Valuing design: How tech studios strike delicate balance between cash and creativity

The reverence given to Apple's Jony Ive shows the importance tech companies now give to designers. But just how do they take a product from drawing board to finished product?
Written by Niv Lilien, Contributor on

In a world where Apple products are almost considered works of art and the company's design chief Jony Ive even had a hand in the look of the new Star Wars lightsabers, the importance of product and industrial design has never been clearer.

Once upon a time, design was secondary to the requirements put on a device by a company's engineering, marketing, and even finance departments when it comes to budget concerns. Today, however, designers have a key place in product leadership teams: for many companies their opinion carries as much weight as that of any other department. At Apple, it's the only one that counts, and all other departments have to comply.

Against this background the small Israel design studio Nekuda has grown up. Nekuda, which means 'point' in Hebrew, was founded in 1996 and now sits in the shadow of the American Embassy fortress on the shore of Tel Aviv.

Set up by an engineer and a designer, the company employs around 20 people in both fields, working to create smart, beautiful, and functional designs for a variety of customers in Israel and around the world. Nekuda works with household names including Altec Lansing, Samsung, and TDK, as well as electric car manufacturer BetterPlace, startups, and dedicated Israeli brands like Tami water systems and optic military equipment company Elbit, one of the studio's first customers.

Some of these projects, such as head-mounted displays for Elbit and hydration systems for Tami, have allowed the company to develop skills in ergonomics and optomechanics, which later came in handy for work designing wearables.

We sat down with Noam Bernstein, Nekuda's vice president of business development, to better understand the process of industrial design in the tech world today.

"The strongest trends existing today are IoT and connected devices," said Bernstein. "Both customers from abroad and Israel are focusing on it. Digital health is also on the rise, and tech products for the elderly. The gap between technology and consumerism is narrowing, and we can meet both at the point of mass production."

"For example, we should make a distinction between smart products at home and the smart home - between a real trend and hype. Part of the problem with the smart home is that [most people] don't really need it, and this is why it hasn't developed in the last 12 to 13 years," he added.

"Smart products at home, now that's a different story," Bernstein continued. "For example, a faucet can be smart, a refrigerator can be smart, a TV can be smart - and this is changing the physical world towards integrating with the digital one. We ask: is the extra technology really worth it? Take smart watches - that's in doubt there. [There's a question over] the amount of screens a person is willing to look at... and a second dilemma is whether or not all the sensors are necessary."

The design process

Bernstein described how Nekuda approaches creating hardware.

"If you design a product that humans don't touch, then design doesn't matter," he said. "But for a wearable product, design carries much weight. In consumer products, design will come before the technology."

The first phase involves studying specifications, explained Bernstein. "You examine the competitors, the positioning of the product in the market, and you take a long look at use case scenarios. For example, smart glasses might be worn all the time or for a specific activity. From this small detail a lot of important decisions will be made."

The studio also looks at requirements for the device. "It can be hard ones like certification, product cost, or the tech that has to be inside, but it can also be soft ones, like user experience or the 'wow factor'," he said.

The next phase is configuring the hardware, both on a technological and mechanical level. This involves thinking about which components are to go inside the device and how they will be arranged in a defined space. Often the team makes several mockups. "We should emphasise that, in this phase, the design and development departments and the CFO all have very different visions in mind," Bernstein said.

The third phase is design. "It's very easy to decide upon a design once you see it," he said. "We are trying to give our customers a choice. It will usually be between three or four designs, and the client picks one and gives us their feedback."

Bernstein explained that Nekuda likes to create non-functional 3D models of the product to give its clients a sense of security. "It will look just like the final product," Bernstein said of the models. Once the final design is approved, engineering ramps up.

In the next phase, the first prototype is build. "You work with very specific manufacturing technologies, hardware, plastics, and metal. The first prototype is what we call 'a working beauty'. The only difference between it and a final product is that there are only a few [made]."

The last phase in creating a new piece of hardware is the move to mass production. "Nekuda works with manufacturers around the world... for things like designing plastic molds, production, engineering, and so on," Bernstein said.

From there, the hardware is born.

"This process is right, and not just for large projects, " he added. "It's also right for startups, because it adjusts the technology to the design limits at an early phase. You want to make it small? Put the processing on the smartphone and not in the wearable itself - that's one way to help." Bernstein said that Nekuda supports these kinds of decisions across all departments, working with product and development managers as well as the marketing and manufacturing functions.

"The most important thing in creating a new product is cooperation - to get the right people around the table and have an eye-level discussion," he said.

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