Industrial Design Today – Part 3

In this third article, we will look at the elements which are considered in defining a final product design.

There are no magical rules which dictate how to create a perfect design, but this has not stopped people from trying to find them. One of the most intriguing began its evolution two thousand years ago and took hold in medieval and renaissance Europe, and it gave us the Golden Rectangle, which can still be used as a touchstone today.

The Golden Rectangle

The Golden Rectangle (or Fibonacci Rectangle) is mathematical tool used to design forms which are deemed most pleasing to the eye. To a classic artist or craftsman this provided an approved route to achieving “perfection” in a building or painting. It has intrigued designers for centuries as its geometry can also be seen in nature. At its root it develops a rectangular form which can expand exponentially, allowing the proportions of the initial rectangle to be identical to the proportions of the resulting increased rectangles. Since the eye sees the same proportion, it limits the work required to interpret to form while still providing interest.

The proportions are as follows:

The Italian mathematician Fibonacci published a book in 1202, describing a sequence of numbers where a particular number is the sum of the two previous numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 etc. This sequence has been closely related to the Golden Rectangle and applying these proportions has resulted the definition of Golden spiral, seen in many forms in nature. (The same formula had been documented by mathematicians in India in 200BC).

The Golden Ratio in Architecture – architects from Palladio to Le Corbusier have used the Golden Ratio in their work.

The Golden Ratio in Painting
The positioning of the occupants and scenery of much classical art was not accidental.

The Golden Ratio in Product Design – it is possible to apply the proportions to current products, from cars to Coke bottles.

It is worth knowing of the Golden Rectangle but it should be understood that it is not at the top of the list of a product designer’s priorities. It is another tool in the designer’s toolbox. It might instill balance and stability to a form, but those are not always desired characteristics. A designer might be looking for imbalance to imply movement or require tension between components to evoke dynamism. Fighter aircraft are designed today with an inherent instability to allow them to turn and maneuver more quickly. Industrial designers should be able to adjust what might seem too still or comfortable to achieve their own particular goals.


The proportion of a product can result in a product looking balanced or clumsy. Below is an example of how the same concept can appear when the same elements are applied with differing proportions.

In the version on the left, the top darker area is tight around the display, creating tension between the bottom of the display and the split line. The proportions of the top area relative to the bottom seems out of balance, with the top overwhelmed by the lighter base. In the second, the darker bezel area overwhelms the lighter base. The third comes closer a comfortable balance, although the break line might be raised slightly to improve the proportions of the bezel relative to the display.

The final version is the result of the rules of the Golden Rectangle being applied. The main form is well balanced but a separate plinth form or a visual break in the base section would be required to make this application balance visually.

Proportion – Mass and Volume

The proportions defined above looked just at the primary view of the concept. The reality of product design is that components will require a depth that can make the product look heavy, impacting the overall proportions. There are various solutions to reducing the apparent mass, including separating the design into a slim, planar, primary form, and making the back a secondary form with a smaller profile.


Proportion is one of the most important tools in concept development and will affect how one relates to the final product. It can:

  • Evoke emotion or stoicism
  • Convey masculinity or femininity
  • Express elegance or austerity
  • Express speed or stasis
  • Express precision or roughness
  • Emphasize tension or ease


This is where the character of a product is developed.

Types of Forms

There is no single, correct, solution to any design program. Every designer will be expected to create alternative concepts which can be compared and considered, enabling the most appropriate to be chosen. To lay out these alternatives, a designer needs to call on a range of design tools, each of which might provide a different final solution. Broadly, these include:

  • Points & Lines
  • Surface
    – Planar
    – Curved
    – Compound Curved
  • Volumetric
    – Planar
    – Curved
    – Compound Curved

Points and Lines

A point is a position in space with no size. A line has direction but no width. Using these elements to define the shape of a form has, in the past, resulted in some engineered products which seem primitive, limited by our manufacturing capabilities. Today, we have the design tools to use these elements to create extremely complex parts and 3D printing has allowed the results to become practical solutions.

Looking at this structural joint, one can see in the first example how the limitations of construction have dictated its form. The next two show how the form can be whittled down by structural analysis to reflect the actual structural requirements, taking out material where it is not needed. This is made possible only through the use of sophisticated software and 3D printing.

This Bugatti caliper break show how an industrial product, designed in this way, can become art.

