Sean McKenna

Differences between design in school and real world medical device design

real world medical device designWhen I finished my third year of Industrial Design studies at Carleton University, I felt like I had a good grasp of the whole thing.  I had finished a good number of design projects, worked out my own design process, and learned what worked for me and what didn’t.  While it was still lots of hard work, I was feeling comfortable with designing at school.  As I set my sights on an internship before my fourth year, I knew there was a lot left to learn, but I wasn’t exactly sure what.

Now that I’ve been an industrial design intern at StarFish for almost half a year, it’s funny to look back.  Not only have I learned a lot about workplace structure, engineering, and quality assurance, but I’ve realized just how different the actual industrial design process is in a consultancy.  While school prepped me with skills and knowledge, the truth is working in design is a totally unique environment that brings its own challenges and opportunities.  In this blog I’ll tell you some of the differences I noticed between design in school and in a real work setting at StarFish.

Creative Control and Intuition

Designing at school allows for total creative control.  Projects become your personal responsibility, and the final product reflects you solely.  Because of this, design can feel more intuitive – you can go with your gut a bit more.  There’s fewer people to answer to, so you can execute on your own vision for the design without having to second guess yourself.  I find this also allows for more opportunities to explore different avenues and make mistakes – sometimes you can be more playful or arbitrary as long as you’ve come to terms with the outcome – good or bad.

In a work environment creative control is a bit further removed from the individual designer.  You’re part of a team now, and not only does your work have to reflect the voices, values, and standards of your team, but even more importantly it should meet – nay, exceed – client expectations.  No longer is the design vision innate; instead you need to put yourself into the client’s shoes and present them with their vision.  There’s more considerations, resulting in a more focused design process – one that may not come quite as naturally.  There will be many times that you need to compromise your vision, and decisions will never be made by you alone, but in my experience, it’s always for the better of the product.

Time and Budget

In design school, your only resource is time.  Hard deadlines are set a few weeks in advance, and your goal is to have something you’re happy enough with to submit and present to the class.  If you’re on the ball you can spend more time early on fleshing out certain elements of your design, or exploring different options – you should have time to make mistakes, and fumble around a bit.  You can be flexible with the phases of the design process, for better or worse.  Neglecting electives, pulling all-nighters, and speedy cup noodle meals are common in the stressful final days of the design routine, as you squeeze out all the work you can from those few remaining hours.  What it basically comes down to is this: if you have 2 weeks until a project is due, you have 336 hours to work on it.  How you balance those hours with sleep, other classes, and a social life is your call, but that deadline is always looming over you, and those precious hours are always ticking down.

The concept of a budget is one of the biggest differences I’ve experienced in designing at StarFish.  Though you still have deadlines, no longer is the project clock always ticking – StarFish is a consultancy, meaning a client is paying for your work now, and as such you have to supply value to that client in every one of those hours.  This shifts the focus from working at a more casual, self-serving pace to working efficiently, and being aware of your position in the design process at all times.  Preliminary planning, monitoring your progress and knowing when to stop are paramount to staying under budget and delivering a project that both you and the client are happy with.

Real-World Limitations

Design school is a model of the real design industry.  Training is as comprehensive as it can be over four years, but it doesn’t come with the same real-world restrictions and consequences as designing in the workplace.  Consideration is paid to manufacturing – it’s a year-long course in my program – but in studio class, submitting a design that would be extremely expensive or impossible to manufacture will probably just cost you a few marks.  Designating a target market and researching analogous devices are part of the preliminary design phase, but you’re not truly going to be selling your design to see how it fares in its market space.  In design school, when presented with a problem as to how your design would actually function or be assembled, it’s almost a running joke to say “we’ll leave that to the engineers”.

In a medical device design consultancy, if it’s not realistically possible, it’s effectively useless.  We need to design products that work exactly as they’re intended, that match the client’s vision as well as our own.  It’s got to fit within the agreed upon budget, meaning it’s got to be designed efficiently and in such a way that it can be manufactured for a reasonable cost without sacrificing quality.  Most importantly, it must be a product that will be successful for our client – something that will outperform or disrupt all the competition in its market space.  As a designer, this means that maybe those beautiful, sculptural school projects which don’t necessarily supply a ton of functional value aren’t really feasible.  Instead, all engineering, human factors and manufacturing considerations must be balanced through form and function in a realistic and viable way.

Image: StarFish Medical

Sean McKenna is a recent StarFish Medical ID intern. This is his first blog for StarFish and a great reminder of why he was such a well liked and appreciated part of our team.

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