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.
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?
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?
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.
A Q&A with Sustainability Consultant and Educator Frank Millero
“Everything goes back to that word, ‘value’. What do we value? And how do we use all of these tools to support our values? “
A Q&A with Sustainability Consultant and Educator Frank Millero
Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Frank Millero, a design and sustainability consultant as well as design educator. He has been helping companies with sustainable initiatives for over twelve years and he has taught a range of design courses at Pratt Institute for nearly twenty.
Frank Millero is on the Board of Directors for SERVV, a nonprofit dedicated to fair and ethical trade, where he works to empower small-scale global artisans and farmers. Trained as an industrial designer at Pratt Institute, he brings his passion for sustainability and his boundless curiosity to all of his projects. We asked Frank about prototyping and designing for sustainability, his history as a design educator, and the future of sustainable design.
Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?
A: For me teaching is endlessly interesting. I got to teach a design research class last fall and that was a fun opportunity to think about what my research process is in the work that I do. In terms of design work, recently I got to work with a nonprofit called Mayan Hands. They work with weavers in Guatemala to produce textiles. What I really enjoyed about it was that I got to learn what the techniques were and how they were done. I wanted to create something that was really culturally sensitive because they were using a traditional technique, but I didn’t want the project to be necessarily traditional. How do you find that compromise between creating something new but also honoring the tradition?
The good thing was that the weavers were really excited to try new things, so I worked on developing color palettes and designs based on the biogeography of Guatemala. That was a point of departure that made a connection to the land and to the people. It was a fun project in many ways. I got to learn about their textiles, but also about Guatemala.
Q: Could you tell us about one of your favorite projects and share why it is important to you?
A: In Cambodia I worked with the nonprofit SERVV to come up with designs and design ideas. I was there for a month and I got to see how they make things. They were using large, traditional wood looms and they did cut-and-sew. The program was set up to help support women, especially women in farming communities. Part of the year they didn’t have any income from farming and so this provided them with another source of income.
One of the things that we did that was a little bit of a departure from the traditional techniques was creating something that was quick and easy to make. They had some screen printing capacity, so I worked with the director to find local canvas from the market and we used the screen printing techniques that they knew to create tote bags. It was a simple project but it was great because it was a teaching tool for people who were learning to cut and sew simple constructions. It was also really affordable to make and they could make a lot, so it was profitable.
I think the most interesting thing about that project was connecting directly to the people who were making the product and learning about their culture, learning about the way that they were producing things. I knew a lot about the environmental dimension of sustainability but this gave me an opportunity to think about the social dimension of sustainability and to realize how important that was.
Q: What is sustainable design?
A: Sustainable design is a fascinating challenge of creating high value products and services that consider environmental, social, and economic factors throughout the life cycle. I use that phrase ‘high value’. How you define value is important because there are always so many trade-offs when you’re thinking about what impacts there are, what you have to live with, and what you can work towards. It depends on so many different factors.
One of the things I realized when thinking about that word value is that the designers can’t really decide this on their own. It has to be something that’s built into the design brief at the beginning, so that everyone who’s working on the project understands what the values are. Having that discussion early is important. When you get to a point where things conflict and you have to have trade-offs, how do you make those decisions?
Q: How can we design with sustainability in mind?
A: That part is fairly straightforward to me. I think it’s about education and awareness first. Like any aspect of our design process, the more we understand it, the better we can achieve what we’re looking for. Education is also about asking a lot of questions.
When I go to a factory, I try to ask as many questions as I can to find out what they are doing and what they are hoping to improve. What are the best practices in their industry? Certifications are helpful because they help you understand what some of the best practices are, but not all partners will be certified or have the money to be certified. So it’s really important to ask them directly about their practices, and that goes for social practices, too.
Take some of the textile vendors I worked with early on in my career; I would ask them if they had organic cotton and some of them had no idea what that even meant. So you educate them and explain what it means and why it’s important. We would have them create two samples or at least cost out conventional cotton and organic cotton. It was always a bit of a battle with the merchants to say, it’s 20 cents more but this is really worth it. Sometimes it took creating a whole story around it to get people to understand the value and importance of it.
Some people just graduating and entering a job might feel like they don’t have a lot of say in the decision making, but they do have an opportunity to communicate and propose ideas. They can find somebody who’s a mentor within the organization, maybe higher up, who can be an advocate for their ideas. It’s important that you have people at different levels in an organization who are committed to sustainability.