Planar Surfaces

The arrival of flat screens and keypads has resulted in a massive increase of flat forms where design input has been focused primarily on framing the ‘floating’ flat interface.

The simplicity of the planar form extends into other design areas, though, showing how even something as substantial as a bookshelf can be interpreted as a series of intersecting surfaces.

Simple Curved Surfaces

A simple bend can take a planar form and add not only a sense of direction but also a level of sophistication, the result of previous generations of products where straight lines and pure curves have been difficult to manufacture well. This is used over a broad range of design areas from architecture and furniture, to consumer products.

Compound Surfaces

Taking the design forms to the next level, planar surfaces can be shaped to create more organic forms. Used well, these can result in incredibly exciting forms.

Planar – Volumetric

Planar forms can be used together with a primary volumetric form to lighten its mass, to give the product direction and to provide a contrasting soft face to a hard form.

Curved/Geometric – Volumetric
Likewise, curved surfaces can be used to compliment a basic structure to enhance an overall form.

Compound Curve – Volumetric
The wide use of advanced computer software has allowed compound surfaces to become almost a standard in new product design in a way that would not have been possible fifteen years ago. The challenge is to apply those curves in a way which enhances the character of the design, and not allow it to be reduced to an amorphous blob!


Looking at the menu selection of any graphics program, like Adobe Photoshop, one is confronted with an extensive list of choices in the description of colors. Many books have been written on the subject. This is not one. This is a very brief outline to some of the terms used in their definition:

  • Hue
  • Light-Dark
  • Cold-Warm
  • Complimentary
  • Simultaneous
  • Saturation
  • Extension

Colors – Hue
Spectral frequency of the color. This is our visual range.

Light – Dark
Saturation from black to white

Cold – Warm
This is a pinwheel showing the relationship between cool and warm colors.

Colors – Complimentary
Complimentary colors are opposite colors. They are identified by taking colors opposite each other in the pinwheel above (9 o’clock / 3 o’clock). Examples are shown below.

Colors – Simultaneous
The theory is that one color can change how we perceive the tone and hue of another when the two are placed side by side. They two center grey colors below are identical but when surrounded by a lighter or darker color, they will look darker or lighter, respectively.

Colors – Saturation
Color Saturation refers to the degree of color purity or depth.

Contrast of extension relates to the relative areas of two or more-color patches and the resulting visual impact.

Design Elements

When considering all the design criteria outlined above, it is worth reminding ourselves that form development may be the most fun, aesthetics is only one aspect in the design process. The person who pushes a doorbell and the person hearing it are not the only users. It has to be engineered, tooled, manufactured, marketed, bought, delivered, installed, maintained, dismantled and recycled. All of these users will need to be considered at various stages of the design process, so including their requirements early will preclude delays later.


  • Basic concept
  • Overall form
  • Sub-divisions
  • Product details

End User

  • Product function
  • Human factors
  • Marketing/branding
  • Product use

Function & Manufacturing

  • Product cost
  • Materials
  • Manufacturing & Assembly
  • Packaging and storage

Industrial Design vs. Materials & Manufacturing Process

The choice of manufacturing process will have a major impact on both the design and cost of any new product. Discussion with the client of the impact of this choice is critical in the definition of realistic options.

With sheet metal, you are limited largely to planar forms but tooling costs are limited.

With high volume plastic parts, Injection Molding is a good option. Parts can be cheap, complex, and consistent. The down side of this process is that tools are expensive and tooling time can be long.

For low volume production, you have pressure forming, a variation of vacuum forming, where a sheet of material is placed over a mold, heated and formed. For these parts, trimming and finishing is still required.

For large, low volume covers, Resin Transfer Molding is a good option. Here a fiberglass mat is laid into a mold. The mold is closed and resin is drawn into the mold with a vacuum where it is impregnated into the mat. These parts still need to be trimmed and finished with mounting blocks. The final parts are rigid, have good surface finishes and are particularly appropriate in larger applications.

Other techniques include Rotational Molding and Blow Molding.

Example – Sheet Metal Soundproof Enclosure
This example shows the application of alternative construction techniques when applied to a standard soundproof chamber.

Standard Unit

Option 1a – Add Pedestal Covers

  • Process – Sheet metal
  • No tooling
  • Widen & add pedestal covers

This option simplifies the design with a sheet metal covers for the base.

Option 1b – Minimal Modification – Door & Handle

  • Process – Sheet metal
  • No tooling
  • Modify door
  • Modify handle

This option uses limited modifications to just the door and handle, focusing on the user interface areas.

