Flexible Thinking: Designers at the Edge
Designers often play it safe in the center, but step out on the edge and you’ll likely see things much differently. Joe Fjelstad shares his thoughts.View Story
“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge, you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” –Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut was a favorite author of mine during the 1960s. He wrote several fanciful and entertaining novels over his career, and he always managed to slip in a thoughtful message here and there for his readers to ponder. The above quote is from his first novel, Player Piano, published in 1952.
It is the story of engineer Paul Proteus, struggling to find a way to live in a world dominated by a supercomputer and run completely by machines. Side note: Proteus was the Greek god of water and of change, and it is also a name for a PCB design software tool, but that is coincidental. As an aspiring young science geek in the nascent technical mecca of electronics technology, Santa Clara Valley (the name before Silicon Valley), its theme was very entertaining to me. But as we are learning—and others have warned over the ensuing seven decades—it also turned out to be pretty close to current reality, but I digress.
Given the theme of Design007 Magazine this month, where this column finds its home, Vonnegut’s quote is a good one for designers to hang on their walls near their design stations. As I have stated in previous columns, designers are the drum majors of the electronics industry—the leaders of the electronic interconnection industry band and parade. The decisions made by designers have an impact all the way down the manufacturing line. Designers are generally called upon to design products that conform to norms and admonished not to challenge the status quo. In the past, I have written that the designer should design with manufacturing rather than for manufacturing. I hold fast to that notion. However, a hallmark quality of the best designers I’ve had the privilege to know over the years has been their penchant for thinking “differently.” They would come up with ideas that were outside normal design practice, often pushing the limits of design norms.
I had the pleasure of working with one such designer, John Goodrich, when he was with National Semiconductor and founder and president/CEO Charlie Sporck was still at the helm. It was in the mid-1980s when, while running process development at Printed Circuit Builders Inc.—a small but spunky PCB company in Silicon Valley—that I first met John. He came into the shop with an unusual idea. He wanted us to make a multichip module comprised of a castellated package with chips that would be wire bonded on the top and bottom, encapsulated, and then a third chip a UV EPROM beneath a windowed cap; this was then surface-mounted to the top of the first assembly. He needed it to demonstrate a new product to Ford less than three weeks later in order to secure a multi-million-dollar contract from the customer. The company had already made the product, which consisted of two ceramic packages bonded one on top of the other. It had form and function, but it did not fit.
Printed Circuit Builders Inc. had experience making many of the things John needed, but there were many other new things that needed to be learned. John and I worked closely to make it happen, trying to accommodate the needs of the other in getting the process defined. He asked if it could be done and if it would work. I told him I felt it could be done and that we would yield some good assemblies, but I could not predict what the yield would be. To make a long story short, our cooperative exercise was a success, and the contract was secured. Our company received a nice, personal letter of thanks from Sporck—a most thoughtful and gentlemanly gesture from one of the men recognized as a founding father of Silicon Valley.
What John envisioned at the moment was outside the box of normal design. The solution demanded it, and John responded accordingly. It was many more years before I saw something akin to what we did back then finally showcased in technical literature. I have known other designers as well who refused to be hemmed in or corralled by convention. They have been mavericks, and the industry needs mavericks. It needs more designers willing to follow Peter Proteus to the edge. In the center is the known, but it’s at the edge where change is found—and progress comes only from change.
Think differently, embrace change, and you will cause change. It is the only way change has ever come or ever will come about.
Stay safe and stay well.
This column originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Design007 Magazine in the FLEX007 section.
Designers often play it safe in the center, but step out on the edge and you’ll likely see things much differently. Joe Fjelstad shares his thoughts.View Story
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