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Death by acronyms?

TLA’s (Three Letter Acronyms), and even longer ones, are the things that confused me the most when I first began my career in design. The work I could do, but the lingo really bogged me down. These days I am guilty of using acronyms on a day-to-day basis. I enjoy playing around with them to amuse myself. Recent inventions or discoveries of mine: BOSS (Built On Self Success), CLASS (Come Late And Start Sleeping), and my favourite: MANAGER (Meaningless A***hole Needlessly Generating Employer Resentment).

Amusing acronyms aside I tend to think that they are largely unnecessary and can even hold us back when it comes trying to break new ground or innovating. They can confuse the uninitiated, slow progress and create animosity. They can sometimes be used to reinforce work place cliques and breed negativity.

I am about to question the use of acronyms by giving you an example which blew my mind when I first learned about it. I am also going to pose you a question and a challenge and as you read this article please ask yourself these questions: am I a follower or a leader? A sheep or a lion?…


I’m a design professional. My main focus is on something called DfMA (Design for Manufacture and Assembly). This means designing products (or buildings in my case) that are put together in the most efficient way possible. It considers things like ergonomics of assembly and poke-yoke (can’t get it wrong) connections. For a while now DfMA has been something of a buzz acronym. I’d like to swat that buzz and help you to open up the playing field a lot more.

Focused energy and thought is, of course, part of the design process but it is more important to me that you start with a much wider view. Think about what it is you’re trying to achieve, and in this case, don’t get sucked in by an acronym to simply think about the “manufacturing” and “assembly” implications. Open your mind. What are your system constraints, what are your resources? Then design something to maximise the efficiencies of materials, resources, systems, life, love and everything else.

Do you think Steve Jobs came up with the iPod by thinking about the best way to manufacture and assemble a walkman or minidisc? Or did he have a wider view about what could be achieved and what people really wanted?

Let me use an example; think of the DfMA I’ve described above. What if we started with DfX (Design for X) instead. This wondrous and powerful “X” can be anything we want!!


In 2001, you might recall, a company called Mammoet Van Seumerengroep managed to raise the Russian Submarine Kursk from the bottom of the Barents Sea. This was a task that many had thought impossible for years. The following year the company decided it needed a new head office in the Netherlands.

Now, Mammoet Van Seumerengroep did not start by considering the letters of an acronym and how best they can tick all the boxes on the DfMA pro-forma! They asked themselves a number of key questions. What are we good at? What is our capacity? What are our constraints? What do we want to achieve? What is the BEST way we can design and deliver this building?

The result was that the company conceived the idea of construction the building in an industrial yard in Zwijndrecht before transporting it by water to its final location in Schiedam. The building was 42.5 m high, with a diameter of 30 m. It was shaped like a bollard since this was better for dynamic loads during transport. Its mass was 25,000 kN. Transported 25 km over water and 300 m over land. The building had to pass under a bridge with a height of 45.7 m at low tide. The result was that the building was made 22 weeks faster than if traditional forms of construction had been used.

Quite frankly this project is a remarkable testament to tearing up the design guide and doing something that suits a specific set of parameters. Those parameters were specific to the geography of the building, specific to the skills and capability of the manufacturer and specific to the logistics of the project. They did not (primarily) focus on the assembly and the manufacture. They designed a building and a process for delivery of that building which was innovative, unique and ultimately a great success.

Think about this project. A completely new and innovative system for constructing a building was 22 weeks faster than the traditional equivalent!! How can you take this inspiration and apply it to something you’re doing? Don’t get stuck down acronym ally!

At the start of this article I asked you to ask yourself if you were a follower or a leader, a sheep or a lion? Are you brave enough to start questioning the acronyms that form the pillars of our bureaucratic conformity and start turning some heads by doing things differently, doing things better?

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