I have no clue how to design tennis shoes. That said, I want to fill you in on something I’ve seen happen often during my 25 years as a yacht designer.
A boatbuilder decides it’s time to get some fresh ideas for their new range of production yachts. Instead of calling on a talented naval architect, builders are sometimes compelled to find fresh perspective from a certain group that knows little to nothing about boats: consumer product designers. I had an up-close encounter like this a few years ago, and it was an eye opener.
In this case, the “fresh perspective” was to be provided by an industrial design firm known for shaping video game consoles and styling the stripes on the sides of running shoes. Said perspective was to be applied to the design of a “luxury express yacht” around 50 feet.
A date was set for the reveal, and the builders asked that I come along with them as their expert consultant. While they meant this as a compliment and paid me for my time, I couldn’t help but find the whole scenario bemusing. Why not just hire my company? We know boats.
We sat around the oversized boardroom table before the big presentation, gazing at the various products on display around the room.
The design studio’s principal was sitting directly across from me, dressed minimally in black while a junior industrial designer (wearing the same black industrial designer’s costume) stood before an 80-inch TV. The builders looked on from the far end of the table.
Soon the junior product designer doused the lights and revealed a lifestyle image on the screen. Lots of lifestyle images, in fact, but no boat. I kept an eye on the builders, watching their expressions evolve from smiles and glee to tight-lipped impatience as image after image of sunny skies, sea spray and wine glasses flashed.
Finally, the boat was revealed. Well, the product was revealed. It looked a lot like a boat, but something was ... off. I kept my mouth shut, looking carefully at every detail. There were curved sofas, a windshield, a radar arch and steering wheel. I tried to gauge the -product’s size, as its proportions were low and lean.
“Express” being Luxury Express Yacht’s middle name, I looked for clues as to how this boat was powered. How much fuel? What sort of speed? These questions were answered immediately—and brutally—as a cutaway drawing of the boat was revealed on the screen.
You see, the “fresh perspective” did not include engines, fuel or running gear of any kind. There was simply no room for any engines or fuel beneath the deck! The thought of such things had simply not occurred to the product designers. The builder might be able to clamp a trolling motor to the swim platform, but otherwise they would be sitting ducks.
They didn’t come close to designing a boat. I wondered what they’d been paid for this debacle. On second thought, I didn’t want to know.
Soon the Q&A began and I gave the now-pissed builder a look, which was returned with a sharp nod that I took to mean “go for it.”
I smiled at the guys in the black t-shirts and began prodding them with gentle questions.
“What sort of cruising speed do you anticipate? What engines do you have in mind? How much fuel do you plan on carrying?” They looked at each other and shrugged.
“How do you guys power these things?” one asked. “What does the steering wheel connect to?” asked another with genuine curiosity. Oh, boy.
Look, if you need some running shoes designed, don’t call me. I don’t know the first thing about designing shoes, and I’d probably forget the holes for the laces. Conversely, if you need a powerboat to be properly designed and engineered, it’s best not to call the guys who design tennis shoes and noise-canceling headphones. They’re bound to forget something. Like, you know, engines.
I walked out of that boardroom a few minutes later experiencing a mix of contempt and satisfaction. The builder and I met for dinner that night. Afterwards, I headed home with a new design contract for a luxury express cruiser.