During Robert Welsh's 16 years with DEWALT tools and as vice president of industrial design for Professional Power Tools at Stanley Black & Decker, an IDSA Patron, he has lead diverse design teams on three continents that deliver products in categories including woodworking, metalworking and portable tools. The work of his teams at Black & Decker generates over $1 billion in annual revenues.
In this brief Q&A, we learn a good deal about his thoughts on collaborative design, the principles he uses to lead his design teams and why converging technologies excite him:
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Do you view your work more in terms of creating culture or creating value for business?
I firmly believe in design as a culture and the roles of us in leadership as cultivators of that culture. Once a design culture exists, driving incremental value to the bottom line is a natural byproduct. People want to do their best and are inspired to do so when an open, creative, dynamic environment is there to support them. There is no shortage of technical horsepower and linear thinking these days. Radical ideas, disruptive trends and concepts, however, come from a more serendipitous approach. Culture plays a huge role in freeing ones mind to explore the extremes without the negative constraints. The marketplace favors products, brands and companies that consistently exceed expectations. The product development and manufacturing environments, however, favor repeatability, simplicity and low variability. The role of the designer is to bridge the two in a creative and meaningful way. The role of design management, I feel, is to foster an environment that allows the design culture to thrive and expand into all areas of the business. The value then comes from the freedom for creative collisions that challenge convention and drive incremental value to the end user (and bottom line).
What part(s) of the product design and the development processes are most often underrated by designers?
I believe the process of designer-to-designer collaboration is often underrated. Even in school, the majority of projects a student works on are individual in nature. For staffing and budget reasons it’s all too common for a single designer to be spread thinly over many projects, working largely solo. When constructive collaboration is used, the outcome is inevitably better. This collaboration is especially beneficial when there are multiple teams of designers spread among several design centers or continents. The design mind thrives on creative sparks and moments of inspiration. These moments of inspiration can be multiplied by the viewpoints of your ID peers. I see the “birds of a feather” approach of designer-to-designer critique and collaboration as often underutilized and underrated. More appealing solutions often come from that one small, refining comment welcomed in by a simple “Hey, what would you do here…?”.
Is there a single guiding principle you use to manage your teams at Black & Decker?
Yes. “Hire tough, then manage easy.” I have worked for, with and around many designers in my 20-year career. I have worked for four companies, had a dozen different bosses and experienced all extremes of work life. I believe every designer is driven by the urge to do their best work and be recognized for their unique talents and contributions. But not every skill set is right for every company. This is where the "Hire tough" comes in. Selection of the right candidates for a design team is critical. It’s far too easy to upset the team dynamic with one misplaced Alpha.
The selection process I favor is more rigorous than most, but has proven highly effective in identifying the right type of design candidate for our culture (we’ve been known to cull through 300 viable candidates before eventually on-boarding a new ID hire). Once the person is hired, the expectations of them are made clear, deliverables and assignments given, and then we back off a bit. This sounds a bit like “sink or swim”, but the reality is we have just brought a new hire into a world class team and said “We are impressed with your portfolio and you as a person, so here’s your jersey...now show us what you can do.” Who wouldn’t step up to that challenge?
What emerging design trend are you most excited about?
I am probably most excited about the hyper convergence of technology. The marriage of mechanical, electronic and digital technologies. There are so many cool advancements taking place in mature industries as a direct result of the convergence of these individual areas. This “Why” generation has come to not just embrace emerging technologies, but expect them in all areas of their lives. The creative and credible combinations of old-school products with digital feedback, video, networking and instantaneous information access is incredibly exciting. So many of our behaviors today are the result of our ingrained expectations of previous generations of products. (How many of us still call the TV remote a clicker?) As the cool combinations of unique and useful technologies begin injecting themselves in more and more staple products, the possibilities are limited only by the consumer’s appetite for them. And it’s refreshing to see that appetite for the convergence of these converging technologies increasing.