The president pointed a gun at me

“A diamond grid texture like this.”

The president said, opening his hand on the gun’s grip and showing it to me. It’s not the first time a gun has been pointed at me but it was the first, and only, time in a design discussion.

The company designed and manufactured portable analytical instrumentation. 100% independent with all functions in one building, my boss and I were the only designers in the R&D group of about 25 engineers, chemists and physicists.  The president was the company founder, a stereotypical Brit: intelligent, eloquent, occasionally sarcastic. He was one of the rare CEO’s that believed in the fundamental importance of coherent design to establish brand, often comparing small us to our large global competitors saying that to compete we simply have to be better than they are in everything. I liked him and occasionally wandered into his office just to talk, usually on some design topic. Consequently, on his tours through the R&D area he’d stop at my desk, usually to study design sketches.

Our European sales representative, a truly nice gentleman completely Danish in appearance and name, proposed a new project with incredible provenance. He contributed information to draft environmental legislation in the European parliament and he described a product concept that would leverage this new law.

The European parliament was drafting environmental legislation to detect and prosecute municipal waste-water polluters. Due to European cities mixed residential and industrial neighbourhoods illegal dumping into municipal sewage systems was difficult to prosecute. The draft legislation described approved analytical methods to detect pollutants and procedures to trace-back-to-source. Our European representative was hopeful that if we could develop the new product fast enough he might get it included by actual name in some part of the legislation as he expected the parliamentary process to be quite slow. I never learned if he was successful in this, however it was an excellent proposal and he was successful in that the company started work on the project immediately.

The unusual provenance of the project meant that our European representative delivered an extremely clear and thorough product definition document including technical requirements, use scenarios and user profiles. Also, important to me, my boss announced it was completely my project as he had confidence and we were just too busy with other projects.

I started concept sketches, a lot of them of course.

With input from an electrical engineer and a PCB designer I also did some CAD layouts to validate the concepts.

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The requirements naturally drove the form factor to a handheld sculpted brick or slab.  Instinctively I indicated various styles of grip texture in the hand hold area, mostly Braun razor-like grid of raised bumps but also wrap around ridges. This little detail elicited a lot of comments, user’s were expected to be wearing large bulky gloves, so my hints at hand grip texture were an obvious visual clue in the sketch concepts that “the team really understands”.

Before returning to Europe our representative sat with me for an informal design review. I was explaining some sketch concept details when, in his precise English, he responded:

“You must realize the user’s are only trained in the use of the shovel.”

So, those design details did not make it into the final product.

The design progressed quickly to an accepted concept. Renderings were done, marker and pastel, copied and distributed, including a beautifully illustrated hand grip texture field of Braun razor-like raised bumps.

But, the electrical engineer had been working hard too and convinced us we could use these new NiMH rechargeable batteries instead of our usual NiCd. The NiMH batteries were much smaller, so I adapted the design concept, deleted hand grip texture but showed a wrist strap instead, and sent out new renderings. Everyone seemed to agree it was now a nicer proportioned package.  The European representative sent word back to us the wrist strap was excellent as “The shovel user’s won’t look for it if they drop it where they’re working.”

And then the president rounds the R&D cubicle corner and sits beside me.

“We’ll probably be private labeling this for a large equipment rental agency. How can we design this in with no additional cost?”

I had designed molded in legends and soft key guide lines. I suggested we can mold a recess and apply a printed label, one for us and the equipment rental agency prints their own label from my drawing.

“Excellent, do it.  But with that display and soft keys we need some visual guides. Can you put in a ruled graticule?

He pronounced it with rrroled r’s. Okay. I didn’t know what a ruled graticule was (it’s a grid, remember the president is an eloquent Brit)

Maybe you can sketch it for me so I get it right.

Rrruled grrraticule sketched, the president continued:

“What did you do with the grip?  You read the European representative’s description of how it’s used. We need a hand grip texture.”

And then the president held up a shiny chrome Glock-like pistol, pointing it at me and admiring it.

“Pistol grips are beautiful. A diamond grid texture like this. I’ve always admired the diamond grid on pistol grips, the knurled finish, you see it everywhere. It’s beautiful, functional, it’s exactly what we need. Can you do it?”

Who debates “wrist strap” vs. “diamond grid” with a man with a gun.

I’ll talk to our molder, it should be possible, but probably expensive. It could add a few thousands to the tool.

“It’s worth it.  Let me know what they say.”

In conclusion, my advice for young designers is when the president describes design details he wants while pointing a gun at you, the president gets what the president wants. Nineteen years later I am living proof of this.

There are two post scripts to this diamond grid texture story.

This was our first stereolithography rapid prototype. Due to the fast pace development, brochures were printed with photographs using the finished SLA parts. The diamond grid texture was too intricate to hand finish smooth so even painted flat black it showed the odd layer stratification over the compound curve surface pyramidal diamond grid.

Applying a pyramidal diamond grid on a compound curve surface P20 tool steel insert did indeed result in a question from the tool maker:

“Are you sure this is what you want?”

Months later on a site visit I asked the GM exactly how they applied it to the tool.

“A combination of both methods.”

I’m still not sure I fully understand what he meant, but their tool room did an excellent job.

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