Alastair D. McGown B.Eng. (Hons) M.Des (photo) and
Dr. Graham Green B.Sc.
PhD. M.Tech. C.Eng. M.I.Mech.E.,
University of Glasgow, UK.

Electronic mail: URL:
Telephone: +44 (0)141 3398.855 ext.4119 or +44 (0)141 3304.119 direct. Fax: +44 (0)141 3304.343 Click here for audio statement. Speaker ICONAIFF (45k)

Recording The Design Process In Real Time:

Innovative Design Concept Synthesis

Alistair D McGown B.Eng. (Hons) M.Des

Dr. Graham Green B.Sc. PhD. M.Tech. C.Eng. M.I.Mech.E.

Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, Glasgow University


In times of compressed design schedules and increasing parallelism in engineering and product design, a rigorous design record made as 'design happens' can retrospectively unearth the long forgotten secrets of who did what and why. All too often the origins of a successful design are shrouded in the mists of time but by recording all the relevant inputs to the design it is possible that the most significant factor in a product's success can be isolated.

The design record could also provide objective prompts to the designers, reminding them of the complex issues already involved at even this early stage, and enabling them to devote their full energies to generating innovative concepts in response. To this end, the creativity of designers must be analysed. How much of the conceptual design synthesis activity is rational and how much is hopeful conjecture and hunches? Designers' mental processes are externalised in various ways (through sketches and models for example) but are these `messages' particularly 'meaningful or communicative 'at present? It is these externalisations that the design record will need to capture and understand.

Through retrospective protocol analysis of design projects and comparison with current recording techniques in industry it is hoped to design an effective computer-based system which will form a powerful tool for design groups and their managers. Issues raised in this paper will be illustrated by examples from student project work.

Why do we need a design record?

In times of compressed design schedules and increasing parallelism in engineering and product design it is all the more essential to record the inputs and decisions made as the process progresses. This allows for any retrospective view to unearth the long forgotten secrets of who did what and why.

If looked at in a slightly negative way such a retrospective design record can find the cause of product failures and be used to apportion blame. When the wings fall off an aircraft a professionally-kept design record can go a long way to proving that the company looked into every possibility of failure and are thus not responsible (as opposed to purely irresponsible).

Liability aside, it is not inconceivable that the recording of decisions, personnel (sic) opinion, and the passage of information will yield the secrets of a design that eventually becomes successful. This way, auditing design appears positively beneficial and not just a useful exercise in damage limitation.

Design records made in real time provide not only a historical viewpoint but also a snapshot of the present.

`Through it all, everything appears in flux, interwoven and turbulent. Still, the shutter must click, images must be fixed, decisions made.'

[Bucciarelli 1988]

From there the design evolves and moves on, and yet more snapshots are taken. All of the important inputs to the design must be passed on to those responsible for furthering it (this suggests that a design record can stimulate creativity and activity as well as `play it back'). How often are these `signposts' recorded? If not at all, then little wonder no-one can work out where the final design came from.

From [Burns and Stalker 1959]:

`Even though the final responsibility for taking a particular action rests with some definite person, we shall always find... that its various components can be traced through the formal and informal channels of communication to many individuals who have participated in forming its premises.'

The interactions between influences to the design can become complex and diverse and in order to combat the very finite nature of human short term memory the system should, whenever desired, provide a prompt to the designer, a reminder of `where we are' and `how we got here'. This is rather like a prompt from the pit: a competent designer becomes a bad actor. Though he routinely performs design tasks each day like a jobbing actor who knows his lines and stage directions as if by rote, he dries up on stage when his memory is defeated by his lack of motivation.


The front-end of the design process is where the biggest creative leaps are often to be found. It is during this conceptual phase that opportunities are formulated or discovered, and initial attempts made to make that opportunity manifest. It is generally accepted that design activity begins with a statement of need encapsulated within a product design specification, design brief or whatever. As long ago as 1972 Knut Yran at Philips, Eindhoven instigated a formalised `Project Brief' which recorded the aims to be achieved. Designers were required to have a copy of the brief available in pockets on their drawing boards. Yran's thinking was that;

`the main task of design management must be to assist in collating the relevant information possessed by all the parties concerned in a project brief. To a surprising extent the creative process is in formulating the problem.' [Heskett 1989]

Today we have Linn Products, the quality hi-fi manufacturer, utilising methodological design strategies. In following Pugh's idea of Total Design [Pugh 1990] they produce an updated verbal Product Design Specification at the end of each phase of the complete design process. Thus, in theory, they produce four intermediate records of the design process and one final specification.

Therefore as the design process proceeds so the information about the product being designed increases. The design process may therefore be viewed as progressing from an information poor condition to one that is information rich. The richness of information relates not only to the quantity of information but also to the quality of understanding of the relationship between the elements of information. In the domains of artificial intelligence and information technology, recent work has followed different paths. Navinchandra [1991] takes an AI approach to create a problem-solver, while Tsiotsias [1994] expands on frame-based knowledge representation to create a relational database recording inputs to the design process. More recently Ullmann [1995] has proposed a decision support mechanism that captures subjective opinions expressed within group design activity.

