A pitcher’s approach to product design
By Geoff Baldwin
Love is in the air and for me it has little to do with Valentine’s Day. My heart is going pitter-patter for the season that lies ahead.
Today pitchers and catchers begin reporting to Major League Spring Training facilities across Arizona and Florida and I couldn’t be more excited. Baseball was my first love long before I knew what industrial design was. Before I loved Dieter, I loved Jeter (actually I’m a Reds fan and Chris Sabo was my favorite player growing up, but Sabo doesn’t rhyme with Rams. I digress). So today is V-Day and the unofficial first day of baseball season… but what does that have to do with design? A lot. As much as any mentor, co-worker or client, baseball has made me think differently about my life as a designer.
The design process is a fairly simple one right? Observe, Interpret, Express and Execute… or something like that. Every creative firm has a chart or diagram showing some variation of those steps, some even say theirs is proprietary. As designers we rely on the continuity of our process to ensure success and instill confidence in our clients. Essentially we are saying that “if I do this, then this, then this, I’ll get a successful that.” But the reality is that following any design process too rigidly results in stale, uninspired, and sometimes predictable design. So how do you do edgy, experimental work in a manner that ensures success?
Design like a pitcher.
A pitcher’s job is to get the batter out. A designer’s job is to make something appropriately functional, yet unexpectedly beautiful, be it an object, service or experience. A pitcher has a set of tools to accomplish his task: his pitches. He employs a fastball, curveball, change-up, and maybe a few others to send his opponent back to the dugout. Similarly, designers have tools as well–both physical and figurative. We have our abilities to think and do, to strategize and execute. We have research techniques, methods for storytelling and endless styles for shaping final outcomes. The difference between a pitcher and a designer is in how he uses his tools. He never, if rarely, throws the same combination of pitches, while designers tend to apply their tools in a repetitive linear process. A pitcher bases the ebb and flow of his pitch selection on circumstance. Who is at bat? What type of hitter is he? Who is on base? How many outs are there? And so on. If he threw the same combination and emphasis of pitches to each hitter he faced, like design firms often do to clients, he wouldn’t make it out of the first inning. He’s also not the only one calling the shots. A pitcher is only as good as his catcher (the guy who’s really calling the pitches). It’s perspective over process. Together they find a way to throw the right pitch at the right time.
When design is done best it’s not because it follows a magic formula. Design is great when it is dynamic; when the logical meets the unexpected. Just like a pitcher does to a batter, designers need to keep clients on their toes. That’s only possible when tried and true tools are used in radical ways. It’s not just experimenting for experimentation’s sake, it’s experimentation for a project’s sake. It’s about envisioning a project’s end at the beginning and building a unique path to that finale. So next time you’re at the ballpark and there’s a meeting on the mound, pay attention. They’re not wasting time, they’re talking process.
Oh yeah, happy Valentine’s Day from LUNAR’s resident designer/jock Geoffrey Baldwin.