Design Strategy: Your Secret Weapon

Why are so many designers talking about strategy? Design Strategy is a new buzzword. Everywhere I turn, it seems that people are talking about it and how it has helped them design incredible (and successful) products. But let’s back up for a minute. What exactly is design strategy, and why do we need it? These are the questions that designers Katie Lim, IDSA, senior industrial designer at frog, Emilie Williams, IDSA, co-founder and leader of creative direction at Hydrific by LIXIL, Daniela Macías, IDSA, global experience design manager at Colgate-Palmolive, Monica Welcker, founder of Weft Designs, and I discussed on a panel at last month’s International Design Conference in NYC.

Putting It in Context

As designers, our primary task is to create new products. To do this most effectively, we need to master many skills. Even before we can start to sketch, model, and prototype our designs, we need to understand the landscape in which the product lives. Design strategy always is—or should be—at the forefront of our creative process. Lim said, “It’s the who, where, when, how, and why to define the what. Simply put, design strategy is a thoughtful, responsible, and intentional first step that considers everything before, around, and after your design.” Design strategy serves as a road map to align user needs, business goals, the product, and its manufacturing feasibility with the company’s mission and vision. Welcker summed it up as “design strategy is the intersection between design thinking and business development.”

But design strategy can be more than just balancing business and user needs. Williams, who has a unique view being part of a startup within a large corporation, explained that “it’s important to define what we mean by ‘design strategy’ since it can mean something very different depending on the context, audience, or application—whether to a single product, an entire brand, a particular market, an innovation development, or even an internal company process.” She also said that developing and implementing a successful design strategy helps craft better products for people and the environment they exist within while also achieving those ever-critical business goals and providing consistent and engaging products and brands.

Macías, whose long career at Colgate-Palmolive has straddled working in two countries and multiple divisions, added that “creating a robust design strategy that aligns with the overall company’s strategy, enables designers to create a solid foundation for our design process. … It structures our creative thinking through frameworks, tools, methodologies, and design principles that help us, and the people we work with, make sense of the problem we are trying to solve together with a design solution.” She also said that with a design strategy, we can better plan, direct, negotiate, and coordinate our efforts. Ultimately, it helps us make informed decisions that lead to the sweet spot between desirability, feasibility, viability, and sustainability. Implementing a solid design strategy drives the design process to the finish line, resulting in a positive impact on the company’s goals through the transformative power of design.

Getting Started

What are the first steps? Where do you start? Lim said, “It’s important to identify and meet with all stakeholders around the product. Ask them how they define success. Everyone is looking at products through a different lens. This also teaches you how to speak their language and how to share your concepts so that when you present, you can first reiterate what they have said and highlight things that matter to them.” By bringing everyone into the conversation, you gain their trust. This is the secret to success and to becoming a thought leader from the start. She also said, “Design can often be the center of multiple teams within a company, so you need to know how to invest and manage those relationships.” Demonstrating that your design work addresses the goals of each stakeholder reduces resistance to new ideas. It helps keep minds open and discussions moving forward.

Starting to craft and implement a strategy can be a bit overwhelming. So what exactly does this all mean, and how do we implement a sound strategy to become thought leaders? “At the beginning of any project, it is our responsibility as creative leaders to understand, interpret and negotiate all of the inputs with our stakeholders so that we can synthesize, extract top priorities, realistically manage expectations, and find synergies,” explained Macías. Lim added, “Sometimes you have to lay out the pros and cons of prioritizing one side over the other, and you can use research and business goals to help make decisions.”

When launching a new design initiative, you should work to gain consensus on the project’s goals, including identifying the market opportunity, user needs, product engineering, manufacturing limitations, marketing, and, in a larger context, what will happen before the customer uses the product and what happens at the end of its life. All these things work together to create a full experience around the product you’re designing. Designers can use their inherent problem-solving skills to prioritize and emphasize how all these different elements come together. “It then becomes the designer’s responsibility to keep the user at the center of their design process and build the best possible product for both the user and the brand,” explained Welcker.

