Industrial Design Today

This second article of the series will focus on the design considerations that industrial designers are faced with, and on the design development process.

Today’s industrial designers are involved in diverse disciplines that include:

  • Product design (Aesthetics)
  • Product branding (Identity)
  • Engineering
  • Product strategy
  • Human factors

Traditional skills in product design include a strong background in aesthetics, visual balance, proportion and color. These are tools to be applied to express the functionality of the product and unify the elements that go into its appearance, construction and operation. Skills in sketching and modelmaking allow for an examination of the concepts and are a means of communication with clients and manufacturers.

Cultural differences will also impact the direction of product development. Space limitations typical in a Japanese apartment may require a product be compact while the same product would need to have more visual impact in a US home. A large SUV is appropriate in Alaska, but a headache on the single lane backroads of rural Europe. In South America or Africa, cost may be the barrier, and materials and assembly would require alternative solutions.

Demographic differences will require that a product designed for an elderly person be different to one designed for a young adult. Controls, displays, reach and access all need to be tailored for the particular age of the intended end user.

Product life is a consideration in design. A sneaker is not expected to last years. When the materials degrade, no one is surprised. A disposable device can be assembled with snaps or adhesives which will not allow disassembly, but a watch or a TV remote must last for some time while allowing some disassembly for battery replacement. A medical device will have a longer life and require more comprehensive access for service.

The application and use of a new product will need an extensive examination before any design work is started. These might involve surveys and focus groups.

These are all concerns which need to be studied early and the subsequent results checked as the project progresses.

Education and Methodology

Problem solving in a traditional engineering education is a logical, linear and deductive process. While industrial design education is also logical, it encourages intuition and creative insight to see problems from a different angle. Lateral thinking can allow roadblocks thrown up by conventional solutions to be circumvented. The cross fertilization of ideas from one field to another unrelated field is a deep source for reinventing a new product line. For example, the use of cell phones to access and communicate data has allowed some devices to be reduced to their basic parts, no displays or keypads required. The ability to correlate seemingly unrelated ideas and weave them into a new, cohesive form is at the heart of the industrial design process. It allows products to continue to evolve.

While the broad perspective described above is necessary, at the other end of the spectrum, the designer has to focus at the detail level. This is where much of the interface is resolved and will impact the final quality of the product.

A key factor in the creative process is the ability to keep an open mind. At the beginning of any development program, there will be many assumptions about appearance, function and final use, but research and concept development will uncover multiple alternatives, none of which is the only answer. Being able to pick a pathway through these ideas to reach the final solution requires vision and an ability to communicate this vision to others in the team. It will also allow them to contribute to it.

For a creative process to work, it needs a strategic plan to map its implementation. That strategy has to include areas which go beyond the usual product creation, to include an awareness of marketing and recycling or disposal. These are areas which industrial designers are often excluded from. Designing a medical device in polished white with a fancy aluminum trim, then finding it released to the public in a bright shade of purple can be an unwelcome surprise and seriously impact one’s folio!

Reinventing the Basics

One of the interesting things about the industrial design process is that it allows you to reinvent existing products, sometimes visually, sometimes functionally. The best designs achieve both.


This allows multiple products to be given a family identity, where the quality of one product enhances the fellow products. It provides the manufacturer with a chance to maximize its presence in the marketplace. The primary tools to create this identity are consistent use of color, logo and specific design details.

Human Factors

In the relationship between a human and an inanimate object, the human is not going to change. The inanimate object has to be designed to fit the humans, with all their various configurations. It may be an audio controller, a switch, or a medical dispenser, all have to be designed to respond to human input. All will need some level of ergonomic analysis, testing and subsequent design response. Ease of use and safety are fundamental to good design.

Business Strategy

Analysis of competing products can provide opportunities for new products. It can identify new openings in the market and allow an investigation into financial viability of new products within that market. This is made possible with the advent of development tools for CAD financial analysis and simulation. With this knowledge, the goals for any new product are clear and the assigned budget is realistic.

