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Design’s (equal) seat at the table

New Integrated Design and Management track emphasizes interdisciplinary approach to product development

May 12, 2015

Matthew Kressy

Integrated Design and Management director Matthew Kressy

To understand MIT’s new Integrated Design and Management master’s degree track, it helps to understand Matthew Kressy, its director. Over his long career as an entrepreneur and inventor, Kressy has embodied the principles at work in the track, part of MIT’s System Design and Management program. As he puts it, “I’m the person who would have gone to this program, back in the day.”

The track takes an interdisciplinary, whole-systems approach to product development. To achieve this, the walls separating design, engineering, and management must be torn down. These silos are still evident in most technology-based businesses, where industrial design often comes last to the party. What if design arrived with engineering, operations, and the rest of the guests?

The answer is the collaborative development of products with greater consumer appeal. For this to occur requires design professionals to speak the languages of engineering and business professionals, and for the latter to speak the language of design.

“You can’t just rely on just a spark of genius for a new idea,” says Steven Eppinger, co-director of the System Design and Management program.

“Rather than counting on random moments of brilliance, it is much better to build a systematic process for creating great ideas, whereby people become experts at creativity and brainstorming, knowing which of six or eight techniques to pull out of the toolbox at the right time for the right purpose,” he says.

Students and faculty members in the track will be drawn from engineering, business, and design backgrounds. By exposing each discipline to the rigor, craft, and ingenuity of the other disciplines, a more collaborative approach to making better products will result. Kressy’s own entrepreneurial career is one example of the idea’s merit.

Since 1999, Kressy has co-taught courses in product design and development at MIT Sloan and other top design and business schools like Rhode Island School of Design and Harvard Business School, among others. In the meantime, his company, Designturn Inc., has designed, invented, engineered, and manufactured more than 100 products for several Fortune 500 companies.

Growing up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Kressy found few places to immerse himself in art or design. Although he would later graduate from Rhode Island School of Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in industrial design, his first job out of school was selling furniture.

There, the company’s vice president encouraged Kressy to put his design background to use.

“He wanted me to do something design-related, but with a business focus,” Kressy recalls. “He believed that designers needed to understand business to be more effective designers; otherwise they couldn't be persuasive in the design and engineering process. He wanted the designers to come into a meeting and say, `You know, if we add this piece of chrome here, it will add this much money to the bill of materials and affect the bottom line.’”

Design-led product development

It was a defining moment in Kressy’s life. He learned why things were created from a business perspective and how they were made.

“In most organizations, design answers to marketing, and marketing answers to engineering,” he says. “At Apple, this organizational chart is flipped. But it only works if designers understand engineering and business, and vice versa. To paraphrase [Apple senior vice president of design] Jony Ive, too many designers coming out of design schools don’t know how to make stuff.”

The problem has been a lack of interdisciplinary knowledge, Kressy says. When designers fail to understand the basics of engineering or management, they are less likely to contribute their insights and ideas—to the detriment of the product, he says. He pointed to the open-architecture PCs that came to market in the late-1980s.

“The engineers and programmers building these devices felt their value was the technical capabilities they offered to other engineers and programmers to do more coding—not how easy or pleasurable they were to use,” he explains. “And for those highly technical users, the device was probably a great tool.”

For everybody else—the average consumer who also wanted to use a PC—the experience was subpar. Then, Apple decided to elevate the user experience in its development of the Mac, the PC alternative.

“Steve Jobs, a designer at heart, realized the silliness in making people type `C-forward-slash-colon’ to do what they needed,” Kressy says. “He wanted a computer that was easy to use, but still had all the features that PCs had. Users could lift up the hood to peruse the mechanics, but the nuts and bolts weren’t in their faces all the time.”

“The Mac was simplicity of the first order,” Kressy says. “And it all began with an understanding of what consumers needed and desired, which required a design-driven-and-led manufacturing process.”

Why second to market often wins

Kressy is not arguing that products must be invented and shepherded by designers. Rather, he advocates a collaborative environment where individuals with disparate skill sets like design, engineering, and management utilize the essential knowledge from each other’s professions.

He explains that two different products may provide the same functional value to consumers, but consumers will tend to buy one of these products more than the other.

“The products’ respective price tags figure into this decision-making process, as do other factors like look and feel,” Kressy says. “But eventually all these factors equalize and it boils down to which product makes the consumer happiest. This is where design can make or break a product—if it does not come in too late.”

“You can’t just push a product that is merely functional to consumers,” he says. “It also has to be artful. These days, people have come to expect something magical.”

All together now

This alchemy is the focus of the Integrated Design and Management track, which launches in the fall 2015 semester. Offered jointly by the MIT School of Engineering and MIT Sloan School of Management as part of the System Design and Management program, the track is targeted at early to mid-career professionals. Graduates will receive a master’s degree in engineering and management.

The core curriculum will be taught in an integrated design lab, with space for teams to practice what Kressy calls a human-centered design process—using traditional and high-tech materials and state-of-the-art tools like 3D printers, computer numerical controlled machines, and robotic arms—in hands-on workshops and seminars.

Kressy wants to inspire a new method of product development that begins with collaborative brainstorming among people from different disciplines to generate ideas and concepts based on shared values. This development of ideas is nurtured through empathy and friendship to achieve a consensus on how to develop the product, which is followed by its manufacture and marketing.

This process is one that Kressy has followed in his own successful entrepreneurship.

“Matt’s background models what we’re looking for in our graduates,” Eppinger says. “He’s a brilliant industrial designer, but he is more of a techie than most other industrial designers. That’s because he understands engineering and manufacturing and what it takes to bring great ideas to reality.”

“Good enough isn’t good enough anymore,” says Kressy. “Excellence is the only option, and it results through inclusiveness and respect for what others bring to the conversation. The best vision a designer can come up with is worthless if he or she can’t get the engineers and management team to feel the same enthusiasm about its value.”