Industrial design is like surgery, auto racing or a military operation in that things can go horribly wrong. And they often do, although no one really talks about it. In this new section for Core77, we'll take stories from working industrial designers—namely, our readers—willing to recount some of the humorous, maddening or just plain stupid things that have happened to them on the job. While the stories you'll read here are true, companies, clients, and of course designers are all anonymized to protect the innocent.
Got a "True I.D. Story" yourself? Find out down at the bottom of this entry how you can talk to one of our editors and win yourself a $25 gift certificate to Hand-Eye Supply.
First up: "NewbieDesigner" tells us about his/her first on-the-job I.D. disaster.
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True I.D. Story #1: Off the Grid
As a freshly-minted Bachelor of Industrial Design, some years ago I landed my first job at an exhibition design firm. It was a small operation, just eight people, but very successful due to the patronage of major corporate clients like [Telecom Operator] and [Consumer Products Manufacturer]. We did everything for them environments-related: Exhibits for tradeshows, signage, retail environments, even custom executive offices and residences for some of the corporate bigwigs.
I had to share an office with a junior designer, I'll call him JD. Nice enough guy but I couldn't stand him—he was the kind of guy who said accidentally racist or idiotic things, like the time the office ordered Chinese takeout and I started eating it with the provided chopsticks. (I'm Asian-American.) JD commented that chopsticks were stupid, from a design standpoint—fair enough, that's his opinion—then went on to say that anyone living in America shouldn't be using chopsticks no matter what kind of food they were eating. I told him my parents use chopsticks, and he said "Yeah but I mean American people." (Both of my parents are U.S. citizens.)
Occasionally I'd have the office we shared to myself, as JD would be sent away to oversee one project or another. Those days were heaven. But I'd only been at the job a couple of months when they said I'd be going away, too; they were going to fly me to [U.S. City] to oversee a retail installation. Ordinarily JD would do it, but he was busy with another job, and while they wouldn't normally send someone as green as me, there was no one else free.
My boss, who was a super-nice guy—I couldn't understand how he'd hired JD—told me the job would be simple: I was to fly out to [Consumer Products Manufacturer's] flagship store in [U.S. City] and after they closed at 6pm, I was to oversee the installation of the new retail display system our firm had designed. It was a straightforward operation: We had these Master Display Guide Booklets printed up that showed you where each product was to be displayed within the system, and my job was simply to see that the store display matched up with the Guide Booklet. (To give you an idea of how long ago this was, we did all of the Guide Booklets in Quark Xpress.) It all sounded easy-peasy.
I was to spend the night there at a swanky hotel, and the next morning I'd head to the store before they opened to meet one of the corporate bigwigs, a VP of something or other, to show him what we'd done. This job was my first introduction to corporate stuff, and I knew this guy was important because people used both his first and last name. What I mean by that is, we had a lot of meetings at our corporate clients' headquarters, and people were always introduced by name and department, like "This is Janice from Marketing" or "You'll need to talk to Tony from Operations." But when it was someone important, it was always "You'll be meeting with [First-Name Last-Name.]"
I was excited and a little nervous. I'd never been to [U.S City] and was looking forward to seeing it. (This was before I realized a business trip means you get to see the airport, the hotel and the workspace.)
My flight landed on time, and I checked into the hotel without event. The store was directly across the street from the hotel—so much for seeing [U.S. City]—and I headed over to the store at 6:01pm to meet with the manager.
The center of the store was filled with crates. Our new display system had been delivered, and we started unpacking them all as the installers arrived. I should explain what the display system consisted of. This store had an entire wall comprised of painted concrete, and a grid of holes had been drilled into it, with the holes then lined with metal sleeves of which only a neat, stainless steel ring was visible. It was pretty cool-looking, and the store had done this so that wall-mounted displays could be swapped out at will; it was just a matter of designing racks, shelving or hanging cabinetry with metal tubing protruding from the back, at intervals that aligned with the grid system. You could just plug and unplug whatever unit you needed into the wall.
For this company's new line of products, our firm had designed a series of stainless steel racks comprised of square tubing welded together, and with circular support rods that would fit into the holes welded to the back. We had carefully designed these racks to fit every current product that our client wanted to display, and there was a lot of product.
The Design Fail
Going through my Guide Booklet, I located the first rack unit to be installed. The installers got up on ladders to plug it into the wall. "Hey," one of them said, "we've got a problem." I went over to inspect. The tubing protrusions did not line up with the grid, so there was no way to get it into the wall. The manager looked concerned.
The installers brought the unit back down to the floor, and I grabbed a tape measure to measure the distance between supporting rods, thinking the fabricators had screwed up. But nope, the rods were precisely 12 inches on-center, exactly as our design drawings had specified. What the hell?