Product Design/Engineering

This was previously the responsibility of an engineer or mechanical designer. Making a slight change to a radius on a monitor housing might once have taken half a day, due to the complex and incredibly slow software, miniscule computer memory and separate drafting functions. The industrial designer was glad to just provide input from the drawing board with drawings and illustrations. Today software has integrated most of these functions into a seamless process and allows the industrial designer to design, engineer and draft. This has provided many new opportunities for the industrial designer. These go hand in hand with a correspondingly increased responsibility for the end result. The knowledge of materials and manufacturing processes is part of that responsibility. This can greatly benefit the concept development process, bonding the creative and the engineering functions and benefiting both.


Marketing and distribution

Introducing a new product raises many issues which an industrial designer must consider. Shelves are often filled with similar products at competitive prices. For some, just being on the shelf is the goal, the design being similar enough to the market leader to get a foot in the door. For others, defining themselves as different is the goal. With the invention of cyclone dust collection, Dyson changed the whole market for vacuum cleaners. Style and price put them in a different league. Any appliance store will now display Dyson appliances prominently on the main aisle. All the cheaper, bag vacuum cleaners will be lumped together in a side aisle.

Corporate identity also has a major impact in the display and promotion of new products, with the consistent use of color, logo and design maximizing the visibility of the products on the shelf. These same features can be used in the broader advertising campaign, as well as web site design.


Design vs. Art

The artist and designer have traditionally used similar tools to create two- and three-dimensional products, so the question is raised, how does one distinguish one from the other?

Art is an expression, created one piece at a time, in many media. It is the artists’ reaction to the world they see it or feel it and is expressed through their hands. It has traditionally been done primarily for that part of society which is able to pay for it – i.e. the rich.

Design serves function. It is the application of form to mechanical functions. It might be as simple as a fork or a cup, or as complex as an MRI machine, it provides a means to expand human capabilities. Its products are usually for a broad market and are rarely one-off.

Leonardo da Vinci was an artist who painted some of the most famous paintings in the world. He was also a designer who invented machines for the defense of the Medici’s Florence as well as an automated bobbin winder for the general public.

One of these chairs is design, the other is art!

Good design expresses a balance between form and function, while adding a level of personality which can encourage a relationship between user and product.

Fashion and style are expressions of contemporary cultural or social trends. Their input refreshes the design of products we use every day. Seen with the benefit of hindsight, they might seem superficial or contrived, but in the heat of the day they are introduced, they express what is in the public imagination and tempt us with their promise of the future.

An example of good design: Davol Connectors. These are reinventing a basic product through aesthetics. The overall form is simple but still intriguing, a balance in the proportions of the two colors, an attention to the details of the secondary component – the wire, a consistent identity maintained between each component, and the use of colors, these all denote a well-designed product.


Part 2

Product Review

In this section we will review examples of design to examine how it can go wrong and how it can succeed.

Making a Difference

Successfully applied, styling can define one product from its competitor, it can add quality in its use of materials and finishes, and it can inform a purchaser that the company selling it has invested time and effort in making it excel. The examples below show how there are multiple solutions to a single problem, all of which may be appropriate, but which are aimed at different areas of the same market.

Style Gone Wild

We have previously discussed the impact of style on a product. While it can help to define the character of a product, it can also overwhelm it, preventing the actual purpose and function of a product from providing the primary visual contact. Below are examples of excessive styling.

The SGI computer, below, has as its primary design feature a broad sweep which extends beyond the main form. It takes the styling feature to a point of caricature where the capabilities of the product could be questioned.

The car seems to be solely a styling exercise, and while it can be seen as attractive as an abstract form, basic vehicle functions like ingress and egress are impractical, and its size excessive.

Turntables traditionally have tried to do a few of things very well. For instance, they try to maximize the inertia of the body to limit the impact of outside movement on the stylus, and to balance the tonearm to control the interaction of the stylus and the disc. The example below shows how to go too far, using thirty-six-inch-high dampening feet and a chassis turned from a massive aluminum billet. The capabilities this provides far exceed the capabilities of the vinyl record it is reading. Being generous, it can be seen as art!