It’s also important to realize that everyone and every organization is going to be at different stages of incorporating these ideas. Wherever you’re at, it’s you need to set goals, figure out how you’re going to measure them, and hold yourself accountable. The more specific they are the better, because then you can measure them in some way, at least qualitatively. But hopefully quantitatively, too.
Q: Could you share some products that you think are good examples of sustainable design?
A: I worked with an organization called Get Paper in Nepal. The products were high quality and they had parts of their business that helped support the other parts. One part was handmade paper and the other part was more conventional paper-making. They produced a lot of packaging.
They got off-cuts from a local T-shirt factory and used that cotton as raw material for their handmade paper. They incorporated artisans in the governance of the organization, and that is a really unusual way to govern your organization. We think of most organizations as top-down, but more and more there are opportunities for people to think about cooperative organizations and new kinds of economic models. I thought this one was great because the artisans were on the decision-making panel. It wasn’t just outsiders coming in and designing things, the product was also coming from the artisans themselves.
They had this cool community program where they would count how much paper they used per year, translate that into trees, go to a local area of degraded land and everyone in the community—the school would be closed for the day, the factory would be closed for the day—would go plant trees.
Over time this helped to increase the water table because without the trees there was a lot of erosion. The community really saw the value in the tree planting because they immediately saw the effect. There are a lot of tree planting programs in the world and I think that they’re great in general, but when it’s directly connected to the community I think it’s even more powerful. It really shows that connection.
Another example: Bill McKibben has an organization called Third Act. This is an organization to activate people who are over 60 to support sustainability projects. His idea was that we have this large population, some of them are starting to retire but they have all of this wisdom and experience. They were also passionate in the 60’s and 70’s about environmental and social causes. He was tapping into that history and also their skills. The idea was that everyone should be involved in this kind of activism. What’s amazing is that they vote, so they have a lot of influence in terms of policy.
Q: When did sustainability become a focus for you as a designer and what inspired that specialization?
A: My background was in biology, and I spent 10 years working as a staff biologist and exhibit developer at the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco. This was a very important starting point for my career. I feel like I was practicing sustainability in some ways there and I didn’t even know it. The mantra of the museum is, “Here is being created a community museum, dedicated to awareness.”
While I was there I got more and more interested in design. I took design classes at night through UC Berkeley: furniture classes, different kinds of design classes, and also art classes. Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World was really influential for me. There were a few books I read at the time that got me interested in sustainable design, one was The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, and another was Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins. Another really influential book wasBiomimicry by Janine Benyus.
This was all in the late 90’s. And so I thought, Well, you know, I have a biology background. There are all of these interesting opportunities to think about connections, and that’s what led me to Pratt for my graduate program. While I was there, I was interested in looking at the intersection of science and design. I wasn’t focused so much on sustainability but it was an underlying current. Later I was invited to teach a junior studio about sustainable design at Pratt. It was challenging because they told me just a couple of weeks before the class started, and this was one of my first times teaching. It was an early prototype. I got interested in this idea of What tools do students need?What tools do designers need to help them get engaged in this topic and care about it? That was a key starting point for me.
Q: Could you talk about the prototyping process in the context of a sustainable design project? What does sustainable prototyping look like?
A: I think that it’s never too early to prototype and test out your ideas, to test your assumptions. Sometimes at the Exploratorium I would just take a table out, put a microscope on it with a video monitor, go outside and get some pond water, and put it on the microscope and invite people to look at it. I would ask, What do you notice? What’s going on? This was really primitive prototyping to get ideas for the experience.
Keeping people on the same page is also important. I’ve been at organizations where designers say, we’re not going to show it to them yet, because they’re afraid that it’s going to get shut down early. You have to have check-ins along the way, and this is a challenging balance. You want to have some creative freedom, you don’t want to be shut down early, but you do want to make sure that you’re checking in along the way. That’s what prototyping allows you to do: create new directions and be really collaborative.
I think that the prototyping impacts are small compared to large production runs, so I don’t worry too much about it. It’s a good investment, basically. It is important to look at the issues of toxicity, because there are some materials, especially model-making materials, that do have health impacts for the people involved. If you’re ordering the model, you are still responsible for those health impacts, because somebody else could be exposed.
