Have You Got A Hangover?

8th July 2024
5 min read


Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

One of the luxuries of being engaged with product development that extends several years is you get to witness the evolution of a design as it moves through its development lifecycle.

Like a Tralfamadorian, we can look at the lineage of a design through time in the development artifacts that fill our studio cupboards and drawers.

The upshot to this is you can look back at earlier evolutions of a design and laugh at the stupid decisions you made. Decisions that through some thorough testing you weeded out of the design as it evolved. You of course didn't know they were stupid at the time. You had to go through the process of testing them.

But what about the design decisions you made months or years ago that continue to linger? What elements of your design are binding you to a certain form? Or configuration? Or component selection?

Without even realising it, you might have a hangover.


I hope you've gathered by now I don't mean a hangover induced by too many shandys. Rather, from Mirriam-Webster:

1 . something (such as a surviving custom) that remains from what is past.

These design hangovers are often the result of decisions made during development that lead to limitations further down the line. They can be negligible, or can result in significant time and cost if they need rectifying. More often than not, when the cost outweighs the benefit, these hangovers make it all the way to production.

You'd be surprised how many products on the market have hangovers baked in. At some point in time it might have made sense, but by the time someone wanted to change it, it was not important enough to change and too costly to do so.

A good, recent example for me was a material choice for a specific component. Specifying this material made sense because many of the other components were all of the same material. There was good reasons to be able to add several parts into a family tool. Yet, the choice of material ultimately severely limited our choice of adhesives. My hangover became the specialised, and costly, adhesive we needed.

Currently I'm doing some refinements to a design for production. Doing tweaks to a design that already has tooling made reminds me how design decisions we make at some point in time, with the wisdom bestowed upon us at that time, will hamstring improvements we may want to make later.

Of course, this is somewhat inherent in the design process. Naturally, as the design matures the decisions made, good and bad, become more fixed and harder to change. That's why we iterate early and often - it's faster and cheaper to do. Much better to weed out stupid ideas when they're still on paper than it is when they're already cut into tool steel.

Inherited Hangovers

Not all hangovers are of your own doing either.

I've had clients come to me with all kinds of things that designers before me have worked on. It can be an interesting window into the mind of your predecessor.

Looking through that window often starts with being dumbfounded, leads to scepticism, and finally (hopefully) understanding. The initial response can often be to tear up all the work already done and start again. But that's often just as unwise as you may think the design decisions were. Getting a bit forensic on the work that has preceded you can give you better insight into why a design is the way it is, and the best way to improve it.

That's not to say there isn't any hangovers in the previous design. Having fresh eyes on a design is a luxury you only have once, and you should at the very least capture your first impressions. Even if you don't act on them.

Something else to consider is client buy-in on some of these ideas. Whether their inception came from the designer or client directly, often the client may be attached to them. They have, after all, invested a great deal of time and money to get to the point they're at. Suggesting they put a torch to the whole lot because it doesn't make sense to you might not be a wise move.

It's also worth considering what hangovers of yours someone else might inherit. We all have our own funny ideas from time to time. Or we believe things should be a certain way for whatever reason. Even if totally justified, think those design choices through to their logical conclusions and see if they still make sense.

Curing A Hangover

Lets face it, some hangovers are terminal. Most products come with conflicting requirements where no perfect solution exists. In these situations there is always a compromise, and these compromises always have hangovers attached. To use a specific material means using a specific adhesive, for instance.

The way to cure many design hangovers is to continually test the current solution against the needs of the user and client. Taking a step back and reassessing the state of the design with fresh eyes can help tremendously in identifying potential limiting design choices.

Better still, have your design challenged by an independent observer. Ideally one also skilled in the art. There's no better way to test your ideas than by justifying them to a peer or mentor. Just make sure you put away your ego first.

The sooner and more often this is done, the more cost-effectively stupid decisions can be weeded out.

Preventing a Hangover

Prevention is better than the cure.

In addition to testing the design with the right people, we need to ensure out design makes the most sense for the client, the project, and potentially whoever will work on the project after you. Not always, but often as designers we need to put away our particular beliefs and preferences and consider the impacts of the decisions we make.

This is called second-order thinking. Don't just think about the effect of decisions, but the effects of those effects. Like a Tralfamadorian, cast your mind forward and visualise the impact of what you do today on the project in the last stages of development before launch.

This means being flexible in our ideas, and 'playing nice' in the ecosystem in which the design exists. It sometimes means not being weird, no matter how strongly you believe your way may be (or even is) better.

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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