My experience is that a good strategy is a great place to start. I use it as a tool as I go through the design process. But you still need to use your strategy in the right way. One of the most important applications of strategy is to use it in your communications, both internally to the business team and externally to the user.

Other Useful Pointers

The panel discussed our tips and tricks for implementing our strategies. Macías said, “One of the most empowering tools that I have found to build belief behind our creative efforts is incorporating a robust design research plan into our design strategy as often as possible throughout the process.” She added that she has learned to speak many different business languages to build her case. Some of these languages include a solid timetable on a spreadsheet to guide the team, a beautiful deck for marketing, a rough prototype for packaging, and verbatim clips from user interviews for insights. Learning to speak these diverse business languages has been instrumental in advancing difficult projects throughout her career. Adding to this, Lim iterated that “we designers have a responsibility to stand for what is most accessible, inclusive, user-friendly, and sustainable.” Clear and relatable language—whether it’s pictures, words, or numbers—is critical to making your case through the lenses of all the stakeholders.

For those of you who are new to the idea of creating a design strategy, the panel had some thoughts on how you can start to develop and use this tool. First, we all agreed that there is nothing quite like learning by experience. Macías said, “Just practice, practice, practice!” Weckler advocated, “If you work for a brand with a go-to-market process, get involved! Ask if you can attend the various meetings, and be genuinely curious about what goes on in marketing and sales.” For some practical advice, Strategyzer and the Harvard Business School offer great free templates and frameworks. Macías said that even though these models may not be design-centric, she has found them helpful. IDEO also has some valuable free resources that can get you started. They can be downloaded directly from their website. IDEO also offers paid courses throughout the year on different topics. We all agreed that researching and learning about new tools and frameworks is something we like to do. We all are constantly reading, learning, and experimenting with new strategic plans.

Finally, we all agreed that design strategy leads to products that are better for people and the environment, meet the business goals, and produce engaging products and brands. A good design strategy allows all the voices at the table to be heard. Each of the stakeholders from design, product development, sales, marketing, and manufacturing are involved in the creation of a product. From identifying the needs to production and the product’s end of life and everything in between, every step has different immediate needs. A good strategy aligns all parties on a common goal. We believe that industrial designers will be instrumental in helping solve the world’s problems because that is our unique superpower: bringing creative solutions to life. And with a solid design strategy, we can get there.

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Networking, Resilience, and Balance

Lessons from Successful Women Design Entrepreneurs

From designing products that we use every day to crafting the tools we need to live a more sustainable life; industrial design is all around us. While this field has traditionally been male-dominated, women are shaking things up and making a name for themselves in the industry. In fact, some of the most innovative and exciting industrial design studios today are run by women! So, grab your sketchbook and let’s take a closer look at some of the badass women who have started their own industrial design studios. Get ready to be inspired!

The Whys

One of the things that I am curious about is how and why so many women have opened their own practice. I asked a group of successful women design entrepreneurs about what led them to open their own studios.

For Isis Shiffer, founder and design lead, Spitfire Industry in Brooklyn, NY, her love for working with diverse clients and teams from various disciplines was likely a strong motivator for her to start her own studio. By owning her own business, she could have greater control over the types of projects she takes on and the clients she works with. This can be important for individuals who have a passion for a specific type of work or working with certain types of people.

On the other hand, the founder and creative director of Level Design in San Francisco, Nichole Roulliac, had the desire to lead her own studio and bring a new energy and perspective to the design industry that highlights the importance of representation and diversity in the workplace. ‘As a female founder, I saw firsthand how important it was to create a space that not only celebrated diversity but actively sought it out. I wanted to build a company that valued diverse perspectives and ideas, and that actively sought to create a more inclusive industry,’ said Roulliac. This aligns with a larger trend of women starting their own businesses to create more opportunities for themselves and to challenge traditional gender roles and expectations. Both designers recognized the need for a fresh perspective and decided to take the leap to become design entrepreneurs.

