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Superyacht technology design

Edwin Edelenbos, managing director of FWD Innovations, shares his philosophy on integrating technology design into the wider design process…

FWD Innovations was co-founded in 2017 by Oceanco and Edwin Edelenbos, who operates as the businesses managing director. Edelenbos had previously worked internally at Oceanco since 2014. However, it was felt that the creation of FWD Innovations would allow the business to offer a range of products and services to the broader market, securing a position as an independent expert and helping to stimulate innovation in the industry at large. Oceanco on the other hand can now double down on its subcontracting business model, and bring FWD Innovations in as an advisor or contractor when it makes sense to do so. Herein, Edelenbos outlines his philosophy on the integration of technology design into the wider design discipline.

The term design is used in relation to creative, scientific and technical endeavours, to refer to the process of conceiving, defining, shaping or devising something. In creative pursuits it often relates to shape, structure, colour and style. In technical and scientific endeavours, it typically relates more to methods, systems, topologies and so on. All of these varied design processes require different skill sets. Some more general, some highly specialised.

The most obvious examples of design when it comes to superyachts are the interior and exterior design. Two quite different, yet complementary skill sets. The ultimate goal of the designers is to create an interior and exterior that both encapsulate the vision of the owner and facilitate the experience that the owner wants to have. A serious task to be sure. The designers draw from their knowledge and skill to create the large and small details that determine the look and feel of the yacht. But it’s about much more than aesthetics. The designs also define the layout, which not only determines what activities typically happen where, but also the flow and patterns of movement through the yacht. Where do guests and crew encounter one another? How quickly can food get from A to B, etc. All of these details are an intrinsic part of the design, and contribute significantly to the overall experience on board, and the character of the yacht.

What about the less obvious examples of design then? Every superyacht is filled with examples of products and systems that were designed specifically for that yacht, yet, while there may be mention of a supplier of system A or B, it is extremely uncommon to refer to any other designer other than perhaps those that contributed to artistic elements in the interior or exterior of the yacht.

"We tend to talk about specification writing and system engineering, rather than specification design and system design..."

This has multiple reasons. The first is the industry language. We tend to talk about specification writing and system engineering, rather than specification design and system design. We don’t consciously set out to emphasise the design aspect of those tasks, it is more a side effect of the common terminology. The second reason is that almost all aspects of a yacht, with the exception of the interior and exterior design are encapsulated in the build specification. This leads to us talking about systems and suppliers, that must fall in line with the specification. Who designed the systems is not considered an important piece of information. The design is simply part of the supply. Again, no intentional de-emphasis of the design aspect, but another side-effect of the industry common practice.

So, what is this article about then? Is it a plea for equal rights for all designers? Not exactly.  What I hope to achieve with this article is to inspire the industry, and in particular yacht owners, to think about design in a different way, so that superyachts can evolve to the next level. My particular focus in this article is on the areas of entertainment, IT and lighting, as that is where my expertise lies.

In essence, the way that guests and crew interact with these technological systems has not changed much in the last 15 years, despite significant technological advances in the same timeframe. It truly feels like the industry has stagnated somewhat in this area and that the experience on board could be enhanced significantly by applying design with respect to those technologies in a different way than the industry is used to doing. This new application of design is what I refer to as “Technology Design”.

So, what is the status quo when it comes to the design of these systems? Let’s take a small step back first. Historically, suppliers of entertainment (AV) systems were typically separate specialist companies. IT systems were simply there for communication purposes and were often included in the electrical supplier’s contract or as part of the comms system. Lighting systems were typically also supplied by the electrical subcontractor. The specifications underpinning those systems were relatively simple, and typically written either by the yard or by the supplier of the system.

As IT started becoming more and more important, both as a system in its own right and a support system for many others, the AV companies started to incorporate IT offerings into their portfolio. Many also adopted lighting systems into their portfolio, as they were being asked to control those systems anyway.

In the meantime, management companies also grew in importance, and the requirement for a more independently written or verified specifications for these systems started to become more commonplace.

Technology continued to evolve and became more important to owners, driving specifications to become more complex, detailed and demanding. The role of independent consultants and technical management companies specialising in these systems grew as a result.

"Sometimes specifications are written by yards, sometimes by management companies or consultants."

That brings us back to the status quo, which is actually not very well defined. Sometimes specifications are written by yards, sometimes by management companies or consultants. Sometimes one company installs all of these systems, sometimes multiple suppliers are involved. There really is quite a large variety of approaches and none of them are inherently right or wrong, but it does go to show that the industry is far from settling on a best practice when it comes to designing and implementing these systems.

You will notice the frequent use of the term specification above. ‘Spec compliance’ is a big and crucially important part of yacht building. Specifications are written to answer the questions of what and how within a narrow context. I.e. ‘What features should be included and how should they work in relation to each other and other systems with which they may be connected?’ Perhaps even ‘How should the user access and control the provided functionality within the context of the system?’. This is important information, but what is it based on? That is the missing link. Still, without having a specification to build from and audit against, how do you build something so complex? The simple answer is you can’t. So then why are the interior and exterior designers not bound to a spec, and how does that even apply to the technologies being referred to here? This is really the crux of the matter.

