a storyboard grid is sketched in ink

Insight - 01/23/23

Industrial Design: A Deep Dive

6 min

By Meghan Day

Industrial Design: A Deep Dive

Industrial design is a field that is not yet well understood in mainstream culture, and that is partly because it is a broad field that covers a lot of product and service categories, and bleeds into hundreds of others. As industrial designers we field this question all the time, and it’s not that easy to answer. To understand what an industrial designer is, let’s first look at what industrial design is. Here is the definition from the Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA), which conveniently brings up both design and designers: 

“Industrial Design (ID) is the professional practice of designing products, devices, objects, and services used by millions of people around the world every day. Industrial designers typically focus on the physical appearance, functionality, and manufacturability of a product, though they are often involved in far more during a development cycle. All of this ultimately extends to the overall lasting value and experience a product or service provides for end-users.”

Virtually every object around you, with the exception of raw elements of nature, involved the process of design. Someone had to decide what it would look like, its dimensions and form and color and materials, how it would be manufactured. This goes for virtually everything in the built environment, from kitchens, jackets and water bottles to skyscrapers and sidewalks. It also includes things like road signs, how the checkout process in a store works, how you book a plane ticket, and much more. 

a designer's hands work on a soft goods prototype
Industrial designers prototype, and test to develop and refine their ideas.

Like Rebeccah explained in her Ask Me Anything video, one way to think of industrial design is as everything left over once you take away the other major design fields, each of which is a massive and complex field in its own right. Urban design (the sidewalks and road signs), fashion design (the jackets), architecture (the skyscrapers), and interior design (the kitchens) are much better defined in our culture, and though they have their own complexities, it’s easier to wrap your head around the basic concept. We more or less get it. Interior design is the contents, style, and layout of interior spaces, architecture is the design of structures and buildings of all kinds, fashion design is the creation of apparel and accessories we wear on the body, and urban design is the design of towns and cities, regional areas, and the public environments of those spaces.

Let’s break it down

So…what else is there? Well, interior design, urban design, and architecture are often about creating spaces. Most of the objects that populate those spaces are created through industrial design. The park bench and the trash can on the sidewalk, the office desks and lamps in the skyscraper, the dishwasher and the toaster in the kitchen, the cars and buses following the road signs…those are all industrial design objects. Products are a large fraction of industrial design, and many objects that you can purchase (or that a company or city can purchase) are the result of industrial design. This also includes digital products, like apps and websites. Another large fraction of industrial design is service design, which involves optimizing the interaction between a service provider and its users. 

In the simplest form, industrial designers design products and services and, like IDSA explained, they are primarily concerned with the form, function, and manufacturability of those products and services.

What does the industrial part mean?

Herman Miller Eames chair ad shows many views
A Herman Miller Ad shows the various forms of the iconic Eames chair, designed in 1962. Photo courtesy of MidCentArc

There are two important pieces to understanding what an industrial designer is: the industrial piece, and the design piece. Industrial here has the same meaning that it does in the phrase industrial revolution, it refers to large-scale manufacturing. This means using industrial machines to make the same identical or essentially identical object over and over again. This is why most art does not qualify as industrial design: its creation does not require industrial methods of production. That said, industrial production doesn’t necessarily mean thousands of copies have to be made, it is more important that thousands of copies could be made with the intended manufacturing method. 

This is the “manufacturability” part of the IDSA’s definition. The designer needs to determine how a product would be mass produced, what materials and machinery and technology need to come together to produce it. The manufacturing process doesn’t have to be 100% industrial, either. A manufactured chair (and industrial designers seem to love designing chairs) might have a hand-finished detail, for example. A manufactured teddy bear might have eyes that are sewn on manually. 

What does the design part mean?

lighting design sketches in ink in a notebook
Sketches are an important tool for an industrial designer to develop and share ideas.

Design is a highly versatile and slippery word, in both noun and verb form. The meanings most relevant to us here are about making a plan, creating according to a plan, and making a drawing or a drawing of a plan. Here are some formal definitions of the verb form: ‘to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan’, ‘to conceive and plan out in the mind’, ‘to devise for a specific function or end’, ‘to make a drawing, pattern, or sketch of’.

Well, yeah. Those are all correct. Industrial designers conceive a plan for the appearance of a product or service (which we are more likely to call the form) and determine the functionality of the product or service. We make drawings or models of it to find the form, work out the details, and share the idea with others. 

To sum up

Industrial designers determine the form and function of products and services, and how to manufacture them at an industrial scale. This could mean commercial manufacturing for resale, as with toys or sofas or any of a million products on the market, but it doesn’t have to. It could be a system to help an underserved community access medical care, or the creation of a museum exhibition. Industrial design is fundamentally about solving problems.  

The industrial design field touches many facets of our lives and is needed in every industry. Though the products and services might look very different from one industry to another, the process followed by the designer looks remarkably similar. The toy designer and the furniture designer have a lot in common in how they approach developing a new idea, even if their materials and manufacturing options might be completely different. Industrial designers have a special combination of analytical and creative skills that allow them to research, sketch, prototype and test their ideas to work toward successful solutions. 

Do you have any questions about design? Let us know on social media! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development.


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