Jennifer Linnane’s experience as a successful solo-preneur and industrial designer highlights the benefits of being a freelancer, such as the flexibility to work on a variety of interesting projects and to build a successful business around one’s unique skills. This flexibility and independence can be appealing for many individuals who want to take control of their career and work on projects that align with their values and goals.

The Challenges

However, running a consulting practice or starting a business also comes with its own set of challenges. One of the biggest challenges is finding and securing clients, which often requires developing new skills such as networking, branding, and communicating effectively with clients. As Brittany Gene of Brittany Gene Design points out, scoping projects and learning how to communicate and contract with clients is crucial for success.

Building a strong network of fellow industrial designers and professionals outside of the design industry can also be an important factor in building a successful practice. This can help to provide support, advice, and potential referrals for new projects. It’s important for entrepreneurs to continuously develop new skills and maintain connections with others in their industry to stay up to date with the latest trends and techniques and to keep their business growing.

Overall, while becoming a design entrepreneur can offer many opportunities, it also requires hard work, dedication, consistent and clear communication skills and a willingness to continuously learn and adapt to new challenges.

Jennifer Linnane emphasizes the importance of confidence when it comes to freelancing, as you are essentially presenting yourself as an expert in your field highlighting your ability to partner with your client to deliver results. Additionally, resilience is necessary because not every day will go as planned. This highlights the need for adaptability and the ability to handle challenges and setbacks to succeed as a freelancer or design entrepreneur.

As the founder and principal of Interwoven Design Group, I have found that balancing innovation with practical business requirements and deadlines can be a challenge. Jen Linnane, who shares similar beliefs, argues that innovation and creativity can sometimes conflict with predictability, which is necessary for meeting business requirements, budgets, and deadlines. As a design entrepreneur, having both strong design skills and business acumen is essential for success. Achieving a balance between these two areas is crucial for running a thriving firm.

In summary, while becoming a design entrepreneur can offer many opportunities, it also requires hard work, dedication, consistent and clear communication skills, and a willingness to continuously learn and adapt to a new challenges. Freelancers and design entrepreneurs alike need confidence and resilience, and finding a balance between innovation and practical business requirements is essential for success.

The Hows

When doing researching for this article, the most common question asked by people who want to open their own firm ask is how to find new clients. The top answer from successful design entrepreneurs was networking. Isia Shiffer explains that 80% of her clients come from word of mouth and repeat business. Jeanette Numbers emphasizes the importance of building authentic connections with people to foster good business relationships and ultimately good projects and Nichole Roulliac expands her network by asking her contacts to connect her with their contacts. Most of the women entrepreneurs I spoke with spend on average 10-12 hours per week expanding their networks and fielding requests for info and proposals.

If you’re considering starting your own practice, this group has some great advice. Jeanette Numbers suggests surrounding yourself with a strong team and having faith in your team members. Brittany Gene advises investing in yourself and the tools you use every day. Nichole Roulliac stresses the importance of perseverance and staying true to yourself. Additionally, having a unique point of view and asking the “whys” rather than just the “hows” is important, according to Numbers.

However, even with a great support network and the right tools, burnout is a common issue among entrepreneurs. Isis Shiffer reminds us that it’s important to take breaks to recharge our brains, and Nichole Roulliac suggests being part of a strong network of allies who can support each other during difficult times.

Jeanette Numbers says “surround yourself with a strong team, have faith in your team members and Keep moving forward”.  Brittany Gene adds “invest in yourself and the tools you use every day. It’s so easy to pick a cheaper option when buying tools but it can be the costliest in the long run.”  supporting this adds Roulliac is to have perseverance and staying true to yourself.  And Numbers goes on to say it’s important to have a unique point of view and strong perseverance, that she thrives on asking the whys, not just the how’s. 

But even with setting up a great support network and investing in the right tools and equipment Shiffer adds that “Burnout is common, real, and avoidable.  A lot of entrepreneurs have the sense that if they aren’t always working, they’re somehow failing, but this isn’t the case at all. You need to let your brain recharge to be good at any job.”