Option 1c – Change Door/Handle & Add Pedestal Covers

• Process – Sheet metal
• No tooling
• Modify door
• Modify handle
• Add pedestal covers
This includes both above options

Option 2 – Sheet Metal Concept 1

  • Process – Sheet metal
  • No tooling
  • Modify door
  • Modify handle
  • Add pedestal covers
  • More complicated sheet metal fabrication
  • More expensive

It is possible to roll and weld sheet metal covers to create a more sophisticated look, but it is harder to do and more expensive. It is also possible to make these covers using pressure forming or composites.

Option 2- Sheet Metal Concept 2

  • Process – Sheet metal
  • No tooling
  • Modify door
  • Modify handle
  • Add pedestal covers
  • More complicated sheet metal fabrication
  • More expensiv

This is a variation of above.

Option 2- Sheet Metal Concept 3

  • Process – Sheet metal
  • No tooling
  • Modify door
  • Modify handle
  • Add pedestal covers
  • More complicated sheet metal fabrication
  • More expensive

This is another variation of above, but using a more pronounced access door.

Option 2- Sheet Metal Concept 4

  • Process – Sheet metal
  • No tooling
  • Modify door
  • Modify handle
  • Add pedestal covers
  • Moderately complicated sheet metal fabrication
  • More expensive

This is another way of handling the sheet metal design, using simpler forms but reducing the apparent size by breaking the form into a slimmer front section and a secondary back form.

Option 2- Sheet Metal Concept 5

  • Process – Sheet metal
  • No tooling
  • Modify door
  • Modify handle
  • Add pedestal covers
  • More complicated sheet metal fabrication
  • More expensive

This uses the same simple construction as above, but uses a more complicated door construction. The result is clean and attractive.

Options 3–4 Composite or Pressure Formed Covers – Concept 1

  • Process – Composite or Thermoformed
  • Tooling Required
  • Cost –TBD
  • Fully Integrated Design
  • Very Contemporary Design

Introducing a composite construction allows a more exciting look. It also allows the same design elements to be incorporated into the accompanying furniture (below)

Options 3–4 Composite or Pressure Formed Covers -Concept 1

Enclosure shown with adjacent workstation table retracted

Options 3–4 Composite or Pressure Formed Covers – Concept 1

Enclosure shown with adjacent workstation table rotated into position

Options 3–4 Composite or Pressure Formed Covers – Concept 2

  • Process – Composite or Thermoformed
  • Tooling Required
  • Cost –TBD
  • Fully Integrated Design
  • Very Contemporary Design

This variation adds an extra color to break the form further, and focus primarily the operator interface area.

Options 3–4 Composite or Pressure Formed Covers – Concept 2

Enclosure shown with adjacent workstation table retracted

Options 3–4 Composite or Pressure Formed Covers – Concept 2

Enclosure shown with adjacent workstation table rotated into position

ID – Changing Perception

Here we will look at how Industrial Design can change one’s perception of a product.

These are both chlorinators doing the same function. The one on the left is an amalgamation of standard components, all visually unrelated. The second design unifies the components into a product that improves functionality, use and maintenance. It does not confront the user with any questions he does not need to answer except the actual operation he is responsible for.

This Biochemistry Analyzer comprises an intimidating array of exposed chemical pumps and components. It did not sell well. The second design was the same mechanically as the first but it covered everything that was not necessary for the operator to see, creating a user-friendly environment. Sales for this version went up 400%.

This is a mammography machine. The first design fulfilled all the mechanical functions required to get results, but it failed to account for the other half of the equation, the female patient who had to submit to this device. The second was mechanically identical to the first, but it projects calmness, comfort and reassurance.

This medical cart housed multiple components from a range of vendors, and simple stacked them one on top of the next to create instant clutter. The second is an inexpensive design which organized the components to leave access to those components immediately required and housing those that did not. It was aesthetically pleasing and its impact was immediate. Improved sales reflected the change.

ID- Transforming Ideas into Products

This is a page turner, designed to allow the digitizing of books. The initial prototype, below, showed the required function, but provided no information as to how it could be housed in a portable package, manufactured or promoted.

The final design was a result of the integration of the operation, appearance and assembly into an elegant, functioning product.

Integration of ID & Plastics Engineering

ID & Gender – M, FM, Both
Design can project masculinity or femininity through form and color. Obviously, with something like a razor, how the product is used will vary between men and women, but there are some preconceptions which are regularly incorporated in design features for each, like the blue and pink colors.

