INDUSTRIAL DESIGN – The Creative Bridge Between Art, Engineering and End User

This first article in this series provides a description of what an industrial designer does, a brief history of how industrial design emerged, and how it evolved through the typical education for industrial designers.

Industrial Design is a multidisciplinary profession, bridging the requirements of a demanding market and the need to effectively provide products which meet its demands. It requires an understanding of the end user, of current technology and of the goals of the companies who are developing the products.

Industrial designers must be able to listen to the requirements of the users, marketers, manufacturers, engineers and distributers. With that knowledge, they must create a vision of the new product, providing the client with a full picture of the project from initial sketch to final device in the user’s hands.

Broadly, it requires knowledge of Aesthetics, Engineering, Ergonomics and Market Awareness, but ultimately, the focus of the industrial designer is to address the needs of the end user. While engineering is a vital part of the process, and making the product functional is critical, if the users are not excited by the look, if they are not enticed by its feel and tempted by its value, they will not buy it and all the investment of time, effort and money is wasted.

From rough sketch to functional reality

Early in any new project, an examination of alternatives is necessary. This usually takes the form of sketches, providing a foundation for discussion and allowing all team members to contribute to the direction a design takes. It also allows for imagination to take a product in novel and unexpected directions, with stylish designs and creative applications of materials. These can be explored before having to specify the nuts and bolts, allowing the design to lead the engineering, rather than having the engineering lead the design.

Apple is a prime example, providing a stream of products which broke the mold – colored monitors, when all the rest were IBM beige, and impossibly thin laptops when others still had typewriter keypads.

The sneaker business is another, showing how a simple rubber soled shoe could use design flare to create multi-billion-dollar corporations.

While knowledge of the end user is the focal point of most design programs, there are occasions where this is not the case. Pet products must interest a pet but, barring an articulate parrot, they will be purchased by the owner. Since cats and dogs see a limited spectrum (they have more rods than cones), any colors added to the products are to make them appealing to the purchaser, not the pet.

Likewise, while a surgeon may be the user of a medical product, a hospital purchasing department would buy the product. Meeting their extended set of demands could make the difference between the success and failure of the product.

Awareness of critical touch points between product design and end user is necessary from the simplest designs to the most sophisticated.
Industrial Design spans the entire development process, to inject a creativity into every aspect of the development program. Success will give the final product an advantage over its competitor.

The objectives of Industrial Design

To develop physical products, for clarity and rigor and to conceptualize and develop ideas with imagination in three dimensions. This is the mission statement of Rhode Island School of Design, my alma mater. Every college has a slightly different mission statement but the essential goal is the same. None find it easy but success lies in the magic of this field, the imagination.

Objectives of a design school is to impart the following capabilities:

  • Develop material ideas with clarity and rigor
  • Conceptualize and develop ideas imaginatively and accurately in three dimensions
  • Effectively communicate design intent to users and fabricators
  • Apply knowledge of user experience, human factors, applied ergonomics, contextual inquiry, user preference studies and usability assessments in the design development process
  • Exercise collaborative skills for working across disciplines and multidisciplinary fields

While it is not possible to go into depth in every one of these in this document, we will look at a number of critical aspects:

Typical ID Studio


Drawing skills

Drawing skills are as important to a designer as a bat is to a ball player. They allow concepts to be expressed and explored. They allow design solutions to be communicated and they allow final designs to be articulated. Mastering the skills greatly improves the ability of the designer to succeed – and knock it out of the ballpark.

These skills are now enhanced by CAD software. The capabilities available today are quite remarkable but they cannot replace drawing skills. A dozen concepts can be sketched out in an hour while a single concept done in CAD can take a day or more. Beyond that, there are limitations that 3D software can apply to creative form making. A sketch can express an idea with a few simple strokes.

Having multiple concepts to discuss with a client is vital to the designer/client relationship, as it creates client buy-in to the design as it develops. The last thing you want to hear at the end of a project is: “I wasn’t thrilled with the idea to start with.” If they picked it, it is theirs.