Roulliac, “Industrial design is a rollercoaster. Like any service industry, from hospitality to retail, there will be a huge, overwhelming rush of work – then a silence while you await the next storm.” “One thing that will help you through is being part of a strong, genuine network of allies who can support one another when times are tough”

Your Future Awaits

So there you have it, folks! From Brooklyn, NY to San Francisco and places in between, these badass women are changing the game in industrial design. They’re not only creating innovative products and solutions, but they’re also challenging the traditional gender roles and expectations in the industry.

Whether you’re thinking of starting your own design studio or just looking to learn more about industrial design, take some inspiration from these women. Remember to network, invest in yourself and your tools, stay true to your unique point of view, and don’t forget to take breaks to recharge!

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll be reading about your success story and how you’ve helped to transform the world of industrial design. So grab your sketchbook, put on some tunes, and let’s get to work!

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Views on the Impact of AI

The IDSA Women in Design Committee’s vision is to have gender parity in our industry. One way we work toward this goal is to amplify voices. In this article, Views on the Impact of AI, we have view points from women and nonbinary designers who are emerging into the profession and establishing their career. The WID Committee welcomes thought, support, and feedback at

INNOVATION is the voice of the industrial design profession, providing in-depth coverage of industrial design issues and communicating the value of design to business and society at large. This award-winning quarterly is generously illustrated with images of cutting-edge designs and features a clean yet dynamic layout that brings editorials and top-notch content to life. The magazine was first published in 1982, and IDSA members consistently name INNOVATION as a primary benefit of their membership experience to this day. Want to read more? Access to the latest issues of INNOVATION magazine here!

From Sci-Fi Fem-Bots to Sustainable Design

When the topic of artificial intelligence comes to mind, I can’t help but think of the sci-fi fem-bots that have been featured in movies like Blade Runner, Ex Machina, and Her. These films, among others, have often portrayed women as the conduit for artificial intelligence. As a result, I became curious about how women industrial designers view the impact of Al on their profession, so I decided to ask a group of women in the field for their thoughts.

What’s the Consensus?

Overwhelmingly, the message I heard was that artificial intelligence is not a replacement for human designers. While Al can automate routine tasks and provide data driven insights, it cannot replace the creativity, intuition, and empathy that are essential to good design. Rather, Al should be viewed as a tool that complements and assists human designers, enabling them to produce more compelling and innovative products. As Milja Bannwart, an industrial design consultant and creative director based in Brooklyn, NY, explains, “There are many aspects that a designer incorporates into the design of a product. There is a story to be told, the emotional impact on users, consumer testing and research, form and color, the quality of materials used, and craftsmanship.” By using Al in combination with human creativity, designers can unlock new possibilities and produce products that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Furthermore, according to Lorraine Justice, PhD, FIDSA design researcher, author, and professor of industrial design at RIT, Some people believe that Al will transform designers into mere curators or arbiters of design, rather than original creators. However, this is only one aspect of the potential options for this technology. The human desire to create will always exist, and designers will continue to use any available tools to create better designs.

According to Yukiko Naoi, principal at Tanaka Kapec Design Group in Norwalk CT, Al could serve as a valuable tool for collaboration in industrial design. She believes that in any creative process, any input or specific angle of seeing things is valuable and that Al could provide a viewpoint that individual designers may overlook. “Al’s ability to offer fresh perspectives could be particularly useful in industrial design,” says Naoi.

Al is a great tool to automate many of the routine tasks involved in industrial design, such as creating 3D models, rendering product images, and analyzing user data. This can free up designers’ time to focus on more complex and creative aspects of the design process. According to Ana Mengote Baluca, IDSA, a faculty member at Pratt Institute, designers should approach the use of Al with a healthy dose of skepticism. While relying too heavily on Al may be risky, Mengote Baluca acknowledges that the technology shows promise in exploring new forms for products: “My big concern about Al is that it will drive trends and affect the aesthetics of what we create. If the algorithms are written in a way that promotes what is popular, then that wilI become the next big thing. I worry that we will lose diversity in style and in aesthetics if we rely on Al too much.” Naoi adds, “Just like any tool, it depends on how we use it. If we rely only too heavily then some of the outcomes will be too obvious computer driven.”

