Five questions with product design expert Dave Franchino
In 2012, Professor of Mechanical Engineering Frank Fronczak asked Design Concepts President and Principal Dave Franchino (ME ’85) and colleague Craig Connor to develop, refine and co-teach his product design course. When Fronczak retired in 2013, the Madison-based design company leaders agreed to continue teaching the popular course, offering a professional viewpoint on a vital part of engineering.
Q: Why is the design process so critical to the engineering profession?
A: I’ve always felt that the design profession by its nature is an applied science. That is, the objective of engineers is to use their skills and training not only to conduct core research but to solve real problems in society, to be able to deliver new goods and services, and to be able to make things safer, easier, cheaper or stronger as the case may be. Design is fundamental to that objective. It’s the spark of creativity that lies between being able to observe a problem, envision a solution, and then bring that to society. If we call that process design, I think that’s core to what makes an engineer’s efforts useful to people and society.
Q: You co-taught a mechanical engineering product design course in 2012 and again in fall 2013. What kinds of projects did students tackle?
A: Frank created the course to focus on product design—the design of items that involve human interaction, must accommodate a range of user groups, exist in a competitive marketplace, and generally have some degree of mass production. It’s a very important class of problems mechanical engineers often tackle. For the final project, the students were asked to envision a new concept and design for mobility walkers, the type of walkers that might be used by elderly people to assist in balance and provide additional comfort and confidence. And that’s an area where there’s an ergonomic component, there’s a human factors component, there’s an aesthetic component, and there’s a psychological component. So we used an existing company in the marketplace—as a sort of fictional client—and the students were asked to envision the future of mobility devices for that particular company.
Q: What design activities in the course do the students enjoy participating in?
A: One of the cool things that Frank had developed and we continue to use is an activity in the class called “Bugs and Kudos,” which is an opportunity to look at products and everyday life and things that surround us and look for bugs (things that you think are wrong and can be fixed), and kudos, (things that you think are particularly well done that should be noted and celebrated). That’s part of what the class is trying to teach—an innate level of observation and curiosity, which is a common trait of really good product designers and engineers in general. The asking of “why?” or “why not?” can be a really powerful tool and technique.
Q: What do you hope students will ultimately take away from the course?
A: I want the students to leave with an understanding that engineering has a critical role to play in design, that engineers have skills and abilities that are unparalleled in terms of their ability to apply their technical training to envision new opportunities. For that to be fully effective, it has to be done with empathy and understanding of other disciplines, like business, human factors, psychology and ethnography. It’s really unhelpful to have engineers who think all that other stuff is fluff and the only thing that matters is hard-core technical analysis. But the converse is also inappropriate. You can’t really drive meaningful change for society without people who can solve thorny technological problems, who have the technical acumen, training and chops to be able to deliver technological breakthroughs. And that’s the bridge that I want to be able to focus on.
Q: From your perspective as president of Design Concepts, what qualities make a good design engineer?
A: Rock-solid academic credentials and technical skills are the price of entry to an organization like Design Concepts. We’re also looking for a demonstrated ability to work in a team. That means evidence of having done collaborative, group-based work through a student organization, through one of the future car or future truck programs, through some sort of extracurricular activity, something that demonstrates you were able to get along with people, you were able to give and take and share responsibilities. They need the ability to communicate, both in writing and verbally, to tell stories, to represent their point of view. Also, I think good design engineers have demonstrated passion and curiosity. At Design Concepts, we really value eclectic, interesting people, people who have unusual pursuits and interesting ideas that grow, challenge and expand our organization.