Interview for EARCH.CZ | WHAT IS DESIGN?

| part 1 |

The following article was given for the magazine e-architekt | EARCH.CZ | architecture online and was published in four parts in 2012.  It was posted in Czech, obviously, and this is the first time it has been published in English. 

How did you get to work with Nemetschek Allplan?

First, in 2001, I worked with Peter Mehlstaeubler, who was head of development for Alias | Wavefront. I was the Vice President of design at FrogDesign at the time and a longtime user of Alias Studio (high-end software for Industrial Design). Alias was developing a new breakthrough product for intuitive 3D modeling. I acquired and led this project at FrogDesign to design the user experience: This included design of the GUI [graphic user interface], development of UI [user interaction] principles, as well as the branding and packaging for the product.

NavCubeUnfortunately, due to vexing technical issues the product was never launched, but some of the design elements from this product lived on. The GUI design language was repurposed as the foundation for Alias’s peripheral products, such as ImageStudio, Portfolio Wall, and Sketchbook Pro. And one of the most innovative aspects of the UI we came up with was the Navigation Cube, which has become a benchmark function in Alias’s product line; plus this feature has became ubiquitous in almost all software products of its parent company Autodesk.

Eight years after that Alias project, Peter called me up as the CEO of Nemetschek Allplan to explore a 3D conceptual design project for the Architectural CAD market. My firm Alchemy Labs in San Francisco took on the project, and 8 months later, after its successful completion, I was asked to join Allplan as their CDO (Chief Design Officer). It was an exciting opportunity to take the concepts we had developed as a consultancy and help transform them into reality at Allplan.

What is the basis of your work in the CDO for Nemetschek Allplan?

I found that in Europe is a popular take design as a form of fashion or style. I think that design is continually misunderstood everywhere. So I would like to offer up my definition in 3 parts, each in the context of my practice:

The first way I like to frame it – Design is an elegant symphony of both “form and function,” producing a connected customer experience. The key is this simultaneous holistic approach – not one aspect “following” another, either sequentially or in seclusion (as the famous phrase entails). You can see the value of this approach living in companies like Apple. So as CDO I set out to be the orchestrator of that customer experience throughout Allplan.

My second definition: “Design is the art of caring.” Just paying attention to something, you transform it and make it better. At Allplan there is so much to look at, to pay attention to – obviously the company’s CAD products, but also its brand and web presence, all the way down to its customer invoicing. So by definition, my job as CDO was to draw attention to all the important customer touch points and to help the teams at Allplan build consistent experiences around them.

My ultimate purpose, and the fundamental definition I use in practice: “Good Design is change for the better.” As simplistic as this definition appears (like the medical precept, “first, do no harm”), we have all experienced designs that did not follow this rule. This definition also reveals the inescapable truth that Design = Change. Being the CDO meant that at a very high level I was an agent for change. Needless to say, this role kept me very busy – working hard to improve the User Experience (UX) for Allplan’s customers, one touch point at a time.

What is your process when creating UI or design of a product?

Well, with over two decades of design practice under my belt, my process has become well defined: Simply put, I lead my team on a crusade to create great experiences for every client, just as any architect. Instead of producing 2D Plans, the product of our effort would be some sort of 3D Database for manufacturing or 4D Prototype for development, along with production artwork, guidelines and graphic standards.


Most of the time it was my clients’ job to implement the product or service with their internal teams and talent. But as you can imagine, this leads to mixed results depending on the given clients’ desire and discipline to follow the design we hand over. This was one of my main incentives to joining Allplan as their CDO, to be able to shepherd the concepts we designed at Alchemy and to help guide implementation from inside Allplan. The reality of this role, and its unforeseen challenges, resulted in a complete and fundamental rethinking of “Design as a Process.” Now we approach design as more of an experiment – one that’s subject to its own evolutionary process of success and failure in harsh environment of the “user.” This means we need to get our ideas in front of the user at the earliest stages of conceptual design.

This means that every idea needs to have a life of its own. Its inception begins with a “leap of faith” hypothesis, that then grows through a validated learning procedure (rooted in scientific methodology). With each iteration, the idea gains strength through testing each subsequent step with actual users. Successful ideas move forward; Failures force adaptation, and sometimes inspire a radical “mutation” if the core idea is found wanting. This approach produces highly effective results, self-selecting design attributes most suitable for survival in the context of customer needs. Ideas born and raised within a rigorous consumer environment will more likely prosper in the marketplace. This process is not meant to be a “one off” design effort – it needs to be followed consistently, cycling over and over endlessly. This is Continuous Product Development. Sound familiar? It should, because it is a man-made version of Natural Selection, the process that has put us as the top of the food chain after 4.6 billion years of continuous experimentation. It’s almost a science, in the best sense of the word.

>> go to part 2

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