The list of subjects facing any Industrial Design student will include Design Principles, Drawing, Art History, Design Thinking, Industrial Design Studio, Materials and Manufacturing, Furniture, SolidWorks, Product Commercialization, Humanities and Business. Absent from the list is engineering. In past days, an industrial designer would be plugged into a corporate engineering department where he would have these aspects of design handled by mechanical designers. These days, with the software currently available, an industrial designer is fully integrated into the engineering development cycle. At a design school you will see hands getting dirty with drawing and sculpting, and lots of interaction with machinery. This will enable students to leave with creative minds, but leave them with little to no understanding of how products are actually made. A talent for mechanical engineering and math, and a curiosity about how things work, will give an industrial designer an advantage in expressing himself creatively.


Communication of ideas is a critical part of the industrial design program, communication with clients, users and fabricators. Often complex problems will be discussed. Different parts of a company will use terminology specific to its department which is incomprehensible in another. Presentations must be tailored to be appealing and understandable to the particular audience to achieve the necessary response and buy-in.


One of the primary functions of the industrial designer, especially in the corporate environment, is identity. The consistent application of a logo, a color palette, specific design elements and a common human factors interface will reinforce the impact of a corporation in a market full of alternatives. A company might manufacture a cash register for one market, an ATM for another and a fuel pump for another. If the same design elements are used across the product lines, the impact and awareness of the company is multiplied.

User Experience, Ergonomics and Contextual Inquiry

“User experience” is a frequently used term to define the relationship between user and product. It defines not just how self-evident the operation is but also the sequence of events required to operate the device. A cash machine should not require an instruction sheet to withdraw money. Other users of the machine include those who must reload cash and service it. While this is more complex, a standardized set of colors, icons and functions can seriously shorten learning times and provide a language with can be applied across a product range.

Industrial Design companies will invest a sizable portion of their time studying how individuals interact with a product and the operational sequences, allowing extensive analysis. In other cases, designers observe and record human motion to understand how a product can be worn or held. Functional products, such as medical devices, tools or appliances, must be designed to be self-explanatory. The best designs will always be intuitive and allow an accurate and safe interaction with the user.

Human Factors

Human Factors are a consideration in all products from chairs to cell phones. They impact four major areas in the product lifecycle: assembly; use; serviceability; and disassembly. Well-designed products include all of these within the product architecture.

Ease of assembly, also known as DFM (design for manufacture) is a strategy to simplify the assembly of a product, consisting of a number of recommended techniques. For example, by dividing the product into a series of subassemblies which can be independently manufactured and tested, the final assembly is swift and cost effective, and has improved reliability. This improves overall quality and the bottom line.

Ease of serviceability and repair is equally important, assisted to a great extent by the DFM described above. Conditions in the field are not the same as on the factory floor, and specialized tools are not always available. A product maybe easily assembled but a nightmare to repair, so ease of access to parts likely to need service is critical. The Air Force currently modularizes much of the technology on its planes. If a component fails, take out the failed box and put a replacement in. The failed box is repaired off site. Many commercial products now allow consumers to return individual components, making expensive service calls unnecessary. These considerations are vital to the long-term success of a product and the reputation of the companies that manufacture and sell it.

In closing, great designers take responsibility for their work and verify their designs with intensive due diligence. Major catastrophes can often be attributed to minor oversights resulting from carelessness or over confidence. Every step of design development requires continual reexamination and verification.

Failure analysis

Safety must be integral to the design process. If a design is not almost foolproof in terms of how it is used, there will be a liability issue. There is a reason new ladders are covered in instruction stickers!
Typically, a client will focus on the initial concepts, which generate the initial excitement, but then go into a passive mode, waiting for the design to be completed. In the time between these two points, the client should be involved in the testing of the human factors and operation in the field. Without this there is a high chance of failure. These tests should be designed carefully to avoid leading test subjects down a particular path. Drawing conclusions before the test and using the test to support them will do nothing to prevent failure.


