Yurchenco and Sun on the Stanford Design Program

Source: Interview with Jim Yurchenco and Rickson Sun, 26 April 2000.

Industrial Design at Stanford

Pang: Both Jim Sachs and Dean Hovey talk at some length about the Stanford program as having contributed important things to their approach to design, to their thinking about designing with an eye to manufacturing. I wondered if you could say about your background, and how you learned to visualize things?

David Kelley, Jim Sachs and Dean Hovey talk in their interviews about the Stanford program's influence on them.

Yurchenco: Well, I went to Stanford, but I got a Master's from the Fine Arts Department, I got an MFA in Sculpture. So actually I've never had an engineering course in my academic career. Of course, sculpture is partly visualization of objects and space and volumes, and my work tended more toward the technological end of things, particularly at Stanford I built a lot of interactive mechanisms and so forth.

I knew a lot of people in the Stanford design program because I hung out in the product design shop. As soon as I got to campus I found about it and went down, and met Dave Beech, who ran it, and we've been friends ever since. I basically lived there. Of course, at the time the design division was attached to the shop, and that was where I met David Kelley, and quite a few other people in the program, but I never actually took any courses in the program.

Sun: I think what we benefited from-- Jim did it without thinking about it-- but a lot of engineers are used to sitting around calculating, and thinking about a solution to a problem. Jim's technique was very consistent with what the program was teaching, which was build it, touch it, feel it, and you're going to learn more from that than sitting around and thinking about it. Once in a while you have to do a couple calculations... but usually you can learn so much more from touching and feeling something.

That's really the point of view the program presented. We can talk about the specific courses, but it started with ME 101 and visualization, where they teach you how to imagine and use your mind's eye and do experiments in your head, but imagining things; then they tie it into the shop. Dave Beech was a critical part of it, actually quickly getting up and creating something that you could touch and taste and smell.

Design for Manufacturability

Yurchenco: Well it's not just that you have an object that you've created-- though that's an important part of the process-- but also in learning how you build those objects, you learn, what can I actually do in the real world. You can put all sorts of stuff on paper that you can't make. And by being exposed at least at some level to shop processes and shop technologies, you quickly realize that, "Boy, I can draw this thing, but I'm going to create living Hell for someone downstream who actually has to make it."

So one of the emphases is on manufacturability, and to some extent injection molding has different parameters associated with it: since you're only making the tool once you can get away with things that are extremely difficult. But still, even if you have these injection molded parts you have to be able to assemble these objects, and people have to be able to put these parts together.

So the whole awareness of the human being as part of this process of technology is one of the things that the Stanford program emphasizes. Technology doesn't just exist over in its corner there without some human context, whether it's the guy who's making the part, or the person who's assembling it, or the user of the product. I think it's one of the things that's really important that that program emphasizes.

Sun: I think that's absolutely right. Designing from human experience is very much the focus. I think the key thing is never forgetting the human, and always testing your idea against what the human involved can do. But the issue of making it is frequently ignored... and a large number of people we've met or interviewed learned in their schooling that it was okay to ignore that, because someone else would take care of that. I think that's a significant advantage that the Stanford program has, that all the engineers were asked to make stuff. It was part of the course and training.

Yurchenco: You think about your own experiences. Maybe you've worked on your car, and there's something you have to do on a regular basis that's almost impossible because some engineer didn't actually go beyond his drawing board, and go an build a little model, and say, "Can I get to that oil filer, or is that spark plug accessible?" And you start to wonder, this really isn't engineering. This is not-- it's something else, but it's not nothing to do with engineering, with good design.


Sun: I'm not sure if this word was used back at Stanford, but we use it here at IDEO, and that's "empathy": empathy for all the people who are going to be involved with the product. And so being able to take their points of view, empathizing not just with the person who makes the mold, but with the person who has to mold the part, but the person who has to take the flash off--we can by understanding the players and their points of view we can make a better product. All the people have to snap these parts together, we think, "How hard to they have to push to snap these parts together?" They have to do this all day and all night, will they, what's their lives going to be like? The people who have to put these in boxes, the people who have to write instruction manuals-- every point where a person touches this product is an opportunity for us to develop empathy for their point of view.

David Kelley talks about the importance of human values in product design at IDEO.

Yurchenco: And of course, in this phase of our careers, we were pretty naive about what could actually be done. [laughs] We didn't have any human factors people in our organization, there was no one to talk to, so we were talking to your peers, who have about as much experience as you do; but you have your own human experience, and at least you were coming from a point of view, of starting from the right place.


Document created on 10 June 2000;