Finding partners who have best practices in the industry, have protection for workers, reduce the amount of exposure…all of those things are really important questions to ask. There are different types of prototypes— looks-like, feels-like, works-like—and you may not need something that’s really beautiful if you’re just creating a works-like prototype. Communicating that to producers might help to see what the alternatives are.
Really simple materials like paper tape and glue are some of my best prototyping tools. There are also opportunities for you to recycle and reuse some of the materials you have. I like to use cardboard, it seems like there’s an endless supply of cardboard from boxes. These kinds of materials can get you to where you want.
Q: What inspired you to become a design educator?
A: I’m the middle child. I have an older sister and a younger brother, so I got to learn from them but also to teach both of them at the same time, and I really enjoyed that. My brother is five years younger than I am, so he was a little kid, and I enjoyed that process of seeing him learn new things
When I was in high school, I had a job at a grocery store as a bag boy, and this was in Miami so it was super hot. I’d have to go out and collect the shopping carts, and I had to wear a tie and mop the floor. And I was making, I don’t know, three dollars an hour. And one of my teachers asked me if I wanted to be a math tutor. I got paid twice as much, I was in the air conditioning, and I got to work with my peers, helping them with math. This was a really exciting experience for me.
When I was in college, I tutored for Upward Bound. I was really inspired by the students because no one in their family had gone to college, and they just needed a little bit of help. They were eager to learn, and to see somebody with that passion for learning was so exciting for me.
At the Exploratorium I had an opportunity to teach people as well. We had three different types of interns; post-college interns, college-age interns, and high school interns. They would all be responsible for teaching each other, and I helped teach all of them. This idea of creating mentorship among the groups was really inspiring to see.
Q: How does your work as an educator inform your consulting work and vice versa?
A: I mentioned already that my experience at SERVV opened my eyes to the social dimension of sustainability. I realized in teaching my class that I was focused a lot on environmental issues but I hadn’t really thought about the social dimension, or intersection of the two. What is environmental justice? What happens when these two forces collide?
My experiences with commercial clients has also taught me so much. I go to visit factories, to work on a team to understand the business side of the retail world – that’s a whole different language. So much to learn there. I used to go to the store and talk to all the salespeople and ask them, What’s selling? What do people like? Why don’t they like it? Getting the vibe from them. When I first started asking them, they were reluctant because they knew that I had designed it and they didn’t want to insult me. But then, over time, after we had a friendship, they would be really honest.
I bring in samples to my classrooms and say, This is what happened, these are the things that could go wrong in production. So here’s different stages of prototyping, and here’s what ended up in the store. I’ve been connected through my work to so many different design professionals, and I invite them into the classroom as well.
Q: How has the conversation around sustainability in design changed over the course of your career?
A: I think for sure there’s been a lot more discussion about sustainability. It was not really talked about so much 30 years ago. More discussion has created more awareness, and there are companies trying to do new things. There’s also some greenwashing that happens, too, because companies don’t want to be shamed for doing bad things. I guess that’s my concern; while it’s being talked about a lot more, you have to be even more vigilant about the trustworthiness of the message.
We also have to look at the bigger picture of consumption patterns. While individual products might be made with safer, better materials, a bigger picture is: what is our culture of consumption? What will happen if we don’t dramatically change this culture? Other countries are modeling their behavior on us in the U.S. and the Western world, and this is troubling to me, too.
Q: What do you see in the future of sustainable design?
A: I hope that it’s a point of inspiration for designers in the future. Up to this point, it’s been this sort of burden, Oh and it has to be sustainable. As if it’s going to squelch your creativity in some way. I think that if designers have a new point of view that sustainable design will give you new ideas and new points of inspiration, then that will be a different kind of attitude shift. That’s what I try to develop in my class as an understanding; that all these products have issues for sure, but we have an opportunity as creative designers and thinkers to come up with new approaches, and that should produce new aesthetics, new opportunities.
I also hope that sustainability is integrated earlier in the design process. People think way too late about these issues, and it’s hard. Things get locked in really early. If it can get more integrated into design briefs earlier on in the process, we’ll have much better outcomes.
I hope that designers can integrate more qualitative or quantitative approaches that can help them in their decision making, like the LCA. You can model something and see how well it achieves its goal. Is this new transportation route better? Well, you can mathematically find that out. It’s not unknowable.
