The value of AV Design

AV Design is the unsung hero of our industry. Everyone knows you need some element of design to make projects happen. Without any design, even the roughest sketch on a beer mat, installing a system in a house is nigh on impossible. Yet there are very few industry awards for best design and therefore little formal recognition of the crucial role design plays in delivering projects into client’s properties. In fact the only awards I know of are the d-tools design awards, which are made at the US CEDIA Expo each year.

There is also no formal field of study for AV Design, people come to it from all kinds of different backgrounds, electrical engineering, architecture, product design, interior design, engineering to name a few. Of course once you are involved in the AV industry there are many courses and books you can access to learn, develop and hone your design skills, from CEDIA, CEA, InfoComm and the like.

Personally I believe that while these courses are invaluable in learning about best practices and industry standards, there is no better way to learn about AV design than with hands on experience. I also believe that you will never be able to create practical well designed jobs and systems without having had extensive field installation experience and find that some of the best designers are those that started out as installers. The field experience provides valuable insight into what goes into AV installation and its project management and what goes on, on site. Armed with this knowledge AV designers have the power to make a job run smoothly by designing out or around potential problems and pitfalls on a project. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to get around a problem on paper before anything has been built than trying to find a work around or the latest clever widget to get you out of trouble when the project is nearing completion.

There are two distinct parts to AV design; specifying and engineering.

Specifying  is where the designers technical knowledge and prowess are put to the test, which bit of kit works with this bit of kit and which bits do I need to make that bit work, etc. This kind of knowledge can be gained from manufacturer training courses but as before this is no substitute for field experience, learning first-hand how different parts of a system interact and work together (or not in some cases) provides invaluable knowledge in creating a functional, sensible specification for an AV system or project.

The engineering element is where the designer puts their drawing or CAD (Computer Aided Design) skills to the test, creating equipment layouts, wiring documents, elevation drawings and system schematics. When clear concise documentation is provided for a project the installation and completion phases of the job run much more smoothly, from the moment the first cable is run to the hand-over of the job to a (hopefully) very happy client. As I said before without this documentation the project is infinitely more difficult to install and deliver. So why doesn’t our industry in general pay more attention to AV design and AV designers?

The answer to this question is a tricky one. While everyone can see the value of a good programmer to get the system up and running and get the most out of it for the client, it is more difficult to appreciate the value of a good designer on a project as their work is less obvious and hidden within the detail of the job. If we compare the above with a programmer who does a poor job the problems this presents are very obvious with elements of the system not functioning and buttons or commands giving unexpected or illogical functions. On the other hand issues in the specification and engineering or documentation phase of the project can be worked around or “bought out” during the installation. Therefore the value of a good designer lies not wholly in the end functionality and integration of the system and the satisfaction level it brings its owner but more in the efficiency of how it is installed and in protecting the profit margin of the AV Company doing the installation.

The benefits of having a well-designed project don’t stop at the moment of hand-over. The documentation that is built up over the lifecycle of the project is of invaluable use in maintaining the system and even in helping the installation company generate revenue from scheduled maintenance and upgrades. If we imagine for a moment a poorly designed and documented system, once the installer has managed to drag the system into a functional state (often kicking and screaming) and the client has signed it off the temptation is to apply the motto if it ain’t broke don’t fix it and never return to the property. This poor installer is losing out on maintenance fees and the opportunity to sell upgrades to the client simply because they have not seen the value of having a good designer on board.

A well designed project doesn’t have to cost the installation company any more that a badly designed project in fact in most cases it costs less. The trick here is knowing how to sell design to your clients. Over the years I have met so many installers who say there is no way we can include a design fee in our proposals as the client will always go with the lowest bidder or the guy who isn’t charging for design. Personally I know this is not true, firstly consider this; your client is probably building or refurbishing a building of some sorts. In order to do this at the very least they will be paying an architect to design and detail the building. In most cases they will also be employing an interior designer to set out the interior and make the space a nice place to be. The client will be paying both of these companies a design fee for their services and time. So the client is already accustomed to paying for design and consultancy so it follows they would expect to pay the AV company for consultancy and design. The problem is in order to sell design you either need to have a well renowned reputation for being good at what you do or be able to demonstrate to the client how you design your systems. So it’s a bit of a catch 22 if you don’t charge for design you can’t pay a good designer to design your projects and therefore you will never have the documentation or reputation required to sell design to your clients.

It was this very problem that led me to create some sample projects for the AV installers we work with to use to help sell design to their clients. They demonstrate to clients something tangible that they will receive in return for the payment of the AV design fee.

Later in this series we will cover the detail and best practices in creating system specifications, proposals, plan drawings and standards, cable schedules, cinema layouts and elevations, rack elevations, equipment elevations and cable and system schematics

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