well, nothing really. Except I’m going to bet that if you look at any of the products these companies make next to their competition, you will likely be able to pick them out quickly. John Deere green and yellow. Apple’s clean appearance. The BMW front grille. Why is it that these brands stand out, and why do most of us respond positively to them?

Yes, they all make very high quality products for their markets, but their competition in many cases is just as good or better. That isn’t it.

They are generally more expensive than much of their competition; yet many lower cost products perform just as well.

What makes these products instantly recognizable and “iconic” is simple: design language.

The Definition of Design Language

Communication of a brand promise through visual and experiential elements of a product or family of products expressed as a set of guidelines for the industrial design of future products that balance business objectives and human needs with engineering requirements.

That is certainly a mouthful, so let’s break it down a bit. Design language speaks to what your company desires to communicate to your users, influencers and other stakeholders about what your company is all about. This is called the “brand promise.” Generally speaking, if you want your customers to think about you in a certain way, it is the experience they have with your products that will determine if they received the desired message correctly.

The visual aspects of your product, both hardware and software, hint at what customers can expect, which draws them in. The experience they have with the product validates those expectations. When these two dimensions reinforce each other in a way that is consistent with your desired brand promise, you have the maximum opportunity for success. If either of these contradicts the brand promise, or each other, the customer is likely to have an unexpected experience. This can result in a negative response to your product.

Design language is the framework that prevents these disconnects by systematically providing for positive reinforcement between the brand promise, product expectations, and product experience. And yes, engineers play a key role in this. While the design language will specify how users interact with the product, it is the engineering team that must create the device that consistently meets those requirements!

Design language is not something created for and applied to just a single product. It is a set of guidelines that a skilled designer uses to ensure that multiple, future products provide the consistent brand experience you want to provide to your customers. It is not a set of prescriptive requirements that can or should be implemented by engineers without help. It is a set of guidelines that are interpreted for each new product by a designer within the context of your overall business and technical priorities.

The best results are realized when industrial designers and engineers team up to properly prioritize all of your product requirements, including design language, within the context of your overall business constraints. This is the product development process at work.

Use Design Language to Empower Engineers

You are now armed with the first component you need to educate your engineering team about the value and purpose of design language. You should now be able to have a conversation with them that will lead to the, “Oh, I get it.” moment. However, this is the easy part. The more difficult part is convincing engineers that design language will benefit them. To do that, you must show them how design language can make their jobs easier.

Engineers design to a set of constraints and requirements. This helps focus problem solving toward a solution that meets the needs of the many stakeholders critical to the success of the product. Stakeholders can include your manufacturing team, sales people, regulatory agencies, product service and support, governments, marketing, finance, stockholders, and of course users. When constraints and requirements are fuzzy, incomplete, or perhaps nonexistent, your engineers will be forced to “fill in the blanks” as best they can. This will likely cause a lack of focus on their engineering tasks. This almost always results in products that miss the mark in some way. As a result, your  engineers will spend too much time on tasks that aren’t engineering-related.

Enter design language. Design language addresses a set of product needs that aren’t necessarily related to product functionality but are still critical to stakeholder acceptance. While a design language is not prescriptive, it is still a set of requirements that must be met to achieve product success. From the engineer’s perspective, design language is viewed as another set of constraints. Just as engineers currently consult specialists for other parts of a design (i.e., regulatory, manufacturing process, etc.), they normally work with a designer to interpret the design language appropriately to meet the product’s goals.

So how does design language benefit your engineers?

Simple: improved focus and efficiency.

Design language enables your engineers to do more of what they are great at doing, which leads to better product results. Having a design language in place prior to designing a new product allows your engineers to focus on what they do best (problem solving) on the items they are trained to accomplish (technical design). They no longer spend significant time inventing the user interface, color, button location, and branding application for every product they create. With a design language in place, these are typically fine-tuned by simply consulting a designer. The result is that engineers can focus more energy ensuring that the remaining product needs are met and less on activities that they are likely not trained for.

No longer do they need to re-invent a product’s front bezel for every product version they design. Having a design language makes that task trivial. Endless meetings to determine button placement, the type of display needed for user interfaces, and indicator LED colors become a thing of the past. They can spend that time innovating ways to improve cost, performance, and quality instead. Overall product development accelerates.

Design Language Delivers Improved R&D Efficiency and Improved Business Results

The benefits of design language are not limited to your engineers. The strategic advantage you gain by implementing a design language will enable you to develop more products to serve your customer needs faster than your competition at less cost. Your bottom line will thank you.

For example, scaling an existing product into a new product is now a simple interaction with a designer, not hours creating CAD followed by endless cycles of customer validation and refinement. The efficiency of your engineering team goes up, which means they can now work on more products for a given budget and time frame.

Everyone wins.

This efficiency also scales dramatically with the size and complexity of your business. While engineers in single product-line companies certainly benefit, large multi-divisional / multi-national organizations with complex organizational structures profit exponentially. Using design language when creating products in large organizations dramatically reduces duplication of effort and encourages re-use of design and sharing across teams.

Your engineers ultimately benefit from design language by improving their focus and efficiency. They are free to focus on solving more of the challenges they are trained for and want to solve. They are able to contribute their skills to more projects more often.

Since design language improves the overall stakeholder experience with the products they create, your overall business success benefits as well.

About the Author

Gray McCord – M3 CTO