While the industrial designer might focus on appearance, user requirements, identity and ergonomics, market requirements might require a low product cost. This can limit just how far a designer can contribute. Sometimes a metal box with a flat faceplate is all a company can afford. Usually, though, there are ways where the industrial design and the engineering can be integrated to add value to a product and justify the cost.

At its best, industrial design will use new technology to produce designs which had previously been impossible, and redefine a market. This chair is 50 years old, designed in glass-reinforced nylon. Until it was conceived, no-one had considered using this process in this market. The result was a showpiece back then and is an elegant example of how industrial design and engineering can be combined.


Art is the reflection of life as it is seen through an artist’s eye and expressed through his hands. The results are seen in museums worldwide, one at a time and at great cost. Craft is the application of the skills of local craftsman in creating items necessary for the function of everyday life. Knives, cups, ploughs and wagons were all made for centuries before they were documented but are no longer with us because they have lived their normal lifespan and have decayed, or had their materials repurposed. Between the two were craftsmen tasked with providing highly artistic crafts for the wealthy. The Gobelin factory, for instance, created much of the finery for the court of Louis XIV in France.

With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, and the spread of wealth to a broader section of society, products became more available and the competition to supply the market increased. Industrial techniques made decoration easier to apply and it was increasingly used with enthusiasm. The Great Exhibition, in the first Crystal Palace, in 1851, was organized as a celebration of the Industrial Revolution and all it had achieved. The greatest triumph, though, was the Crystal Palace itself, with its cast iron framework and glass walls. The consensus was that the products within the Exhibition were overdesigned and sadly removed from the human touch. From this, the Arts and Crafts Movement was born, creating products that were more austere and with the look of being handmade. William Morris was a proponent. The movement was influential up to 1920.

Paris in the late nineteenth century was still the cultural hub of Europe and artists there were breaking all the rules about what a painting should be, rebelling against academic societies and creating Impressionist Movement. Other fields followed their lead and architects and designers evolved the fluid and organic forms of Art Nouveau. This movement provided creative inspiration up to World War I. The results of the war were not whimsical, and the Art Deco style which emerged after it was decorative but more severe.

A second direction was also developing at the same time in Germany, Bauhaus. It was led by Walter Gropius. “Form follows function” was the motto that it is primarily known for, removing all decoration from its buildings and products, to focus on the expression of their primary function. Hitler had different goals for design. Gropius fled Germany and his school was closed but his influence has lasted. Steven Jobs was inspired by Bauhaus and his products are based on the philosophy, keeping it minimal, keeping it clean and expressing the design in the simplest way.

Since the late thirties, many styles have come and gone, an expression of new materials and technologies, and a massively expanded market for consumer products. During this time a dozen figures helped define the role of industrial designer, including Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, Norman Bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfus. They have one thing in common. They were all great salesmen, visionaries with big personalities. They all had an ability to visualize not only what products should look like today but what they could look like in the future.
Raymond Loewy lived by his own MAYA principle (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable). He believed that people would accept novelty and innovation but only up to a point. It was the designer’s job to know that point. From the thirties to the sixties, he designed everything from refrigerators to locomotives, incorporating character and style in each.

Airplanes were the focus of public imagination at this time and streamlining defined most advanced feature of their technology. It was to the people of the time what space travel is to us. Using design elements from streamlining, designers were able to excite their audience through the association. The teardrop shape of a pencil sharpener might have looked as if it was designed in a wind tunnel.

Walter Dorwin Teague specialized more in consumer products like radios and cameras but his work also reflected the advances in materials and technology, and the social trends of the day.

Norman Bel Geddes was more of a visionary. His products for movie sets looked exaggerated and more farfetched, but they defined a future.

Henry Dreyfus was a key figure in defining human factors. His research to optimize ergonomic design resulted in guidelines which are the foundation of the human factors work of subsequent designers. He is best known for his telephones and typewriters but he was also involved in other classic designs including the Polaroid camera. He helped to define the responsibilities of the industrial designer in the modern manufacturing world.