Designers can’t work alone, and corporations can’t work alone. It has to be governments, nonprofit corporations, consumers…everyone has to be involved in this in some way. And I think this is one of the things that’s concerning: some of the messaging is that, Oh, it’s the consumer’s fault because they’re not recycling properly, or whatever it is. Pushing it on people. Why did you buy this fast fashion? Well, I know why: it’s cheap and it’s available. So the practice of blaming people for all of these problems is something that I hope will change as well.
I see some really great opportunities in terms of understanding what environmental and social impacts are by having enough data, using AI and machine-learning, and having somebody in a sense smarter than us analyze the data to find the patterns and trends. These technologies can provide real benefits, they already have in terms of things related to climate change and biodiversity laws.
Everything goes back to that word, value. What do we value? And how do we use all of these tools to support our values?
I like to think about our connection to our history and to cultural heritage. I see young designers being interested in this idea of craft, of connection to their own personal past. What’s special about their local community, or what’s special about their personal history, can be a component of the design process, something that they value. Diverse voices and perspectives being heard in the design process is an aspect of sustainable design as well. It’s an opportunity to have lots of different ideas and perspectives come together to create these solutions.
Soft goods design is its own special area of the design industry, and soft goods prototyping is similarly unique. At Interwoven Design we specialize in soft goods, so we make a lot of these prototypes. The process we use is particular to our studio, and to demonstrate why we like this method we’ll explain what is special about soft goods prototypes and walk you through the steps. This prototyping method can become a powerful tool even for designers who lack textile and sewing experience.
What is a soft goods prototype?
Prototyping is an iterative process and starts with a combination of 2D sketches and 3D mockups. these first “prototypes” are to quickly asses a design idea and are used to study volume, form, access points and closures. Once the form is starting to become refined we then progress onto a higher fidelity mock-up. this article explains how we go from a paper mock-up to a fully resolved prototype that serves as a model for manufacturing. We call this final model a “high fidelity prototype”. It looks like a new product that is ready to take home and use.
The goal of the soft goods prototyping process is to develop a pattern that will result in a consistent, high fidelity end-result as well as to create that result to demonstrate the viability of the pattern. A key stage in this process is making a Muslin.
What is a Muslin?
We will use “Muslin” with a capital M to indicate the soft goods industrial design mock up in a basic textile as compared to the basic cotton “muslin” fabric that most often used in this process. A Muslin is a model of the design that has been sewn up in low resolution fabrics, not using final textiles, colors, or hardware. It is a specific stage of the soft goods prototyping process that helps us to test the accuracy and quality of our pattern before using final materials. A Muslin is a tool on the journey to developing a compelling prototype that allows us to work out any issues with the design before moving to final materials. It may or may not be literally sewn in muslin fabric, though it often is.
The Brown Paper Pattern-making Method
But how do we move from a drwing and fast mock up to a pattern from which we can cut a Muslin? We use a process called the Brown Paper Patternmaking Method to create our soft goods patterns, a method developed by Interwoven Design’s principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman. In this method the designer sculpts a full scale model of the desired soft good in brown craft paper, marks it up, cuts it apart, and creates a pattern with it that is then sewn up and tested for accuracy and performance.
We’ll walk through the steps and show some examples to demonstrate the key concepts, but here is the overview of the process:
Create a refined design drawing
Sculpt a full scale craft paper model from the drawing
Add seam lines, grain lines and cross marks
Cut the model apart to create pattern pieces
Transfer the craft paper pieces to pattern paper
True the patterns and add seam allowance
Transfer the pattern paper pieces to muslin
Sew up a Muslin and make any necessary adjustments to the pattern
Sew up a final high fidelity prototype
1. Ideate to create a refined design drawing. This process should involve 2D and 3D sketches to develop your design concept. Think about hardware, colors, and final materials as you create this drawing. Your design drawing should be a detailed and refined schematic that serves as a blueprint for the model making that will follow. While some refinement will be possible in future stages, the drawing should be as close to a final design as possible.
2. From the design drawing, sculpt a full scale model in brown craft paper with masking tape or painter’s tape. Craft paper behaves a lot like a textile while holding its shape well, which is why we use it for this method. Creating the initial model is the most difficult step of the entire process. If you can get this step right, the rest of the process will flow naturally. Any adjustments that need to be made to the original concept will be made here. Anything represented in your sculpted model will be transferred to the final model, so make sure it is what you want.
