Design Creep

In a post last week, I briefly mentioned the concept of design creep, not realizing that many of you might not know what that meant. Since Grimreader and I have had a lot of experience with the problem, we decided to have some fun explaining the concept. Follows is this post written by Grimreader. Thanks Eric.
The title of this is not a reference to one of those pencil-thin mustache, used-car salesman types (“oh, no, here comes ‘The Design Creep”). It refers to a design that starts at point A and ends up on the diametrically opposite side of the planet. Sometimes this is a result of deliberate and unethical planning by one of the parties in order to get more than was paid for, but more often it results from endless tweaks to the original by overzealous technicians whose hearts are in the right place, but who have no idea how little cash is actually on hand. So, in order:

From the designer, the design creep is going to be like the former type. Is this the designer not actually knowing what they are asking for or the result of trying to get something for nothing? Try this test:

Is the designer dumber than a box of rocks and nastier than The Soup Nazi?
If so, then it’s probably design creep from ignorance. You can try educating the designer, but with a School of Hard Knocks lesson, like Kathleen used with the designer who didn’t want to hear about zippers in the pencil skirt.

Is the designer knowledgeable and friendly?
Does s/he want something “like a t-shirt, only completely different”? Then s/he’s probably trying to get something for nothing. Meet him half way: give him nothing for nothing, or better yet, just the t-shirt with some scratched-in changes.

On the the other hand, design creeps from engineers and technicians are almost always the result of overzealousness. It’s sorta like “Hey, let’s add this feature, then, if we do that, we need a bigger power supply, then, if we do that, it has to get bigger”. You start out trying to design a 1964 VW Beetle and before you know it, you end up with a Boeing 767. Here are two examples of design creep by engineering:

In 1501, some guys with the Wool Guild wanted some yard art, something roughly the size and shape of a lawn jockey. They commissioned champion yard-art maker Michel A. Buonarotti, who took 3 years to finish the ornament. Why? Well, it seems that he had this 17 foot piece of rock that he thought should be used for something, and this seemed like the perfect project. Today, it keeps the doors open in a gallery in Florence.

The Pontiac Aztek. Actually, this is an example of something designed by committee, but rather than arriving at consensus, they simply voted for every feature requested by every member of the committee. Butt ugly exterior? Check. Useless accoutrements? Check, check, check. Also, this design is creepy, so I get bonus points.

There is a natural conflict between marketing and engineering: marketers promise more than is currently available and insist engineers can do it easily, engineers never want to call the design finished and feel that marketing insists on unrealistic release dates. The trick is finding out exactly how much or little the customer wants, needs, and/or desires, and how much they are willing to pay for those features. There are a host of formal mechanisms for doing this: market surveys, focus groups, Quality Function Deployment (QFD), and so on. The problem is that most design shops don’t have access to this data, so they add on what they think customers want. And if they have a long development process, it will be months before they get any feedback. Information is costly.

Further compounding the problem is the fact that the people with the data don’t understand the development process, the costs and risks incurred and weighed in the development process, or the costs of production. Again, information is costly.

Design creep usually stems from lack of direction and knowledge of the trade offs, so an integrated design and marketing team, i.e. a product development team, is an attempt to reduce transaction costs. They also need direction, a strategy by which to determine which features should be incorporated and which left on the cutting table. Determining this is the role of the entrepreneur.

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  1. Kathleen says:

    Whenever I hear “design creep” the first thing that springs to mind is a company I was researching to see if they’d be a suitable contractor to whom I could refer work. To test them out, I asked them about my project of making ladies leather vests. The response I got back was that although they could work with leather, it was a far inferior product to what they were currently using (neoprene). It turns out they largely manufacture wet-suits so I’ve been stuck with the image in my mind of sending them a ladies leather vest and getting back a wet suit in return. You have to watch product developers. Each company has materials, methods and processes they’re used to working with and many won’t change readily (it’s costly in training and equipment). This is why any contractor should not say they’ll work with any material or product type. We specialize. You want a contractor as specialized as you are. You shouldn’t go to a leather pattern maker if you want knit tops. It’s not that the leather pattern maker can’t do knits, it’s just that an ethical professional should refer you to someone who specializes in your product type. Knowing all I do about leather -trust me, it’s just not stuff you’re going to pick up anywhere or figure out on your own easily- I’d have a real problem with a knit pattern maker who thought they could do leather patterns.

