The Art of Design

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Editors Note: in his previous article, titled Selling a Value Proposition, Mr. Keith outlined ways of incorporating design, engineering and software strategies to help differentiate your firm in the marketplace. This article is the first of three parts, each of which will expand on the earlier themes of design/engineering, integration and software development.

Most clients want to enjoy entertainment, lighting and control over their homes systems. Your goal is to provide these benefits. How do you achieve this goal? Clearly the basic steps are design, engineering and documentation on the front end, and creation of software programs for touchpanel control devices on the tail end. In my experience, successful projects move through a strong design stage followed by engineering for the details. But what is design as it applies to the electronic lifestyle industry?

Design Consulting Phase. Design is the process of capturing the clients preferences and desires for living in the home, and forming a holistic view of the way the home will serve the client. It all starts with capturing your clients preferences. It is important to be available to counsel clients on their electronic lifestyle projects.

Show the customer that you have a formalized process for recording their needs. A client questionnaire is a useful idea. You know what questions that you need to ask, so formalize them and make the questionnaire look good.

Practice active listening where you paraphrase their responses and ask clarifying questions. The design phase will provide validation of concept. Steer the project to optimize the clients investment. Good design can help ensure that the investment the client makes in equipment, systems, software and integration is going to last into the future.

Produce documents that illustrate the design and note any special features. These can be simple overview drawings, block diagrams or even a written narrative. A project synopsis is your chance to shine as you put into words what the system will do. Show the client the design process that you will use, and the amount of money required to make it integral with the success of the project.

It is important to design these systems in a way that simplifies life for the client. Be mindful of the architecture and other personal elements so as to create a lifestyle system that flows with the home and their lifestyle. Explain that a small investment up front not only leads to fewer mistakes but also makes sure that the results are more aligned with their electronic lifestyle dream. For optimal results begin the consultation as early as possible, before construction. Changes will be made on paper this way. This step also differentiates you as someone who understands their needs and is the best-qualified party to meet them.

Engineering/Systems Design Phase. The engineering step takes ideas from the design and develops a solution consisting of the equipment hardware, cabling and installation strategies. This phase will require the development of floor plans, device schedules, elevations and sections. The device schedule is where the real engineering takes place. This phase will incorporate not only source and display gear, but all the pieces needed to make the project work, including format converters, video distribution gear and any other black box pieces needed to make the system function reliably.

Illustrate to the client the process that you will use to assemble and test their system. Explain that they are buying an engineered solution instead of a design-on-the-fly project, or a copy-and-modify from a previous job. This engineered solution will be robust, accommodate change and is based upon previous experience.

Documentation Phase. Documentation is the process of committing the design to AutoCAD drawings for electrical connectivity and physical layout. You will need A/V block diagrams, block diagrams for the other subsystems and wire schedules. Other jobs may need rack layouts, cabinet layouts and equipment schedules and cut sheets.

Engineering documentation is an important and billable component on a project. Your documentation is not only required during the construction process, but also any as-builts, rack elevations, wiring schedules and floor plans will be even more valuable in later years for maintenance and upgrades. Without proper engineering your bottom-line margins suffer and will only be reduced further as a result of go-backs and cost overruns.

Change Orders. They are inevitable. The key is to manage to a process where the least amount of effort is expended to achieve the change. Create a process that ensures requested changes to projects are authorized and paid for before any change is implemented. The project manager first estimates the cost for the change, and hands it over to sales, who negotiates the charges with the client. It is possible that the salesperson and the client could come up with a different solution than the change order indicates. In this case, the salesperson should modify the documents description of the project to match the new functionality or appearance discussed with the client.

Starting jobs with a strong design ethic will serve your clients well, and will ultimately improve your credibility with clients. Performing your engineering work up front will save you a great deal of time and effort at the end of the project. Documentation has more value that its cost implies and may be positioned as a true asset. With a design-first approach, you will thoroughly understand your process and follow it from beginning to end. You will have a chance at succeeding, both financially and professionally via another satisfied client.

Rich Keith ( is a sales consultant with Axiom Design Inc.