Here are a few tips:
Starting from the “base” – sculpt the form of the model so that it looks as close as possible to the finished design – it should be the same scale and shape a your concept
Only use tape you can draw on. Use as much as you need.
Draw on your model as needed to show every detail: curves, closures, straps, pockets, handles, etc.
Refine your sculpture until it is airtight and exactly the form you want.
Edges should meet neatly with minimal to no overlap.
3. Once you are satisfied that the object fits and functions as desired, draw seam lines with a fine tip Sharpie. Be sure to consider how 3 dimensional shapes will be created by joining flat pieces of fabric and draw a seam where the flat pieces join. Think of how a basketball, baseball or tennis ball are made from flat pieces to create spheres. A noter good tips is to look at your own soft goods possessions to see how they are constructed.
4. Mark grain lines (north-south lines that denote the grain of the fabric from which the bag will be made) on each of the brown paper model pieces. Add cross marks and labels to each of the pattern pieces. Cross marks will act as guides to rejoin the pattern pieces once you separate them.
Think of a pattern as a puzzle in 3 dimensions, create a guide for yourself so you can put the puzzle together again. Cross marks are markings perpendicular to the seam lines that show where the components created by the seams connect. Give each of your pattern pieces good, descriptive label and be sure not to duplicate label names. You can use photos to capture the construction and make a map of how the pieces fit together.
6. Cut the brown paper model apart. Be careful to cut the seam lines as straight and as neatly as possible. Use scissors or an Exacto knife to cut with precision and using a metal ruler where applicable to also help create clean lines.
IMPORTANTTIP: If your bag is symmetrical only cut the right half of the bag and leave the left half intact. You will be able to “reflect” your pattern to make a perfectly symmetrical pattern from only ½ of your model.
7. Transfer the brown paper model pieces ontopattern paper. Double check that all of your seam lines are the same length by “walking” your seams on top of each other. This is “trueing” the pattern and ensures that the pattern will fit together with smooth seams when it is sewn up. Seams that are not the same length will not sew together correctly. There will be too much fabric on one side, and the final model will be messy. This can be avoided though careful review at the pattern stage. Be sure to transfer labels and cross-marks to the pattern paper. Once the pattern is reviewed for accuracy, add a seam allowance of ½”.
8.Transfer your pattern pieces to muslin (or your chosen mock-up fabric) and cut. In the studio, we use wax transfer paper and a tracing wheel to transfer the pattern accurately to the muslin. but you can also cut out the pattern pieces and trace them onto you fabric.
9. Sew up a Muslin and assess thoroughly. The Muslin is a test of your pattern, it allows you to resolve any issues before creating the final prototype. On the Muslin, you can add zippers, trims and plastic hardware so you can test how things work and feel. Make any adjustments needed and transfer them back to the pattern.
10. Finally your pattern is ready for final fabric. Transfer the pattern to the back side of the final fabric, cut it out and sew up a high fidelity prototype in final materials. This final model proves the quality and viability of your pattern and it should look like it could be purchased and used immediately.
While it takes time and attention to use the Brown Paper Pattern-making Method, it is a wonderful way for those unfamiliar with pattern-making to create original patterns that can provide consistently professional results. Do you have a soft goods design idea you’ve wanted to bring to life? Try this prototyping method!
Checkerspot: Sustainable Prototyping Materials
At Interwoven Design we like to incorporate sustainability into our process wherever possible, and this includes sustainable prototyping. In this article we outline our casting process and review the Checkerspot Pollinator Kit, a renewable polyurethane resin that can be used for casting. Our clients rely on us to develop innovative solutions quickly and economically, which means that we move from sketches to prototyping quickly. We iterate potential design directions in-house to reduce turnaround time and keep product development costs low. Making urethane casting molds in-house allows us to do small batch prototyping and testing at a low cost before sending a more resolved solution out to a casting or injection-molding contractor, saving our clients time and money.
How does the casting process work?
Once a design direction has been finalized and is translated into 3D CAD (Computer Aided Design) software, we choose one of two casting strategies:
We design and 3D print a mold based on the negative of the component
We 3D print the component itself and then make a mold from it
The approach we choose is driven by the needs of the final component and the intended manufacturing material. If the final component is meant to be flexible or semi-rigid, like a high density foam part, we print the mold, as a flexible component can be removed from a rigid mold. If the final component is intended to be rigid, we print the part and cast a mold from it, as a flexible mold can be removed from a rigid component.