Image generated with DALL-E using the prompt “A female industrial designer dressed as a sci-fi fem bot standing in a design office retro 60’s art.”

Challenges and Opportunities

Naturally, there is a lot of apprehension about how AI will affect the design process. Al has the potential to transform our lives in many positive ways, from improving healthcare and transportation to enhancing education and entertainment. However, there are also valid concerns about the impact of Al on humanity, including job displacement, privacy concerns, and ethical issues. To address these concerns and ensure that the use of Al in industrial design is responsible and beneficial, it’s essential to establish ethical guidelines and standards for Al development and implementation. It’s also important to involve all stakeholders, including designers, engineers, consumers, and policymakers, in the conversation about Al’s role in design. By doing so, we can maximize the potential benefits of Al while minimizing the potential risks and unintended consequences. When discussing the impact of Al on industrial design, Jeanne Pfordresher, partner at Hybrid Product Design in Brooklyn, NY, adds, “Al has tremendous potential for creativity, and if we can address the ethical issues surrounding it, even better.” Ultimately, the successful integration of Al in industrial design will require collaboration, transparency, and responsible innovation.

One of the biggest challenges facing designers today is how to create products that are both functional and environmentally responsible. Al has the potential to enable more sustainable and environmentally friendly product design. For example, Al can be used to model a product’s life cycle and predict its carbon footprint, allowing designers to identify areas where they can reduce emissions and improve sustainability. Additionally, Al can help designers to optimize material use, design products for disassembly and reuse, and create more energy-efficient designs.

Finding efficiencies in massive amounts of data is a time-consuming task that is ideally suited for Al. Industrial designers can leverage this technology to create more sustainable designs and more efficient supply chains, which can help to mitigate the negative impact of human activity on the environment.” Al can help us manage supply chains and reduce inefficiencies,” says Mengote Baluca, adding that “by creating decision-making tools for designers, we can make more conscious choices.”

Al can significantly improve the design process by leveraging vast amounts of data on user preferences, market trends, and product performance. This enables designers to create more efficient and effective designs that better meet the needs of customers. Bannwart recommends “integrating Al at the outset of the design process to analyze data and identify trends, conduct consumer and competitor research, and even generate concept ideas. In later phases, Al can also be useful for creating design variations, accelerating the process, and experimenting with form generation for the sake of exploration.”

Many products in the market today have used Al in their design and development. Adidas used Al to design and manufacture the Futurecraft 4D shoe. The shoe’s midsole was created using a 3D printing process that was optimized with Al algorithms to create a lattice structure that is both lightweight and strong. Apple used a combination of machine learning and acoustic simulations to design the AirPods Pro. Al algorithms helped optimize the fit and seal of the earbuds and create the noise-canceling technology that is one of the AirPods Pro’s key features. Al also has great potential for creating better user experiences in products. For example, Dyson used Al to design the Pure Cool Link air purifier, which can automatically detect and respond to changes in air quality. Al algorithms were used to optimize the performance of the air purifier and create a user interface that is intuitive and easy to use.

Al is rapidly becoming an integral part of the industrial design process. While I don’t believe Al will or should replace human designers, I do think that by establishing and following ethical guidelines for Al development and usage, we can leverage Al into helping designers create products that are not only functional and aesthetically pleasing but also sustainable and environmentally responsible.

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Design News N. 036

Design News is your tiny dose of design, technology and other important news, curated monthly by Interwoven Design. In this series we share the latest on our favorite topics, including fashion design, collaboration in 3D printing, sculpture, and an upcoming design event. In this issue: Pharrell Williams to lead LV, Reebok and Botter team up to unveil 3D Printed Trainers inspired by seashells, Skateboards made from recycled discarded ocean fishnets, NYC’s own bean, and Women in Design 2023!

