Industrial design (ID) is an integral aspect of developing a new commercial or industrial product. Often used in conjunction with mechanical engineering (and now, software development), ID is often the central procedure for turning an abstract idea into a tangible business product. Since the beginning of what many consider modern industrial design over 100 years ago, the role of design has stretched into almost every aspect of product development.
As a school of thought, ID has its roots in late 19th century England. At the time, rapid industrialization had the nation’s factories mass-producing furniture, utensils, and other products that were often decorated with what many considered to be excessive ornamentation. In most cases, the ornamental designs came from industrial catalogs and were punched from raw materials by workers that had no say in the design of the intricate patterns. The patterns, which had little or no structural, functional, or emotional value, were usually applied to the surface of items almost as an afterthought.
The Englishman William Morris, perhaps the most outspoken member of what would come to be called the Arts and Crafts Movement, decried the industrially-produced ornaments for lacking any sort of value and desired a return to the days of individual craftsmanship. To Morris and his contemporaries, the pinnacles of design were items whose form fit their purpose, and whose ornamentation, should it exist at all, was scarce and applied strictly to enhance usefulness.
These ideas formed the basis of an architecture and design movement that dominated much of the 20th Century, functionalism. The aesthetic of functionalism in design and architecture has been the primary impetus for most product design since. Like Morris before them, Functionalists aim to create a design that, through its purity of function, induces a relationship with the human user.
Current Trends in Industrial Design
Contemporary design remains indebted to every movement from Arts and Crafts to Functionalism, but has begun to take on a life of its own. The rapidly decreasing cost and size of electronics and computerized components has enabled designers to truly focus on usability. Currently, many industrial designers aim to create successful designs (read: easily produced, functional, aesthetically pleasing, and unique) by engaging in an in-depth examination of product uses.
This idea is the central tenet to human-centered design philosophies such as contextual design and participative design. Both schools of thought encourage designers to utilize actual “end users” (people who may use the product professionally for extended amounts of time) as their most valuable product design resource. By following not just the function of the item, but also the applications of that function and the experiences of the user, designers create objects that both fulfill the needs of users and have strong emotional appeal to them.
The Role of Modern Industrial Designer
Among the many responsibilities of industrial designers are those of a sculptor (or visual artist), engineer, researcher, materials technician, and ergonomics expert. Especially in companies that embark on human-centered design projects (as opposed to those who use strict product styling or silent design techniques), research, materials, and ergonomics concerns are particularly important. In some cases, as much as 80 percent of the time-frame for a project may be spent on developing product understanding and functionality, and the final design is born directly out of a search for a deeper understanding of the desired relationship with the product’s users.
Of course, the visual arts are important to design as well. A strong look that is appealing to consumers and well differentiated from the competition is one of the keys to product sales, especially for companies that are entering a new market. Pairing strong industrial design with marketing can also ease the entry into a new market, which prompts many designers to seek knowledge of modern marketing strategies, as well.