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How a leading Research Institute and a Conceptual Designer are challenging traditional product development at the Campus

You don’t need to work for long in industry to know that great ideas don’t travel very far inside organisations. They have difficulty in identifying and nurturing ideas. For as they grow, companies tend to quickly lose their risky, “try- it-and-see approach” of the founder’s garage workshop.

Ideas are artificially stretched across an organisational structure, one person handles sales, the other focuses on engineering. Decisions are now made at the top, cascading down through the  organisation. This definitely worked in the past. But, increasingly, this incremental approach to  developing products is being challenged.

After an informal introduction at a Campus dinner, Rik van de Wiel, R&D Manager at imec and Conceptual Designer and Lecturer Marijn van der Poll started exploring how idea and concept based thinking could be integrated into imec’s R&D process. Both have been part of small nimble organisations as well witnessing the pitfalls of large organisations. Rik previously worked for a startup, where he jokingly suggested printing business cards with just a name. “Just before the meeting I’d fill in the job title depending who I was seeing and what fitted the  conversation.” 

Where Engineers will see technology as the solution for each problem, designers at times seem more like artists; coming up with brilliant ideas but not commercially oriented.

Marijn van der Poll explains:  “This may be partially true but the conceptual design approach has a unique quality when it comes to creating and nurturing strong ideas. It starts with the methodical analysis of the entire scope of a product. That makes it different from a typical out of the box session in front of a flip over. Secondly the resulting concept is leading during development, it is not a phase with boundaries, it is the blueprint for every action from a sketch, to making a model in the workshop, to the presentation of the final product. The funny thing is that the proces is taught purely based on experience by knowledgeable active professionals, there’s no textbook, it is a matter of learning through doing.  It has been able to develop as a method because of this organic structure.  And with diverse results from Motorola’s upcoming Phonebloks smartphone (380,000,000. social media reach)by Dave Hakkens to Maarten Baas’ Sweeper’s clock being acquired by the MOMA in New York on the other side of the spectrum. It is consistently about putting the idea first and staying true to it.”

Rik suggested using the first corporate training session at imec for the kick‐off of a project for a  consumer product using their EEG technology.  A strong concept was needed as imec is responsible not for a component but for the entire product and is taking the lead alongside several other partners. There were also many variables in the briefing. The entire team started the day with a cramming session on conceptual thinking. Like investigative journalists they asked the 6W’s- What,  Why,  When,  Where,  Who and hoW to map the product’s functioning. Everyone had to research all aspects regardless of their job title; from engineering to marketing, from customer insights to emotional experiences. This way of thinking ended up offering them  solutions no-one had thought as total product concepts were discussed, analysed and judged across disciplines. The next phase in this ongoing project will be to formalise the concept in a blueprint with the client and use that as the guideline for all stakeholders during further development.

How does Conceptual Thinking benefit an organisation?

  1. It maps the bigger picture creating a mutual understanding between you and your client of what the products means, not just a list of technical characteristics. The Conceptual Blueprint defines a common purpose in making a successful product.
  2. Streamlining r&d inside a company. SIMPLE, transparent set of key values for all stakeholders, making them equal owners and holding each accountable. It eliminates possible costly delays, backtracking as a result of compartmentalised development. Each person involved uses the same blueprint and can judge if the decision made is true to the key values.
  3. Conceptual thinking is not about design, it is a cross disciplinary analysis tool that can be used by anyone regardless of their role to map a complex problem. It initially relies on a person’s knowledge, experience and emotions such as empathy and tying those together. It benefits the organisation but is equally rewarding as an individual skill.
    “Marijn: All the ingredients for bringing r&d into the 21st century have been there for a while. Nor do you need to tear down your organisational structure. I mean the first product concept in advertising dates from 1879 and today is still called Ivory Soap. It is a product, with a scientifically proven 99% purity, becoming its slogan and the first pay-off in history.

    I believe that a good product concept can be identified by analysing across disciplines and nailed down in a blueprint regardless of the organisational structure. The trick is to ask the right questions and find short answers. I often see a long spec sheet in front of me at a kick off at which point I ask what it would read if the same product had to be described in 20 words or so, that which is left when it hits the shelf or finds it way to your doorstep.”