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Building Effective Interdisciplinary Product Development Teams

A trio of product design veterans explain how

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By Robert Grace

Building Effective Interdisciplinary Product Development Teams

A trio of product design veterans explain how

Previous Article       Next Article

By Robert Grace

Building Effective Interdisciplinary Product Development Teams

A trio of product design veterans explain how

Previous Article       Next Article

By Robert Grace

Matthew Kressy is founder and director of MIT’s Integrated Design & Management master’s degree track (photo courtesy of Kressy and MIT).

Matthew Kressy is founder and director of MIT’s Integrated Design & Management master’s degree track (photo courtesy of Kressy and MIT).

Peter Bressler

Stephen Wilcox

Product development is a team sport—or it needs to be in order to be effective. And getting all those sometimes-conflicting parties and interests aligned is no easy task. 

With so many departments potentially involved in coming up with “the next big thing,” it’s easy see how communication and collaboration can go off the rails. Consider that all of the following groups are likely to have a voice in the process at some stage: design, engineering, research and development, manufacturing, marketing, finance, and, increasingly, legal/intellectual property. And then factor in the obvious, primary need to address the desires of the consumer.

Many declare that the key to successful product and packaging development is straightforward: “Early and often engagement. Period.”

When it comes to delivering any given product or package, it takes clear manufacturing and engineering communication, commitment, and focus. Ultimately those parties are on the hook to produce the actual product or packaging that ends up in the hands of the consumer.


Designing in Sync

But exactly why is it so difficult to get everyone rowing in the same direction? 

Matthew Kressy has a theory. He earned an industrial design degree from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1988 and now is founder and director of the fledgling Integrated Design & Management master’s degree track at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

“It’s hard because we tend to pigeon-hole people into a particular silo early in their academic careers. Those academic silos have been developed by folks who really have perpetuated this very compartmentalized approach to intelligence or knowledge.” 

People trained in these different disciplines “all speak different languages,” Kressy says. “And many times they don’t appreciate what the others do; they don’t even know what the others do.” Generally speaking, he adds, “design is undervalued, and the least understood by the other disciplines.” 

Industrial design veteran Peter Bressler—another graduate of RISD—offers his views. In 1970 he started the design consultancy in Philadelphia that today is known as Bresslergroup Inc. Now on his own as PBressler LLC, he teaches a master’s-level course at the University of Pennsylvania called Integrated Product Design. 

“One of biggest obstacles is that everyone assumes that everyone knows what they themselves know,” but that seldom is the case. “It’s really about establishing honest communication,” he says, noting that people often have a fear of taking risks, or of not knowing something. Just admitting to a colleague on a project team that you don’t understand, and asking them to explain, can work wonders. 

“It’s surprising how that opens up the dialogue,” Bressler says. “It really is about emotional interconnection, and trust,” and one’s ability to admit that they don’t know what you know. 

“Invariably,” he adds, “the problems that the kids run into on their projects are team problems—not design problems,” for example, not being able to compromise on what concept to do, or not being willing to go explore something you don’t know about. 

Stephen Wilcox is a principal and the founder of Philadelphia-based Design Science, which specializes in optimizing the usability of products. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and anthropology from Tulane University, and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Penn State University. He sees an emerging role for designers who, unlike most engineers or marketing people, for example, have the ability to skillfully draw and sketch ideas and concepts. That can help them become “the glue for the interdisciplinary design team—the person who can communicate with everybody,” because the designer in a meeting can illustrate other people’s ideas. 

When one gets a degree, especially an advanced degree, say, in engineering or an MBA, Wilcox says, “You’re basically being socialized into a tribe. And then you get a job, and now there are people from other tribes that you’ve got to communicate with, who have a different vocabulary, a different worldview, etc. 

“I think that’s the central problem,” Wilcox adds. “The companies that are doing a good job of helping people bridge those gaps between cultural disciplines are the ones that are succeeding.”


Enter the CDO

Organizational structure also can hinder interdisciplinary communication and collaboration. Well-intentioned department leaders may not know contacts in other parts of the company. 

It can help, some suggest, when companies embrace a design lead such as a chief design officer (CDO)—a holistic design point-person—who can help to tie all those disciplines together. It’s the nature of such individuals to connect with all the right people to ensure that all things are considered. It’s useful for all the departments to know who that person is—and for that person to have a seat at the table through all phases of product development. 

A CDO not only understands the fit to the strategic portfolio of the company, but is embedded in the process and can help bring it to life. Design depends on information from all the various disciplines to create the best products and packaging for the business. 

Some suggest that the age-old, right-brain/left-brain friction between design and engineering is lessening a bit, as the parties have had to work together for so long that they’re beginning to figure each other out. Bressler, for one, agrees. 

“I think that is happening. It’s interesting when you get engineers coming into our program, and they want to know why [a] design is so successful. They want to know, ‘Why is Apple so good? Samsung’s a better phone. Why does Apple sell so many? Why does that design get me so excited?’ they ask. 

“They’re not only acknowledging, but intuitively understanding that the aesthetic and human factors issues of that product is what’s making it appeal to them,” Bressler says. 

Kressy would like to see the premise of his Integrated Design & Management course at MIT extended down into the undergraduate college ranks. But, so far, he says, he’s not aware of that happening anywhere. 

“You’re still going to need the virtuosos, and that’s going to happen at the undergraduate level,” he explains. “But I think that everyone should take, as part of their core curriculum, certain things, including integrated thinking, integrated collaborations, and sustainability, in the environmental sense. I would make that part of every student’s curriculum.”

Meantime, useful collaboration can happen at levels other than the product development stage. Kressy says his MIT team is working with the UPenn department where Bressler works to create a consortium of programs “of this kind of ilk,” to include Harvard University as well as Northwestern University in Chicago. 

Educational institutions and companies alike need to continue to encourage integrated thinking and interdisciplinary collaboration at all levels, and not just because it’s nice to do. “If your people don’t have such cross-functional knowledge,” Kressy suggests, “then you’ll always be at a competitive disadvantage to an organization that does.” 


About the author… A 35-year B2B media veteran, Robert Grace was the founding editor of Crain’s Plastics News in 1989. An ardent design advocate, he left Crain in 2014 to found RC Grace LLC (, a business consultancy that helps companies find business partners and enhance their market presence.


Correction: In February’s Design Notes, the graphics on pages 8 (top), 10 (bottom), and 12 were courtesy of Carbon3D (, not as stated in the p. 10 caption. –Ed.