In the beginning…

Posted on 01/03/2020 by IED

Every design can trace its history back to an idea, muses Colin Ledsome CEng FIED

Looking back is a precarious thing to do. I’ve worked on a variety of design projects in several industries. I’ve also had to think up a number of design challenges for students. They usually begin with a broad vision of what might be achieved, but the reality of meeting conflicting requirements and staying within restricted budgets soon cuts ideas down to size. Promising projects may be subject to budget cuts or ‘political’ interference, watering down the result. The final product, if it survives at all, rarely matches up to the initial promise. I’m reminded of a quotation from the author Iris Murdoch:

“I live; I live, with an absolutely continuous sense of failure. I am always defeated, always. Each book is the wreck of a perfect idea. The years pass and one has only one life. If one has a thing at all, one must do it and keep on and on and on trying to do it better.”

Despite that, she has been a very successful author. Design isn’t easy, and the steps between that initial concept and the product in the hands of the customer can be long and frustrating. The initial idea can bubble up from your imagination at any time; waking up in the middle of the night (then trying to remember what it was in the morning), in the bath (more bubbles), or even sitting at your desk.

I remember being at a desk, sitting opposite another engineer, at one end of a drawing office. Our chief draftsman, working close by, suddenly burst out laughing. When we looked up, he said: “That’s what you go to university for. It’s so you can both sit gazing off into space and still look as if you are working hard.”

A major factor in a successful design is the starting point. You must understand what you are trying to achieve. Who is your customer? What do they think they want, at what price? What don’t they know they would be pleased to have by the time it can be made? Today we also have to ask, what will be the environmental impact of manufacture, use and end-of-life processing?

A design concept is usually in response to a work request, but may come out of the blue from an unrelated thought or the sight of something that prompts an idea. Most won’t get far, but the ones that do give enough satisfaction to keep going, even if it is ‘the wreck of a perfect idea.’

Maybe the next one will be better. Keep trying.

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