During the fifties, wood and metal were still the primary materials for consumer products, although there were some early plastics in use in phones and radios. The sixties brought more plastics but the products were frequently decorated with vinyl woodgrain and seen as cheap versions of the “real thing”. By the seventies, enough exciting design work had been done to prove that plastic was a material to be celebrated. The potential it provided for the exploration of new forms and colors gave designers a freedom they had not previously had.

CAD in Industrial Design

An additional aspect to the evolution of industrial design was the development of computers and the CAD software we use today. At the beginning of this period, products were sketched by a designer, and detailed and drafted by an engineer. Tooling sometimes involved a degree of interpretation so the final design did not always reflect the full intent of the initial concept. When software was developed to put more of the engineering in the designers’ hands, the designers jumped at the opportunity. The drawback was that the capabilities of the software limited the design to simple forms, extrusions and simple sweeps. This is reflected in the products of the time, primarily boxes with rounded corners. The increasing capabilities of CAD software can be seen in the increasingly sophisticated appearance of new products in the last twenty years. The capabilities given by CAD to the current industrial designer are accompanied by a corresponding responsibility for designing for manufacturability.

New Technology

New technology has been at the heart of much of recent industrial design evolution. Companies like Dyson have reinvented products like the vacuum cleaner by miniaturizing the electric motor and reimagining the collection of dust, making its competitors obsolete. The radical change in appearance was a way to tell the world this was not an ordinary machine.
The computer has been put onto a chip and the flat screen TV has made cathode ray tubes obsolete. These have allowed Loewe’s beloved phones to be reduced to a pocket-sized piece of glass. Dreyfus’ polaroid is included. Walter Dorwin Teague’s tabletop radio is now a small plug in an ear. The Bel Geddes’s of today now envision invisible screens with floating images and advertising personalized to passing shoppers.
Below are examples of styling over the last seventy years:

Styling from the 1950’s

Styling from the 1960’s

Styling from the 1970’s

Styling from the 1980’s

Styling from the 1990’s

Styling from the 2000’s

Styling of today


  • Social Change
  • The Economy
  • New Materials
  • New Technologies

Social Change

Style and fashion are the means to refresh and renew our environment, whether it is houses, cars, clothes or cell phones. For a corporation, it is a way to tempt a consumer to buy more of what they already have. To be fair, it is also the means to indicate the presence of new technology, improved comfort or increased safety.

For some, just having the latest iPhone is a social necessity. For some, the latest iPhone is a necessity as it has the technical capabilities required by a successful businessperson. For others, it is enough to look as if you are a successful businessperson. It implies social status. This is not new. After Alexander the Great had invaded India, statues of the Buddha were carved wearing Greek robes. The statues were no warmer, the style just signified a higher status.

The need to separate from a previous generation is also an incentive to reinvent. The “swinging sixties” provided bright colors, pop music, Mini cars and miniskirts as an antidote to the austerity of the post-war years. And while grandma’s dining room sideboard was a classic in its day, it would have no place in the modern home.

Entertainment also has a major impact on styling. Whether it is the products being used on a soap opera set, or the communication port of a science fiction space ship, there will be people looking at them, thinking: “I could make that work.” When a pen-sized underwater breathing stick was introduced in one James Bond movie, the props people were inundated with calls from various branches of the military, all looking to buy them!

Styling, though, has had a checkered reputation. When it is reduced to a superficial resurfacing of an existing product, and is exposed as such, it will be viewed with suspicion. Used as an expression of the aspirations of the culture of the day, it can be an artform.

The Economy

The wealth and management of an economy will inevitably impact the type of products being produced. Cars in Europe are taxed by engine size and fuel is expensive, so small cars are the norm, but the quality is high. In the US, small cars only became a necessity during the years following the Gas Crisis of the seventies. Since then, cheap fuel and the rise of the SUV have allowed most to choose large cars.

A dishwasher might be a necessity in the US, but in many other countries it is a luxury. In some it might simply be an impossibility due to the lack of infrastructure – limited water supply and drainage. In the US, these particular products are styled to fit into the kitchen environment so their design, colors and materials must all follow the style to match this environment and this market.

