Technical specifications are important considerations when purchasing technology, but let’s face it: Speeds and feeds don’t mean much if the product isn’t also designed to look and perform its best. My team of designers at Dell Technologies is responsible for exploring the latest materials and testing out various finishes, textures, and colors for Dell’s future products.
Like all design functions, it’s a hands-on and highly collaborative role. We examine numerous shades of reflectivity and touch many material samples. We explore tactility, measuring gloss levels and just the right tint of color. We identify future trends and focus on the fine details and the technical exploration on how everything comes together. After all, every detail makes up the total product experience.
In March, due to the pandemic, 90% of Dell Technologies’ 165,000-person global workforce began working from home. Flexible work has been part of our culture for many years, but something that I never imagined I’d be jumping into full-time—let alone overnight. And just as fast as we went remote, so did the consumers for whom we design. Before the pandemic, Dell and other notebook designers were designing with the mobile warrior in mind; now it’s the remote worker/parent- teacher/I’m-stuck-at-home-please-entertain-me warrior.
Here’s what I’m learning through it all.
Accept that some things can’t be done virtually
Dell has design studios and labs around the world, with meeting spaces, clutter-free neutral rooms, various lighting options, design resource libraries, storage and archive space, and more. In normal times, many of our designers worked alongside each other in-office four to five days a week, with around 95% of team members in one of our studios for key presentations and executive reviews.
The temporary closure of our studios presented a new challenge for our entire design team. Even though we were used to working with global and remote colleagues almost every day, we had to go back to the drawing board for a new approach. We had to define working remotely in our own way, now that 95% of us were working virtually, with only a couple of (masked, social-distancing) colleagues occasionally in-studio for vital in-person tasks such as sharing a live feed of physical concepts for review sessions. We’ve outfitted team members with at-home kits of important tools, such as spectrophotometers and lightboxes. But other things we normally considered imperative, such as sight, touch, and close collaboration and proximity with colleagues, were just the start of the challenges we looked to solve.
Learning new ways to communicate the visual
As designers, most of our communication has always been conveyed through our visual—as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. However, with the team now working remotely, the pendulum has shifted, and my design team and I have had to learn to flex other communication muscles.
Depicting color over a video call, for example, doesn’t compare to looking at a physical sample, because we’re all in different environments and might have our displays at different brightness levels. But when you can’t fly across the world to present physical samples to suppliers or clients, you must create an immersive visual story to guide them virtually. I’ve learned the importance of tapping into my audience’s emotions to convey the feeling I’m trying to capture with my design.
We leverage many technologies to enhance the professionalism of our work in the studios, and have had to reimagine the tools and devices we have available as we learn how to up-level the richness and fidelity of what we’re trying to convey virtually. We’ve integrated digital SLR cameras, gimbals to steady the cameras from shaky hands, and wide-angle lenses to replace standard webcams and mobile phone cameras for design language reviews.
Live and animated videos have replaced PowerPoint decks and static images for sharing mood boards, design concepts, and product features. We’ve adopted intuitive collaboration software tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack more broadly, often replacing email chains and serving as virtual studios of sorts. Some teams have even rigged green screens in their homes for partner presentations we previously held in-person.
Channeling your inner consumer
Away from the office, I’m removed from the hundreds of different opinions flying at me throughout the day, which frees me to “trust my gut.” I’ve gained greater confidence and conviction throughout this time at home. You truly must believe in yourself and your product in order to sell it.
For many of us at Dell, the virtual world has meant we’ve felt empowered to just keep things moving without checking every decision with peers or management, and we’re taking more ownership than ever before. With more time to think strategically and more trust among the team, we’re seeing bigger ideas coming to life. We’ve already developed new strategies in the past year around how we make our products look softer and more human.
As I work from home, I’m constantly thinking about how we can develop products that fit better within the home. Understanding how our devices fit within the larger scheme of an environment is important, how they play against the canvas of the room, how they look among our other belongings, and the connection they have to our everyday lives.
The challenges we’ve encountered working from home have also inspired us to think differently about the designs in process on our current products. Through video calls, we’re now inviting far more colleagues into our homes than ever before. We were previously focused on designing for mobility, but with many of us in new environments ourselves, we’re getting firsthand experience with the features that are rising to the top of the priority list for the new ways we’ll need to work and play.
Rewriting the nine-to-five
Even the da Vincis of the world can’t design on demand. Inspiration looks different for everyone, and although collaboration is important, stripping away the distractions we’re used to in the office allows us to explore our individual creativity.
Working from home has allowed me to cut down on things that took unnecessary headspace before, like my commute. I used to schedule life around work. But at home, it feels easier to schedule work around my life. I can do my best thinking outside regular working hours, and I can simply enjoy more me time. Exploring your passions outside work is the secret to doing better work.
My new workspace has also given me a new perspective and frees me to see products differently than I might in our studios. One thing I love to do is examine product colors at all hours of the day. I can view them in morning, midday, and evening light; in my kitchen, my backyard, wherever. This helps me to visualize how our products might look on retail shelves, how our customers see them during the unboxing process, what the products look like from the top view or side view, and how the colors look in different environments among the other products and devices we own.
This crazy social experiment isn’t over yet, but I’ve learned a lot working at home. My team has unleashed creativity we never knew we had and grown closer as a team, while also gaining newfound autonomy. I’ve heard from team members and colleagues across the business that our internal culture has strengthened during these difficult times. We’ve learned to listen to our intuition, trust each other, and play by our own rules, all which help make us more innovative in our individual roles.
But physical experiences are still part of human nature. I don’t see myself being fully remote forever, but I’m already thinking through how we can blend our old ways of working with the new.
Falza Khanani is color, material, and finish design strategy director at Dell Technologies.