Joe Monaco
KU Office of Public Affairs

Design professor invited to explore Garmin structure

Mon, 11/26/2012

LAWRENCE – In many companies and universities, "industrial design" and "engineering" are treated as separate disciplines, with little or no overlap.

But University of Kansas researcher Greg Thomas doesn't necessarily agree with that approach. And thanks to a new project with Garmin International, he'll get to explore the topic to determine whether companies and universities would be better served by further integrating the two disciplines.

For the next year, Thomas, a design professor in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, has been invited to observe activities within the industrial design and engineering departments at Garmin, a company that for years has integrated the two areas in pursuit of innovative, user-friendly products. Thomas will conduct his research at Garmin's headquarters in Olathe, where he'll have access to employees, staff meetings and even strategy sessions.

The goal of his research is to inform companies and universities that are considering how to best organize their industrial design and engineering areas. His hunch is that they'd be better served by further integrating the two fields like Garmin does.

"Garmin does a great job integrating industrial design and engineering, and of encouraging teamwork and collaboration across departments," Thomas said. "But a lot of other companies and organizations don't. To me, the two fields have common DNA, and fusing them together would produce better products and solutions. For corporations, that means better products and a better bottom line. For universities, that means more interdisciplinary research and more versatile graduates."

Thomas' research agreement with Garmin is for one year. The company reserves the right to review Thomas' research before anyone else – and potentially to implement any suggestions he has for the company.

"It's pretty flattering that one of the most successful companies in the world is inviting us to observe their processes," Thomas said.

So what's the difference between industrial design and engineering anyway? In general, industrial design applies ergonomics and artistic skills to create attractive, user-friendly, innovative products. Meanwhile, engineering focuses on achieving products that are functional and perform well. For various reasons, the two fields have often been treated separately – both on corporate org charts and in university curriculum.

But times have changed, he said, and today's consumer products require a more interdisciplinary approach.

"You can't have one without the other," said Thomas, who also serves as director of KU's Center for Design Research, a KU unit created in 2011 to foster interdisciplinary collaboration across KU in the area of smart technology and consumer products. "For example, let's say you're designing a car dashboard. You need industrial designers to conceptualize an attractive, easy-to-use dashboard that makes driving safe and fun. But you also need the engineers to determine how to build it, what materials to use, how to hook up the wiring, and how to keep the whole thing from overheating or fading or cracking.

"So my thought is, let's get the industrial designers and the engineers together as early and often as possible when designing that dashboard. Or in the case of a university, let's further integrate the curriculum for these two areas."

Of course, even if the two fields are more fully integrated, there will always be differences between them – especially if you ask the practitioners in each field.

"Engineers will jab that the industrial designers employ wishful thinking and design products that stretch the laws of physics," he said. "Good industrial designers, of course, deny that and say that engineers lack aesthetic creativity which fuels the sale of many new products. These different perspectives are why each of them is so important to the process – and why it's so important to have both of them in the room."

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