© Design Tech

You Can Only Reap What You Sow

The thought processes of a lateral thinker

If Jürgen R. Schmid didn’t always wear white shirts, he would have Individuality emblazoned in red letters on his chest. Sometimes it really isn’t easy being a gentle rebel. A rebel who strives for freedom but at the same time always keeps everything under control. A rebel who prods, but does it respectfully. Coping with this individuality is also a major opportunity. How this works is explained by the founder and manager of the design company Design Tech, drawing on the example of a collaborative project with Heldele.

Every project begins with the brief – which is where the first danger lies: starting with the wrong task. The famous Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who lent the Golf 1 its “look,” once said that outcomes are a reflection of the task at hand. He makes it clear how important it is to define what needs to be done. Make the wrong assumptions, and the wrong things come out at the other end. Accept a brief is given and start working on it right away in keeping with some sort of guidelines, and you’ll often end up working on the wrong things – even if you do your work properly. If we surround ourselves with people who simply accept orders, our partners become “extended workbenches” – skilled workers who know their stuff, but who won’t necessary achieve the best results. Another thing that needs considering is an old way of looking at things: I once discovered through my own experience that the apparent task is just a starting point – a place to start thinking about certain topics. Clients pull together briefs for their tasks based on their own inside-out view of the world. But there are always so many more important ways to look at things. So you should never really start working on something until you know what the successful outcome would be in terms of solving the task. In practice, this is the exception for SMEs and mechanical engineering companies. I’ve noticed that almost all companies start working on something before they’ve even established what a successful outcome would be.

So even if people don’t want to hear this: We need more “unsolvable” challenges. When I was approached by Heldele, they asked me about an electric charging station that looked good. If I’d taken that as my task before embarking on my work, I could have come up with thousands of options and picking the right one would have felt like a random choice based on personal preferences or the particular taste of the decisionmaker. It was only after multiple rounds of discussion that we had examined all the possible “barriers to acceptance” – we worked out unknown possibilities and undisclosed opportunities that would eventually dictate success.

After digging deeper and conducting more intensive research, it became clear to us that the crux of the issue would not just be intuitive controls, but also integrating units into the surroundings of both an old city and a modern metropolis. This immediately highlighted a key sticking point: All of the electronics would need to be contained in a unit the size of one of those ticket machines you see next to parking lots. But I’d never seen a machine at a parking lot that blended in well with its surroundings. So the size of the unit would be critical. I made two suggestions: They would either have to put the electronics under the ground or cram everything into the size of a shoebox. Both options were met by the developers with understanding – but also disbelief. Understandable really, given that neither option looked in the slightest bit possible.

But even this problem was solved, thanks to courage and vision. Senior managers came along with their can-do spirit and stopped all the discussion: Everything should be miniaturized. At this point, the developers broke into a sweat because everyone knew solving that one would be an impossibility. Nonetheless, after six months the electronics of the charging station had indeed been crammed into a shoebox. What an amazing job they did at Heldele! Working with my industrial design team, at this stage of the project we spent a lot of time doing whatever we could to provide the engineers with support. But in fact, up until this point, we’d not spent a second thinking about the actual look or design of the Heldele project; we had no aesthetic concepts, because industrial design factors had not been part of the picture at the beginning of the project. Nonetheless, this step became our main contribution on the road to success. It was now about psychology, motivation, courage, visualization, creative processes…

In some ways this project was like many of the others we deal with on a day-to-day basis. The appealing product of our work is a welcome, appreciated “waste product” of a “process to success.” First and foremost, at the beginning it’s about working out the task and then focusing systematically on the slog and graft of getting things done. This is my general way of thinking and it always results in added value, with solutions that were inconceivable before the project. Not every outcome is that radical or spectacular. Often outcomes are opportunities that were uncovered by sifting through the detail and making optimizations. But in the end it’s always a success that the team is proud of. And this lights the touchpaper for the next assignment.


Jürgen R. SchmidAs Jürgen R. Schmid likes to tell people, design is a way of thinking. He is clearly right, judging by his successes – and not just the fact that he invented the world-famous mini cordless screwdriver. Schmid founded Design Tech in 1983 and the firm is now a leading international supplier of outcome-centric machine design.

Jürgen R. Schmid
Design Tech (Ammerbuch)