Form Does NOT Follow Function

Where a design can fall short is in the expression of its function in the final appearance. The examples below are concepts only, but make the point. A wheel chair should not need an explanation but in this example, the styling masks its function without providing a vision of how its occupant is enabled or dignified. Its styling is over complex and tries too hard.

The bottles would seem to be more appropriate in Art Nouveau times but overly styled for the requirements of today’s supermarkets and do not express a particular custom purpose.

The HiFi hardly expresses its function, its interface fails to communicate with a user, and its architecture seems to limit its place in the market.

Norman Bel Geddes would be proud of the airship.


Aesthetics is a very broad term which covers the output of every designer. It can be seen as the point where art meets design, where a product is seen as a simple means to interest and excite, purely from its form. It would be presumptuous to judge every product but it is useful to identify some of the means to judge it.

Some products are comprised of a single form and some of multiple forms. Looking at a simple form, one might consider a laptop a simple flat box with an articulated cover. This would describe an Apple laptop, however, the level of sophistication seen in their final product turns what is ordinary into an artform. Their goal has been to make it thin, because most of the competition can’t. They have created a crowning of the top surface which results in a very fine edge, enhancing its apparent thinness. This also creates a subtle variation in shading to the top surface, giving it a warm, tactile feel, appropriate in a product designed to be touched. This is its primary form, catching the eye first. Secondary forms are added in the interior with the keypad, display and hinge details. These interact visually with the primary form and provide further levels of interest. Fine detailing finishes the product with the shape and graphics of the keys, imparting a final level of quality.

Many products are made from a series of forms. Typically, these have been broken into separate visual components to minimize the overall product size. Many medical devices can take up the best part of a room. The visual hierarchy here is the same as before. There will be a primary form providing the initial impact. Secondary forms support and enhance the primary form and create a visual conversation between the two. The fine detailing is seen particularly in the contact points with the operator. The use of more than one primary form can create a visual conflict and a confusing overall look of the device.

Within these broad guidelines, other considerations will affect its appearance. The proportions of the parts relative to one another, and relative to a human operator, provide an opportunity to define your design. How symmetrical or asymmetrical a product is can imply stability or dynamic activity. The human eye loves to find patterns so providing multiple components which are similar in size or proportion can be reassuring.

The use of colors, graphics and materials is frequently dictated by corporate guidelines, however, these can provide opportunities where the use of colors and bold details might otherwise be frowned on. Design approval by the more timid execs can be overcome by pre-approved corporate guidelines.

It might be thought that the application of many functional requirements to a design might limit the ability to achieve aesthetic excellence, however, these requirements can drive a designer to be more creative and lead to a more distinctive final product. Ultimately the final design must express its function, so accommodating the functional needs within the aesthetic solution will provide the better end product.

To identify where design aesthetics can succeed or fall short, the following section will look at some examples.

What makes a product appealing?

Simplicity is at the core of good design. This rice cooker is uncluttered and uses clean break lines to define its profile. Without them, the design might look formless. The addition of the feet and the location of the connector adds some humor to the design, animating it and making it friendly and touchable.

The hairdryer had reduced the geometry to a minimum but uses color and texture to define the handgrip, interface and air input/output areas.

The hand sink shows complete simplicity but the careful use of soft radii makes it familiar and approachable.

Each of these has considered proportions, appropriate to the function of the product, with supporting design details which give life to the form.

Over Styling

These are some examples of unsuccessful design. One can imagine the initial concept illustrations with go-fast highlights and dynamic backgrounds making them look as if they are going one hundred miles an hour. In reality, in 3D, the shortcomings are evident. The first has a dominant primary form but the secondary forms do not reflect it or complement it. The result is confusing.