Photo: Matti Hillig

Pharrell Williams to lead LV

Last month, Louis Vuitton designated Pharrell Williams as Men’s Creative Director. William’s is a true creator, spanning a plethora of disciplines including music, art and fashion. LV’s Chairman and CEO welcomed Pharrell, “I am glad to welcome Pharrell back home, after our collaborations in 2004 and 2008 for Louis Vuitton, as our new Men’s Creative Director. His creative vision beyond fashion will undoubtedly lead Louis Vuitton towards a new and very exciting chapter.”

The artist has won a multitude of awards including Grammy Awards, a Golden Note Award, Producer of the Year, and nominated for a Golden Globe as well as an Emmy. Along with his music and film success he is a true entrepreneur at heart by leading his brands, Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream apparel.

via Wallpaper

Photo: Reebok

Reebok and Botter team up to unveil 3D Printed Trainers inspired by seashells

In a Collaboration with Reebok and HP, Dutch Brand, Botter has created murex sea snail shell inspired shoes. The colorful and chunky shoes were unveiled at Paris Fashion week. Botter explained, “We ended on the murex seashell as the final design inspiration. We loved that this was an object that the Greek goddess Venus used to comb her hair.” The 3D printed shoes were produced using HP’s Multi Jet Fusion 3D Printer. The aesthetics of the shoe tend to be a morph between Reebok’s football silhouette and Botter’s Baner Shoe. The most impressive feat of the collaboration is that from start to finish the process only took 15 days! The printer used a layer of thermoplastic polyurethane while binding layers of TPU together while also building an internal support when needed. Then the shoes were hand painted to match Botter’s Autumn Winter 2023 collection. HP explained that the Multi Jet Fusion technology allowed for the process to be completed quicker that traditional shoe manufacturing.

via Dezeen

Photo:  Reinhard Burkl

Skateboards made from recycled discarded ocean fishnets

Skateboards. This product that has influenced a culture, has been considerably unchanged over the years but seen in different sizes and only a few materials. Until now! Lander Skateboards introduced a completely new aesthetic of board with a new level of performance and also keeping sustainability in mind. The deck consists of an extruded hole pattern that is injection molded from recycled plastic nylon from ocean fish nets with a fiberglass reinforcement. The hole pattern structure is complemented by ribs on the underside that provide extra strength to fight against sagging in between trucks. Lander explained, “In addition to increased traction and acceleration, our unique hole pattern allows the board to flex torsionally… lending itself to quick cuts and effortless carving.” 

Lander Co-founder, Ryan Anderson, first prototyped skateboards by welding scraps of perforated steel together. As you could imagine, the skateboard was interesting but difficult to ride. After extensive research and development the team modified the form and function while perfecting the molding process. Lander offers two new models now available, the Rio and the Rodeo.

via Designboom

Photo: Interwoven Design

NYC’s own Bean

Finally one for our own! Anish Kapoor, influenced by his own well-known sculpture, Cloud Gate in Chicago, completed his first permanent New York sculpture. The reflective sculpture commonly referred to as The Bean is carefully nested underneath the ‘Jenga Tower’ at 56 Leonard Street. The building also is home to the artist himself! The massive forty-eight feet long and nineteen feet tall sculpture in Tribeca has been under construction since 2019. Weighing in at forty tons, the piece is fabricated from thirty-eight stainless steel panels. During COVID-19 the construction had to be put on pause and even caused the reflective skin to burst due to the sunlight differences. The work allows the surrounding cityscape to be illuminated during the day and night time.

via Design Boom

Women in Design 2023

Now moving towards diversity in design! Now in its 7th year, IDSA Women in Design Deep Dive, is a collection of critical conversations and open discussions led by top industry experts who are actively molding and creating the next generation of designers. The event celebrates the growth of the community as well as a way to gather and help positively influence gender identities within the Industrial Design community. 

Our founder, Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman is hosting a session and giving a speech on “Building Highly Effective Design Teams through Inclusion of Diverse Perspectives.”  Tune in virtually or in-person at the Chicago-based event on March 29-30, 2023.

The two day event is a great way for experts, professionals, students and others to share perspectives as well as gain insights and foster relationships. This is your chance to be part of the initiative on how we can practice diversity in design more inclusively.

via IDSA

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Industrial Design: A Deep Dive

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. 

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