Product designer ancestors at work

What is Product Design Management?

Product Design Management (PDM) is one of the most important elements in the successful business of designing innovative products for production. Unfortunately, most companies do not really understand the importance of PDM or how to properly implement it. In this post, I will define what PDM is and distinguish it from Product Design.

In order to understand what PDM is, we first have to look at the history of product design and the evolution of the product designer. According to Wikipedia, “Product design is the process of creating a new product to be sold by a business to its customers.” That’s a pretty good definition. However, to understand the nature of today’s product designer, we have to go back to the origins of product design.

Early Product Designers

Let’s go back 2.5 million years to the prehistoric tool-maker, the ancestor of today’s product designer. Tool-making was a significant step in our evolution and it’s one of the main advantages that differentiate us, Homo Sapiens, from the animal kingdom. The caveman tool-maker made tools to extend his physical abilities – to improve his and his tribe’s abilities for fighting, hunting, eating, carrying and so forth. The sole effort and focus of the tool-maker’s work was on the product and the production process. There was nothing else to deal with.

The next step in the product design evolution was the artisan or craftsman. Artisans (such as blacksmith, carpenter and potter) were the dominant designers and producers of consumer products prior to the Industrial Revolution. In some respects, there were no significant differences between the artisan’s and the tool-maker’s ways of working. In both cases, design and production were integrated into a single process, carried out by the same individual. Hands-on skills were the “designer’s” most important capability, and each product was manually produced and controlled by the master himself. The product and the production process were the center of the “business” for the artisan, as well as for the tool-maker.

Unlike the tool-maker, however, who produced products only for his own use, the artisan produced products to sell to others. That’s a big difference. The artisan was also a businessman. He had to deal with many issues beyond design and production alone, such as clients, finances, marketing, branding, purchasing and more. All this was on a very small scale, since the artisan’s business was small and localized.

It might sound strange, but product designers, still today, carry the “tool-maker’s DNA” of the product- and production-centered approach. After all, 2.5 million years of history do not easily fade away! Product designers are creative craftsmen; they choose their profession due to their passion to design and create beautiful, smart, functional objects. Try asking an engineer or product designer about her product, and she will talk to you for hours, full of enthusiasm. Ask her about her product’s marketing strategy, pricing or production logistics, and after two minutes you’ll find yourself discussing the weather. If you take a look at design engineering or industrial design curricula, you’ll see that most of the main courses focus on the product – the process of creating the object.

Product Designers are Product-Centric

The nature of product designers and the essence of the product design discipline are product- and production-centered! Product designers are neither passionate about, nor trained to deal with, “the other” business aspects of the product (strategy, marketing, pricing, distribution, etc.). This hasn’t changed since the tool-maker era. Yet, the industry has changed dramatically, and the product-centered approach that worked very well for the tool-maker and the artisan doesn’t work anymore. Why not? The following table shows the primary differences between today’s industrial world and the one in which the artisan worked:

 

The Product Designer’s World The Artisan’s World
Design and production are separate Design and production are combined
Products incorporate multiple complex materials and technologies Products consist of simple materials and technologies
Mass production Manual production
Many people in different locations Few people in a single location
Global market of unfamiliar customers Local market of familiar customers
Complex supply chain and logistics Simple supply chain and logistics
Wide variety of products Limited variety of products
Extensive global competition Minimal local competition
Fast business world Slow business world

The industrial world of the last few decades is incomparable to that of earlier history. The range of expertise required and the complexity and speed of doing business in today’s industrial world is so much greater, that the artisan’s business now seems quaint, like a nice hobby. While the artisan was able to handle his business with his core craft knowledge plus some minor (perhaps intuitive) “expanded capabilities,” this is definitely not the case for the modern product designer. In order to address all the required business aspects, the modern product designer has to learn and handle so much that it leaves him with insufficient time and attention to actually design great products!

This is the main trigger for the PDM revolution: the product design discipline, and the product designers themselves, can no longer cover all the aspects required by a successful product development business. In other words, it is necessary to split product design management from the actual product design.

The Role of Marketing

Another reason for the importance of PDM today is the evolution of product marketing. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the need for PDM has been growing due to the rise of the product-centric marketing approach. For many decades, marketing and advertising were considered by the industry to be much more important and effective than the product itself. An average product with great marketing did better than a great product with average marketing. In most companies, the marketing budget was much larger than the R&D budget. The brand was more important than the product and the marketing message was stronger than the product’s quality or performance.

No longer. Today, consumers expect high-quality products and they are much less tolerant of misleading marketing campaigns. Leading companies realize that the product is their strongest marketing tool, and no marketing campaign can replace the product’s quality. (Apple was the first big company to turn this strategy into a cash machine.) Today, you can no longer find a strong brand based on poor products.

Tech advertising chart
Tech advertising chart (Source: Horace Dediu)

In times when marketing was the company’s major business engine, “marketing management” was needed most. However, when the product is the hero, excellent product design management is what companies need more than anything else. The product-centric marketing approach has increased the need for, and the importance of, PDM. Making crucial design decisions based primarily on the designer’s intuition and the taste of the boss’s wife is no longer good enough for the modern, highly-competitive industrial world.

Product Design Management: A Definition

PDM is not a specific method or tool. PDM should be part of a company’s strategy and its way of doing business, that can be implemented in various ways (just like marketing).

I define PDM like this:
Product Design Management is a corporate culture and multidisciplinary management methodology that benefits product design and innovation for business growth, as part of the company strategy.

So how is it different from Product Design? The product design discipline is product- and production-centered, as part of the R&D department. It is not the product designer’s job to deal with the company’s strategy, marketing or product pricing. However, it is certainly his job to design the product according to the company’s strategy, following the guidelines he receives from the product design manager. Yet, in many cases, product designers (because they are smart and motivated professionals) take the initiative and act as (mini) product design managers. Sometimes, this brings valuable results, and sometimes not. To properly implement PDM in a company, much more than product designer (or even R&D manager) initiative is needed.

Further questions

Why is PDM so important in today’s economy?
To what kinds of companies is PDM most important?
How to implement PDM in a company?

I will discuss the answers to these questions in upcoming posts.

What do you think about this topic?  You are most welcome to share your ideas and thoughts.

 

  • Alon Weinstein

    Excellent introduction!

    • yarivsade

      Thanks Alon.

  • Kyle Smith

    Great Article. It clearly explained a problem I was already facing but that I couldn’t explicitly state. Thanks Yariv

    • http://productdesignmanagement.com/ Yariv Sade

      Kyle, thanks for your feedback.