Disposable income will also impact the product design. There will be market price points a manufacturer will aim for – $19, $49, $199 – each can dictate the complexity and the finish of a product, limiting or enhancing the ability of a designer’s choices.

New Materials

New materials are emerging all the time, especially compounded materials. The numbers are staggering with over 100,000 when those with subtle differences are included. The limiting factor to the introduction of more is the cost of bringing them to market, which can be substantial.

New materials for parts include glass technology, ceramics, metals and composites. New materials for construction include adhesives, which can revolutionize how products are assembled.

New Technology

In manufacturing, tooling has advanced to a level which allows tight fits in assemblies which would have been unheard of twenty years ago. 3D printing has also become an increasing presence in manufacturing. If parts can be reliably made in small quantities, massive investment in tooling is no longer needed, providing opportunities for specialized or custom manufacturing to be cost effective. It also releases the designer from the constraints of a tooled part, allowing a design to incorporate hollow shells and undercuts which might be impossible to make with injection molding.

Projecting the Future

Aside from their day jobs, industrial Designers like to think of themselves as visionaries. Raymond Loewy’s “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” principle implies that a direction is being set and a proposed new design is a next step, with more to come. It requires that a designer support that direction with insight into future social needs and technologies. We can see these visualized in early ideas for “Cars of the Future” or TVs or housing or kitchens. In hindsight, it is easy to wonder why we don’t yet have a Jetsons flying car, but the truth is that today we are surrounded by robots which can drive our cars or cook our meals, and even instantly send our letters.

Some of the early imagined products may seem odd or excessive, but many have a classic beauty which is exciting and timeless. Today’s visionaries will be judged in the same light by future audiences, with some designs missing the mark with excessive use of passing fashions. Others will survive as classics and inspire future generations.

Example of Product Evolution 1: Computer Terminals

This is a product familiar to almost every person on the planet. Today, it has invaded almost every aspect of our lives, being the access port into “the System”. Business, education, entertainment, travel, we are all plugged in. In the beginning, though, it needed encouragement. The computers of the seventies were large, requiring rooms to store the technology and the monitors were corresponding large. They were desktop but still weighed in between 60 and 100lbs, due to the CRT they housed. Appearance was not important, so sheet metal boxes with vacuum formed bezels were adequate as housings.

With the arrival of the IBM and Apple personal computers in the late seventies and early eighties, and the revolution in accessible software, volumes of computer monitors grew swiftly, encouraging competition and the need to define one product from another through improved design and lower costs. Structural foam provided a means to create large parts with limited tooling costs and was used extensively. The additional use of vacuum formed parts made designs incorporate large radii, resulting in the soft forms of the day.

As volumes increased in the nineties, injection molding became the normal molding process. Industrial designers used crisp edges and hard lines to differential themselves from the older designs. As new monitor designs converged, there were some who managed to define themselves through the quality of their manufactured parts. Most molded parts require side surfaces to be angled out to allow the part to be withdrawn from the mold – this is called draft. The result is noticeable as it leaves the form less than perfect. Apple would design their parts with no draft, and spent extra money to allow their tools to release the parts in other ways. This left their products perceptibility purer in form. This visual quality allowed them to justify the extra cost of their devices.

Today the change to LCD screens has led to a paradigm shift in how we communicate with computer systems. Touch screens, curved screens and foldable screens, all are new components in a designer’s toolbox and the means to explore a new world of possibilities.

Example of Product Evolution: X-Ray Equipment

When it was initially introduced in 1916, it was called the Coolidge Tube, after its inventor. It was a purely functional and necessary first step in developing the technology. In our eyes it has a science-fictional charm but it also has the user appeal of an uncovered light switch.

Subsequent designs masked the technology, making it less intimidating.

Today’s X-Ray machines conceal almost all the technology, and use soft, fluid, forms. The designs express confidence and are friendly but detached, just any other member of the hospital staff.

As with any product, the industrial designer will define a device with simple, visually related forms which express its function and integrate itself into its final environment of use.