Enhanced quality of information enables more accurate externalisation of design ideas and subsequent recording of the process. This is particularly evident during the embodiment and detail phases of the engineering design process where externalisations such as performance calculations, detailed manufacturing drawings, simulations and prototypes are made available. Indeed many industrial companies are known to use the changes made to issued engineering drawings as a means of recording the effectiveness of the design process.

The conceptual phase of the design process requires the synthesis, evaluation, analysis and communication of ideas within an information poor environment. Design tools and methods are being made available to enhance conceptual design performance and to aid recording of the design process within the evaluation activity [Green 94] but little has been done to provide methods that enable the recording of creative synthesis activity.

Defining the system

How can the system best support the design process as-it-happens? We can imagine it as performing one of three functions.

1) The Intelligent Decision-Maker assessing designers' submissions against previously agreed criteria and issuing subsequent directives.

2) The Electronic Grapevine acting as a noticeboard for current thinking amongst all of the designers engaged in the same project, like some kind of controlled InterNet.

3) The Management Soapbox constantly reminding the designers of the driving philosophies and also acting as a Big Brother figure carrying out random checks on each individual's contribution to the project as well as noting progress of the project as a whole.

In deciding which, if any, of these suggestions best serves the designers it may prove useful to take note of observations by [Burns & Stalker 1959, Twiss 1974, Medland 1990] which state the importance of informal communications, all of which currently go unrecorded. Twiss goes as far as to say that they `carry the life blood of the business, information, through the body of the firm' while Medland warns that:

`Once the group size increases beyond the point at which individuals are uniquely responsible for a particular activity or skill, communications and control will break down if left on an informal basis'

Formal mechanisms, meanwhile, may more rigidly hold information in the shape of Product Design Specifications and management-defined briefs and directives. The system will thus communicate management philosophy to varying degrees. This introduces the idea of varying modes, covering the most important policy-affecting variables. Such switchable modes might involve notions of scale, geography, risk and structure (whether it is organic or mechanistic [Burns and Stalker 1959]).

If the support system is to record creativity by designers, then we must first determine whether such a phenomenon can be observed. Is it merely an epiphenomenon - something whose effects can be observed but which cannot be isolated in itself? To this end a retrospective study has been made of a successful final year design project by a student of Product Design Engineering at Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow University.

This investigation of design protocols includes a study of a project which exhibits `innovation' or creativity and another which displays finer attention to detail in response to what is perhaps a more well-defined problem. These projects require great self-motivation on the part of the student over eight months and are usually investigations into problem areas which they themselves have recognised. This study will try to ascertain to what extent the designer acts rationally and how much is hopeful conjecture and hunches. Again it is vitally important to determine how much the designers' mental processes are externalised, and what form these externalisations take, since only tangible evidence can be recorded.

It is hoped to test any prototype system in either an industrial or further education environment.

To conclude

Looking to the future, one which some will feel they are already building towards, [Heap 1989] has identified the ideal to support the constantly changing design goals of a product in a parallel engineering environment:

`When standards are reviewed and modified, a system must exist to ensure that all copies of the standard are updated and that everyone is working to the new standard.'

Whatever the method, past, present or future, the reasoning is still the same. As Yran said :

`The more proficient the runner, the further he will be from his goal if he runs in the wrong direction.'


Bucciarelli, L.L. [1988] Engineering Design Process in Dubinskas (Ed) Making True Ethnographics of High Tech Organisations, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1988.

Burns, T and Stalker, G.M. [1959] The Management of Innovation, Tavistock, London, 1959.

Green, G. [1994] Evaluation activity within the conceptual phase of the design process, PhD Thesis, University of Glasgow, 1994.

Heap, J.P. [1989] The Management of Innovation and Design, Cassell, ISBN 0 304 32218 0, 1989.

Heskett, J. [1989] Philips: A study of the corporate management of design, Trefoil, ISBN 0 86294 120, 1989.

Medland, T. [1990] The Future: Design and New Technology in Oakley, M (Ed) Design Management: A handbook of issues and methods, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990.

Navinchandra, D. [1991] Exploration and Innovation in Design, Springer Verlag, ISBN 0 387 97481 4, 1991.

Pugh, S. [1994] Total Design, Addison Wesley, ISBN 0201 41639 5, 1990

Tsiotsias, A. [1994] Design Method and Management Utility Enabling the Concurrent Exercise of Distributed Expertise, PhD Thesis, University of Glasgow, 1994.

Twiss, B. [1974] Managing Technological Innovation, Longman, ISBN 0 582 45040 3, 1974.

Ullmann, G [1995] Computer Support for Design Team Decisions, VDI Berichte Nr. 1169, pp. 83-95, 1995



For the Cyberbridge Gateway use the key