The other designs allow the secondary forms to interfere with and confuse one’s understanding of the overall shape. World War 1 battleships used this technique for camouflage!

Other examples show that adding radii or chamfers randomly to a box, without a specific design intent, can lead to formless, visually boring products, lacking any spark of originality. This will impact the impression a user has of the technology being housed.

Some believe that the application of graphics can create the impression of a designed product, but the design below show how arbitrary cuts and unrelated additions to the features will not rescue a design. The impact is that of instant office clutter.

Economic & Functional vs. Expensive and Attractive

Design requirements are frequently set to create inexpensive products for a mass market. The industrial designer has the opportunity to create new markets, providing imaginative solutions which add value to a product that a purchaser can see and is willing to pay for.

In the heyday of HiFi, Bang and Olufsen was able to sell its products at 30% more than its Japanese equivalent, simply by its look and its use of materials, which generated a lust factor – “I don’t need it, but I have to have it”.

Aesthetics & Proportion

Proportion is a vital instrument in the industrial designer’s toolbox. It allows him to create mood or personality for his products. The chairs below show contrasting forms, one with fat legs and a defined seat, another with minimal legs and a soft seat. Neither is necessarily right or wrong, but they show how the proportions can make the same product individual. Likewise, the sneakers show how choices in proportions can result in radically different solutions.

Attention to details

Details can make the difference in defining the quality of a product. These headphones show great effort was applied in the surface finishes, in the subtle application of the logo. The crisp radii give it a look of precision. The negative spaces where components meet show as much thought as the 3D elements themselves and the full assembly shows a fluid continuity of forms.

Another well detailed product is this speaker. High gloss finish gives the form lightness with its reflections. The meticulous level of detail is revealed in its perfect seam lines. The simple shape could be seen as fat but use of cuts turns the forms to a series of interrelated surfaces. Finally, the front speaker has the look of a stained-glass window and the rear speaker grill is reminiscent of the grill of a thirty’s car (or Loewy’s motorcycle). These are not necessary to the function of the product but they are strings that tie this inanimate object to our imaginations.

Medical Devices

Medical devices are a particular mix of heavy and potentially dangerous machinery interfacing with technical experts and with vulnerable and half-dressed patients. Providing an environment that does not intimidate and at the same time implying total competence, these are the goals in the design of these devices. Here are examples of some of these.

MRI Scanners

The first design looks as if the plastic shell has been shrink wrapped around the mechanical core. The transition from circular entrance to the rectangular housing seems clumsy and there is no relationship between the bed and scanner. Compare this with the Siemens design, which is simple, light and slightly technical. It provides an uncomplicated intersection of the primary cylindrical form and the secondary component box. The bed is different on form but uses similar design details, like radii and color treatment to provide a consistency between the components.

Nuclear imaging device

The first of these devices has made an attempt to open up its mechanism but its use of the large, articulated pillow plates in a complex frame makes the product look quite intense. The second device is simpler and less cluttered. Its impact is less personally invasive. Consistent use of design details between bed and scanner unifies the design into a single component.

Ultrasonic Imaging Scanner

The first design seems to be a conglomeration of multiple components. Any attempts to define a design direction seem to be overwhelmed by the many subcomponents and dangling cables. The second design has imposed an order on the components and comes off as elegant and competent.

X-Ray machines

The problem with X-Ray machine design is the requirement that they incorporate many standard components like the tubes and the collimators boxes, most of which have no visual similarities. The first designs below show a design which superimposes a distinctive keypad over the standard components to provide identity. This results in a superficial application. The final design shows how a well-designed keypad/handle can be used to incorporate and integrate seemingly unrelated forms.

Breast Biopsy Table

This device analyses breast cancer and has to be unintimidating. The patient will already be stressed. Its overall design suggests an ironing board with an uncovered vacuum cleaner engine mounted underneath. This is not a good start. The second design shows an attractive top platform mounted on a chassis which uses consistent design elements to create unified and friendly design with its own personality.

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 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 comfortable to achieve their own particular goals.