ID – Culture & Style
Design is tied closely into the culture and fabric of society. Each chair shown here has identifying roots. The decorative elements on the first chair are reminiscent of Indian styling, the second clearly Adirondack and the last of an Italian heritage. Product design can target specific cultural elements.

ID & Markets/Image
Products can be targeted at markets through specific characteristics. This Milwaukee drill has a heavy duty, tough image, expressed through the chunky forms in the drill section and the aggressive detailing in the handle.

The Craftsman is sleek, looking efficient without being overly aggressive.

This Bosch has more of an office look, requiring light duty and styled accordingly.

The final design looks as if it is styled to not get lost on a messy workbench, the Barbie pink color does suggest it was aimed at the female market.

ID – Branding, Human Factors & Image
Applying the same analysis to the pruning shears shown here, they vary from highly functional to almost whimsical. For some like the Fiskars shears, the orange and black colors and the distinctive design details are clues seen in other Fiskars products and imply a level of consistent quality across all product ranges. These features are used as a selling point. For others, the generic functionality and simplicity of their appearance is a design statement in its own right.

Effectiveness of Branding

Branding is the intent to associate a particular color or look to the name of a company. It should convey a particular quality to a potential customer. It can convey a corporate ethic across a complete product line. The questions which will ultimately be asked will be:

  • Which name do you remember best?
  • Which one looks the most ergonomic?
  • Which one looks most durable?
  • Which one looks most expensive?
  • Which one looks like best value?

ID – Poor Examples

This is a simple bezel, designed by an engineer to create an attractive appearance. None show a sensitivity to proportion or form.

Concepts for a plastic instrument housing bezel – This rotationally molded cleaning chamber has also been engineered but not designed. It struggles to provide either a distinctive look or an ergonomic functionality.

Engineer’s designs for a Radar Detector – these are basically each two rectangles, attached arbitrarily, which seem to have little to tie them together visually. While they may house the components and function, there seems to be little ambition to go further.

Design or Art?
At the other end of the spectrum one can look at forms which are an end in themselves, devoid of comfort, function or durability. It is more abstract art than functional furniture..

The questions that should be used to judge it should include:

  • Comfort
  • Use
  • Durability
  • Weight
  • Versatility

ID – Viscometer
The viscometer on the left is an example of random forms. It is a collection of unrelated components assembled to enable function. The version on the right has attempted to relate the various components and tie them together a final form with a self-evident operation.

Handheld Device
These sound meters function in the same way. The one on the left has a generic look with little attention applied to the display or buttons. The one on the right has taken design clues from other Fluke products, but it has paid attention to the overall look, to the ergonomic grip, to the display and to the button layout. Even the microphone dome has a sleeker oval look. It is evident which is more accurate, more ergonomic and more durable.

The questions to ask are:

  • Which one looks more expensive?
  • Which one looks more accurate?
  • Which one looks more durable?
  • Which one looks more ergonomic?

Water Chiller
These Water Chillers are all doing same job, but the center design has a clean, simple appearance, a clearly defined keypad and lacks the cluttered and the flimsy perforated sides of the other designs.

The questions to ask are:

  • Which one projects a quality image?
  • Which one looks most sophisticated?

Design Projections & Trends

New Opportunities

3D Printing provides new opportunities not previously available to designers. Future products can be more truly organic. The flexibility of new CAD software and its ability to communicate with 3D printers, enables the more creative side of the designer to be expressed.

These designs are reminiscent of the break-out work of the Art Nouveau designers of a hundred years ago, when they freed themselves from the previous classical norms and conventions.

Technologies Which Will Change the Future of Design

These will include:

  • 3D printing – this will allow custom manufacture at low cost
  • Nano Engineering – will reimagine technological solutions
  • Piezoelectric Polymers – will revolutionize prosthetics & robots
  • Artificial Intelligence – will affect everything and everyone, and require a serious re-examination of personal and corporate responsibilities
  • Surface displays – will make virtually all devices come alive with color and motion


Ultimately, the human factor must stay central to any designer’s work. Regardless of the technology, how a product is imagined, how it is used, how it is assembled, serviced and recycled, these will be the final tests of a product’s success. Design is an expression, of creativity, of intelligence and of care. Being anything less than conscientious in its application will leave a product short of meeting its full potential.