    Oh, I decided this company was a poor resource for other reasons as well so I won’t be listing the name of the company here (they’re based in the Albuquerque area so if you’re sourcing there, email me first). One of the things I found highly objectionable about the company was that they actually encourage paranoia among designers implying that any other contractor would knock someone off at the first opportunity. I really resent people who use fear as a motivator. It tells me that they themselves are motivated by fear and other base instincts rather than logic and reasoning so I have no assurances they’d make wise decisions.

  2. Jenny says:

    This reminded me of a woman in the discussion forum that designs baby carriers. She had a sewing contractor change her design without consulting her first and ended up taking out an important safety feature.

  3. jinjer says:

    “like Kathleen used with the designer who didn’t want to hear about zippers in the pencil skirt.”
    Do tell!

    “I find I tend to design-creep myself quite a bit between the illustration and design stages.

    Well, see, here’s where the concept gets sticky. I think almost every design I’ve ever worked on creeps, and the question is, where do you draw the line between kaizen and design creep? As Eric says, it’s all about information–if the changes bring the design closer to the customer’s desired features & price point, it’s kaizen. If the design creeps away from the customer’s desires, it’s “design creep.”

    I suppose this is where the princess/paranoia* factor come in. If you keep information about your target demographic, style, etc. too close to your chest, how can you expect your contractor-partners to make educated decisions? This is easy for me to say because I don’t have any contractors. I am certainly guilty of feeling overprotective about my ideas. Silly me.

    *Hmmm…it just occurred to me that MY princess/paranoia feelings come from the fact that I’m really unclear about what my demographic’s needs/price-points are, so I have this fear of the unknown. This reinforces my decision to focus on market research over the next year before going into manufacturing. Good.

  4. Carol Kimball says:

    Five steps in the creative process (crammed down the throat of every person who’d stand still to listen – this may finally be the group that will appreciate it)
    1. Initial concept
    [1964 VW beetle]
    2. Game plan: rough, workable
    [add a back zipper to the wool pencil skirt]
    3. Actual point-by-point construction process
    [move zip to side of skirt OOPS now they want it in leather, rework pattern and construction]
    4. Finished item
    5. Where it goes/what it inspires after that
    [Andy Goldsworthy’s art is a prime example – whenever I watch “Rivers and Tides” I want to go float leaves in wind-washed rock potholes even though they may currently be under three feet of snow]

    People outside our field(s) think of 1 and 4 almost exclusively. The area of both danger and great inspiration runs from the beginning of 2 to the end of 3.

    For a client or mandatory project, change as little as possible in order to get the product cost-effectively to market.

    For aligning oneself with the potential of the universe, begin with rough outline in 2, see what the design and materials say to you when you begin working, possibly change entire focus to go beyond the glass ceiling(s).

  5. Eric H says:

    Interesting, Carol. Kathleen has me reading Smith & Reinertsen’s _Developing Products in Half the Time_ whose premise, so far, seems to be, “don’t go for the big score. Try for a small, quick score and then do that again and again.” It’s the Zara/Toyota approach all over, again.

    Only you captured it in 5 points instead of 200 pages.

    BTW, I meant to add a link to Maddox WRT the Aztek (finally, a car made with the sensibilities of a 14th century Aztec warrior in mind!).

  6. Andrea Baker says:

    You guys are great…I love the concept of design creep as well. I didn’t so much have that problem before I learned to sew. I designed something and handed it off to my contractor (very little creepage) Now when I say that I am developing a new product and I just have to do “this one thing” to make it perfect, my hubby rolls his eyes at me and says “I’ll see you in 3 days”…I think if we team up with someone who has experience preventing design creep, it makes it easier on us as “inventors” to know when done is done.

  7. Dan says:

    Hi Y’all,

    I am a steel fabricator who does some sewing and I love your site. Your insight and your perspective is both hilarious and painfully true.

  8. J C Sprowls says:

    “don’t go for the big score. Try for a small, quick score and then do that again and again.”

    In my neck of the woods, we call this iterative and incremental development. It’s a strategy to contain costs and requires that sufficient market research be done, first. Then, it’s only a matter of managing resources and constraints to deliver *to* those requirements by checking with focus groups and or the client, directly.

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