Expanding Liminal Space in Product Design

We are at a point where the products we make for the workplace need to be significantly better than they have been, and an expansion of the liminal space between a design brief being given and the design work beginning may help get us there.

A career in the design and development of products has taught me many things; in particular, the gap in understanding between what designers do and what clients are looking for. I’m not talking about the obvious tropes of not understanding the creative process, or the difficulties in communicating concepts. I’m talking about unspoken expectations: the ones we don’t know we have, be they client of designer or designer of client. This gap can be highly influential on design work and potentially derail things if not managed properly. More importantly, it may also disguise opportunities within a project that can hold the potential for real breakthroughs.

photo: Stacey Brandford Photography

Clients often ask for a little alchemy of designers, and of course that is our trade: to turn nothing into something. There’s a bit of magic in that and let’s be honest, it’s why we get hired. But there is also a threshold between designer and client: an unseen space that still heavily influences the design process once a project begins. This space is where expectations live, and it is this space that I want to shine a light on.

With all design work there is a measure of faith required to step into that liminal space and manifest a project’s requirements. This faith tends to take the form of a perceived understanding of values and goals, of past failures and successes and the deeper outcomes the client is trying to achieve. This faith is also required of the designer, also in the form of perceived understanding, and it extends to areas the designer believes can be “pushed,” such as where the client and their manufacturing can be stretched to incorporate new things. Until those areas are made visible, they cannot be discussed and evaluated.

[Before I go any further, it must be said that the nature of this gap is not universal, and I am generalizing to make a point. I have had the privilege of working with numerous clients who had the insight and experience to know far more about these things than I, the designer they hired to help them. I am also certainly guilty of having at times unrealistic expectations of a client and letting those interfere with good work.]

Ironically, COVID-19 has given me an opportunity to reflect on my work and focus on a path towards better outcomes, which requires exploring what exists in the space between a design brief being given and the design work beginning. How can we point the “juggernaut of development” in a better direction, one that reworks the way we make things so we can keep making them? By “juggernaut of development” I am referring to all the work that happens and investment required — the engineering, manufacturing, sales and marketing support all required to launch the product — once decisions around the look and feel of the product are finalized, or “frozen.” This is the juggernaut, and it is largely the same for any product, whether well-designed or not. Exploring the gaps in understanding and expectations at the beginning of a project will point the juggernaut in a better direction.

To better understand the nature of these gaps, it’s helpful to look at why they may exist in the first place. One could be that a designer internalizes much of the analysis of a project. Another may be a lack of interest or patience on the part of the client: they may just want to get a great new product design and leave all the background evolution “behind the veil” in the realm of the designer. Another reason may be that the problems are seemingly too complex that they feel irrelevant to the project or the output of the manufacturer.

The length of time a product may be in production is another factor. Here, speed to market with an okay product may be more beneficial to the business than slow to market with a great one. I’m sure no one set out to establish this process specifically, it is simply the result of a process that has evolved over time, trying to do the best work possible within the budgets and time allowed. But it requires an adjusted approach to help focus all involved. It will reveal and set expectations and define the right outcomes for a project.

Two generalized misconceptions about industrial designers are that we are either an extension of engineering where the creative element comes either from a marketing department or somewhere in the ether and we simply execute things, or that we are artists, drawing inspiration from the world around us and manifesting it into something that might be translated into a manufacturable product. Of course, in any project both things happen, but the difference between design and art is that design embodies the potential of utility. It also generally needs to exist within a vast system of production: of materials; components; products; recycling and reclamation. Neither of these assessments captures what the industrial designer does entirely: instead, they sit between them, overlapping and translating from one field to the next.

If we can view the process of designing things not as subservient to manufacturing or as a creative angel depositing magic dust on things, but as a connector of dots for all the aspirations of the company making the thing — inviting many voices and then connecting them — the weave that can emerge will be richer. It is a delicate point, because as we all know great design does not happen in a democracy, but in the same breath, it does not happen in a vacuum either. Ignoring the voices around us will undermine the potential for truly great work.

The Cern desk accessories were born out of exploring the material waste from casting large forms by an outdoor furniture manufacturer. When setting up a production run for large cast concrete products, there is always waste at the end resulting in significant physical mass being sent to landfill.

Role of Industrial Design in the Process

The business of office furniture is in a heightened state of flux, and what those involved in product development are grappling with. But in talking about things that are to be physically made, there is another aspect to the flux that is being worked through, although not always so publicly and not always to the same degree: how do we use the resources we have to make the things we need with a more “whole” view of energy and materials to be sure that we can keep on making them? Might we have to do more than simply learn about new materials and replace the bad ones with better ones?

When we navigate a project in a one- or two-dimensional way (simply looking for the sexy new thing that we can actually make) we miss opportunities to think collectively and weave together more threads that add real depth to a project. The opportunity we have is to collectively address the new requirements of workplaces with products that are sustainably made as participants in the circular economy. Out of this will likely come new archetypes based on new ways of doing things.