Once approach is set, the two-part urethane is mixed in the directed ratio to start the chemical reaction that cures the material, turning it from liquid to solid. If we want to tint our resin to more closely approximate the final product, we tint the parts before combining them as urethane can set quickly. The mix is poured carefully into the mold, trying to avoid bubbles that could detract from the final casting. The curing time can vary but it’s good to leave the casting for the maximum time specified as thinner elements will cure more quickly than thicker ones. In later stages of development the casting may be sanded, painted, or finished in some other way to make the prototype feel as close to the final product as possible.
Incorporating sustainable practices
We consider environmental impact throughout the design process, pushing for the products we design to be sustainable to the greatest degree achievable for a given project. Considering sustainability at every stage of a product development cycle is essential to discovering opportunities for environmentally thoughtful design. These stages include research, form, construction, material selection and sourcing, manufacturing, and more. In early stages of a project, finding sustainable strategies for a development phase can take extra time and be restricted by budgets and practical constraints within the project.
Access to sustainable materials that facilitate low volume in-house casting is a game changer, as the more closely we can approximate final materials, the more accurate our product testing becomes. Not only does it allow our designers and clients to hold, wear and interact with the product, but it allows for high-fidelity field testing and validation. Depending on the product category, a client may choose to test products in-house with their own teams or outsource testing to a team of engineers. The ability to quickly generate and iterate prototypes that closely or precisely mimic the final material keeps testing costs down and helps projects stay on schedule.
Checkerspot performance casting materials
Checkerspot is a company that focuses on sustainable, high-performance casting materials, serving makers, designers and fabricators. Their innovative materials feature over 50% bio-based, renewable content, challenging a market saturated with oil-derived materials. They manufacture materials by “optimizing microbes to manufacture unique structured oils produced in nature, but not previously accessible at commercial scale.” Each organism contains oil that can be extracted, these lipids are the key component to Checkerspot’s biomaterials. Optimizing the qualities of sustainable materials like algal oil allows for peak product performance for the intended user as well as the environment.
The Checkerspot Pollinator Kit
We had the opportunity to put Checkerspot’s Pollinator Series Cast Urethane to the test in our studio. Our designer’s appreciated the thought put into the labeling of the kit components and instructions for the mixing and casting processes. We also liked the smooth user interaction with the sustainable packaging design. When we poured the mix into our intricate mold, the materials cured evenly and captured fine details, proving that there is no need to sacrifice performance when using sustainable alternatives to mainstream oil-derived casting products.
There you have it!
Here at Interwoven we enjoy pushing the boundaries between design, sustainability, material science and technology. Playing with new materials invigorates our design process as well as our studio-practice. Have you tried working with a new sustainable material recently? Tell us about it! Prototyping sustainably with 3D printing and bio-based material casting is just one way we can participate in the movement towards more responsible, environmentally considerate design.
In our AMA (Ask Me Anything) series, industrial designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman answers questions about design and process from Instagram and LinkedIn. Rebeccah is the founder of Interwoven Design Group, a design consultancy that specializes in soft goods design and wearable technology. She has over 25 years of corporate design experience and has held positions as Design Director for Fila, Champion and Nike. She is the author ofSmart Textiles for Designers: Inventing the Future of Fabrics, and speaks internationally on design, innovation and the future. In this issue she answers the question, what is an industrial designer?
Watch the video or read the transcript below for Rebeccah’s definition of an industrial designer.
What is an industrial designer?
Hi, I’m Rebeccah, I’m an industrial designer, and I’m the brains behind Interwoven Design Group. I’ve been designing and making things for a long time. Today, you can ask me anything. We’ve been gathering questions from our social media and today I’m going to start with a question that we’re asked a lot. Exactly what is an industrial designer?
The way that I like to answer this question is: most people know what an architect, an interior designer, and a fashion designer are. Well an industrial designer is basically everything else. We create the things that you use every day. We can design everything from consumer products to household items, furniture… And here at Interwoven we specialize in wearable technology and soft goods. If you’re curious about what our work looks like, get in touch. You can follow us on our website or on our Instagram @interwoven_design.
Want to know more?
Industrial design is a field that is not yet well understood in mainstream culture. It encompasses hundreds of market sectors and overlaps with many other fields.