I then measured the distance between the holes in the wall. They were 10 3/4" on center. What the HELL.
Frantically, I called in to the office. It was after hours and the boss was gone, but luckily I caught our receptionist, who was still there. (This was before cell phones became commonplace, nobody at our firm had them.) I asked her to go through the flat files and dig up the original measurement drawings for [Consumer Product Manufacturer's] flagship store in [U.S. City]. This wasn't the store's architectural document, it was our firm's measurements taken of the store. Within moments she'd located the drafting in question, and I asked her to locate the elevation of the grid wall. "How far apart are the holes on the drawing?" I asked.
"Let's see," she said. "Here we go: Twelve inches."
Christ. Our drawing was wrong. "Who took the measurements, who did the drawing?" I asked.
She checked the title block. "JD," she said. That sonofabitch had measured the store wrong. I don't know how the hell you confuse 10 3/4 with 12, but there it was. Earlier that year he'd flown out to measure the store and create the drafting and apparently hadn't bothered to double-check his figures.
Some small, petty part of me was elated that JD had made such an idiotic mistake, but mostly I was just scared shitless. I didn't know what to do. I was supposed to meet the Corporate Bigwig tomorrow morning and show him our new display, and none of this shit would fit into the wall. I asked the receptionist to get me the boss' home number.
Phone calls were made, there was some back-and-forth, and I was given instructions. I was to sit tight, as was the manager.
In a couple of hours—which seemed like forever—a bunch of guys showed up with vans and a welding rig. They set up a shop area outside and started hacking the supporting rods off of the back of each rack, then re-welding them back on at the appropriate intervals.
This was my first professional experience in dealing with the trades, and I learned you sometimes had to stay on top of them; for example if you just told them the supporting rods had to be 10 3/4 inches on-center, they might just hack all of the existing rods off except the one at the end, and start from there. As a result, the rack would not be centered when it was finished and hung on the wall. So you'd have to tell them to hack all the rods off again, start by welding a rod dead-center, and build out from there. I then learned that burly tradespeople don't really like taking orders from some schmancy junior designer who looks like they're still in high school.
This took all night. By 2am, I thought we were in good shape, but by 3am learned we were not. There were issues with the racks on the ends not fitting due to our original mismeasurements, and they had to be jury-rigged. The jury-rigging meant the products slated to fit within them no longer fit, so more jury-rigging was required. I would lay all of the products out on the floor, but then someone would step on one and crush the blisterpack, so we had to locate another. You get the idea.
Somewhere around 5am we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. A couple hours later, we started to see actual light—the sun was coming up. But we were finished. It was all done. Everything was up on the walls, and I thought it actually looked pretty good. The trades went home while the manager and I tidied up the store.
The Big Meeting
I went back across the street to the hotel to wash up. I had to meet the Bigwig in a little bit, and needed to iron my pathetic off-the-rack excuse for a suit. (This was the only suit I owned back then and I didn't even own a garment bag; it had been rolled up and stuffed into my carry-on bag.) I was dead-tired, as the constant mini-panics of trying to get each and every rack right had taken their toll. I just wanted to lie down for a few minutes on that big, clean, comfortable-looking hotel bed. It was 7:30am and I didn't have to meet with the Bigwig until 9am. And then my flight was around noon-something, so I'd have an hour or two to walk around [U.S. City].
I could afford to steal a little shuteye. I set the alarm clock and called down to the front desk to set me a wake-up call, just in case.
When I woke up, my first thought was "Where the hell am I?" This wasn't my apartment, I was in some strange brown room...
Then I remembered. And sat up. And looked at the clock.
It was 10:30am.
To this day, I still laugh when I think about how I then jumped out of bed and started frantically, pathetically pulling on my sad, wrinkled suit. By the time I got to tying the tie, I realized I'd better call the firm. I knew I'd missed the meeting and I was certain I was going to be fired.
"Ah, don't worry about it," said my boss, on the phone. "You overslept—so what. That could happen to anyone. The important thing is that you got the job done last night, and that [First-Name Last-Name] is happy." He said he'd see me back at the office and hung up.
I called down to the store. The manager said Bigwig had showed up at 9am, looked over the display, declared it good, then left. Bigwig probably didn't even realize that he was supposed to meet me, he probably had bigger fish to fry.
I breathed a sigh of relief, then took my miserable suit off and put regular clothes on. I wanted to walk around the city a bit, but there wasn't time. I got in a taxi and headed back to the airport with my wrinkled suit stuck back into my bag.
All specific names, companies, clients, designers, and details will be kept anonymous to protect the innocent. You needn't write the story out; a Core77 Editor will interview you to produce a write-up (and to be sure you ain't pulling the wool over our eyes to win that sweet gift certificate!).