First of all, interior and exterior design are artistic practices, and how can you tell an artist exactly what to create? That would limit their artistic freedom to the extent that they would not need to be creative anymore, and in doing so would completely defeat the purpose of enlisting them in the first place. Of course, there is a design brief that sets the boundaries to work within, but other than that, what drives them and shapes the outcome of their efforts is the vision of the owner. The design is not an expression of the personal preferences or tastes of the designer, nor of a rigid specification, rather, the designers put their skills to use to create something that the owner wants and loves, and that will translate through the use of the yacht, into the experience that the owner wants to have. Ultimately, the result of their work is the completed design. It is something that starts as a free flow of ideas based around a theme, and over time ‘hardens’ into something extremely well defined and highly detailed. A kind of specification in its own right.

"There is no denying that the entertainment, IT and lighting solutions on board play a significant role in the experience of the guests."

This is where we make the jump to technology and technology design. There is no denying that the entertainment, IT and lighting solutions on board play a significant role in the experience of the guests. It is often stated that they are some of the most crucial systems on board in that respect. However, most often, these systems are designed to meet specifications that themselves were not the result of a user centric and experience driven design process. This can create a fundamental disconnect between the implemented systems and the vision of the owner. The results of that disconnect can range from not being a problem at all, to near catastrophe. In any event, it means there is typically room for improvement, often significantly so.

Given the importance of these systems and their impact on the overall experience on board, it stands to reason then that they should be designed with the same mindset as, and in close collaboration with, the interior and exterior designs. This is the only way to ensure that the various elements can work in harmony toward fulfilling the owner’s vision and enhancing the experience on board.

My background is Industrial Design Engineering and Design for Interaction and I look at things through that lens. One thing that was hammered into me at university is that when it comes to system and product design, it is always a good idea to frame the task at hand in the form of a so-called ‘problem statement’. The word problem here does not necessarily refer to a negative issue, simply to an unmet need. One could define the general problem statement that applies to technology design on superyachts as follows: “How can we, through the intelligent selection, application and integration of AV, IT and lighting technologies, ensure that the on board experience aligns optimally with the owner’s vision, and enhances the experiences he/she aims to create?”

"A proper technology design process can lead to the creation of specifications that align far more closely with the owner’s desires than can be achieved otherwise."

A proper technology design process can lead to the creation of specifications that align far more closely with the owner’s desires than can be achieved otherwise. Also, integration of the various systems with each other and with the design and the use of the yacht itself will have been thought about in a much more profound way than is currently the norm. That is because the questions of why, how and what, are asked in a much broader context, and at a much better time and place in the overall process, and the answers to those questions can therefore be much more poignant. The combination of these two outcomes has the potential to truly raise the bar to a new level. This is the evolution I was alluding to earlier, and I feel it’s something the industry desperately needs.

The sad truth as it stands, is that in an age where we can turn any surface into a touch sensitive controller, place intelligent sensors on anything, and use speech and gestures to control almost anything around us in a very intuitive manner, we’re still forcing guests to pick up a remote control of some sort if they want to turn on the TV or mute the sound to take a phone call. We’re still forcing them to fumble with light switches if they wake up in the middle of the night and need to find their way to the bathroom. This should not be the norm on modern superyachts, but it is, and it’s because of the disjointed nature of spec driven systems that was mentioned earlier.

"...owners and other stakeholders must start to think differently about what constitutes the design of a yacht."

What is required to make this evolution a reality and get us past the current sticking point? A few things. The first is that owners and other stakeholders must start to think differently about what constitutes the design of a yacht. If the aspects of the yacht that most impact the onboard experience are not incorporated fully into the primary design process, the full potential will never be reached. In essence, by not doing this they are cheating themselves out of a superior experience.

Once that realisation is in place, those same parties need to ensure that the right specialists are selected along with the interior and exterior designers. That includes technology designers and perhaps other design disciplines. These people should work as a team to ensure that all the various elements are crafted carefully into the overall design and that the specifications that flow from that process are detailed to the correct level, enabling the specialist suppliers to execute  them correctly. Also, they should be involved from start to finish of the project, to ensure that as things evolve, they stay true to the original intentions. 

It almost goes without saying that the input from the owner in this process is crucial. If the vision and the desired experiences are not clear from the onset, it is truly in the owner’s best interest to work with these professionals at the start of the project to make sure they become clear. That gives everyone a much better grip on what it is they are trying to achieve and increases the likelihood of success by orders of magnitude.

I hope this vision is shared by owners and other professionals in this industry. I truly believe that if it is we would finally start to see an important shift that will lead to the next generation of superyachts.

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