Much of what designers and manufacturers of furniture do is a variation of what has been done before. Product categories and project specifications keep us in a system that struggles to accept different ways of doing things. The “sweet spot” for an industrial designer is the combining of varied requirements into a single solution with a sensitivity to the clients’ competencies and all the varied needs that come out of the research and observations that led to the project. What is worth noting is that this intangible task of creating links between seemingly disconnected things and integrating them into a cohesive solution is often not clear. The opportunity we have before us is to make this more visible, invite more voices into the process and then act as a more articulated meeting point for all these conflicting elements and unite them into a compelling product.

This is not about a predefined process or set of questions with the promise of success every time, but a way of engaging the elements that bear on a project that can give them voice and form a foundation for the work that happens in the liminal space. This could be called a “Schematic Design Phase,” which is a term I came across while working on a landscape architecture project developing a master plan for a major public building in Ontario. Before any design work was to be done, all the parameters that needed addressing were clearly laid out and weighted to be used as guidance through development, including historical references and potential uses for the space that the products would be used in. Once established, it became a reference point for the design development, informing direction and helping in decision making.

You could look at this as an attempt at getting all the requirements on the table at the beginning of a project to avoid the inevitable late requirements that derail projects or, at the very least, often dilute the design intent into a collection of notional elements with no clear rationale as to why they exist anymore. The complexities I’m referring to will not be revealed through conversation alone. They need to be actively explored and tested, and only through experimentation can they be revealed and evaluated. This dialogue could take the form of many iterations of varied ideas and then demand input from the client, something that would contrast with presenting a resolved concept with a theatrical “ta da!” While I certainly love those moments, I worry they gloss over and eventually obscure larger issues that never get addressed.

Inner city drop-in centres need better chairs to help create a safe and inviting environment. We collaborated with the Toronto shelter system to develop a chair for drop-in centres to be made by clients of the centres themselves. (photos: Jim Royce)

Adjust Expectations and Compositions

The opportunities for improvement in the way we make things lie in two key areas. First is an adjustment in expectations from the marketplace. The implications of an ask for a project can be explored through dialogue with a client rather than simply accepted and then executed by whatever means necessary. If clients were aware of the implications of what they were asking for, they may well ask for something different. Second is a shift in composition of the products we make. The form of a furniture product is more often established by the composition of elements than the form of those elements. The composition allows for certain forms to be created and the harmony between the two is what creates a successful product.

An example of this is the task chair. To look at task chairs from over a decade ago is to generally see a large array of levers that controlled a wide variety of adjustments all intended to improve the ergonomics of the chair and the health of the user. But extensive research revealed two things: first, that many people never adjusted these chairs, so never really took advantage of their capability; and second, that they spent far less time in those chairs than originally thought. This cast a new light on task seating: was it reasonable to spend $1,000 or more on a chair no one adjusted or sat in for very long?

The door that opened with this realization was that chairs could become simpler in their composition without needing all the adjustment previously thought necessary. This allowed for slimmer, lighter mechanisms with less complexity and material required to create them, allowing for more sculptural control over the forms and ultimately lower product costs and greater sustainability as a result. The market accepted these changes, and while there are certainly highly capable task chairs available today, they are more dedicated to the kind of tasks they are designed for. For most seating requirements, a lesser technical capability is needed and can be found on a huge array of chairs in other parts of the workplace, places where a high degree of collaboration is required and where chairs are not owned but simply used for a short time by a variety of people.

DESIGNwith is a collaboration between designers and industrial design students at OCAD University to create furniture in a social enterprise incubator in CF Toronto Eaton Centre. Furthering the idea of the Community Chair – asking more of the makers than simply assembling premade components – these pieces are designed to draw people who have little or no experience making things into the process. (Photos: Katya Koroscil)

Building Bridges

Of course, designers are not the sole answer to these new problems we are facing. But a broader, renewed perspective and an increase in the number and diversity in voices that add value to the process is how designers can hear and then integrate those voices in a tangible way.

As a parting thought, I’ll share this. When faced with a difficult problem, one that seems elusive and hard to envision solutions for, I use an approach that may seem counter-intuitive but can be the impetus for new directions: overlay the first problem with another problem. Stop focusing on the first one — don’t ignore it, just put it on the back burner for the moment — and focus on the new variables you are trying to solve for. In this case, the problem of new furniture for new workspaces coupled with a reforming of the way we make things toward a circularity in production.

This may result in new archetypes that we haven’t seen before. It also may be new product details and connections or surfaces resulting from new component compositions within established archetypes. These new “things” hold the potential to redefine how we make things through the lens of new requirements, all the while remembering that people are people, people are physical and we’ll always need something to sit on, a surface to write on and an alcove to recede to when we want to think.

photo by Stacey Brandford Photography

Lee Fletcher is a founding partner at Toronto-based Fig40 and principal at Fletcher Scott Studio. He is a professional member of the Association of Industrial Designers of Ontario, teaches Industrial Design at Sheridan College, and his design work has won many international awards.