Industrial Design at a Glance

Feb 4, 2018 · 7 min read

More often than not, industrial design isn’t something the average person considers when they’re shopping. This applies to eCommerce just as much as it does to the tactile, physical act of shopping in stores. But, if you’ve ever weighed the pros and cons of one appliance or electronic over another, or if you’ve ever purchased something because of how it looked, felt, or improved your own life, then you have indeed come in contact with industrial design in action.

So, what goes into this process of making the things we interact with on a daily basis? Whose job is it to determine how consumers’ lives can be improved by aspects like ergonomic handles, intuitive touch screens, or iconic packaging?

Let’s go over some of these processes, the theories behind them, and some practical applications as told by some notable educators in the field.

At a Glance

Industrial design refers to the process of visual and physical design applied to objects to be created by mass production. The field itself is relatively new, as mass production has only been widely adopted since the rise of industrialization in the late 19th century. Since then, mass urbanization, the expansion of a global middle class, and new technologies have changed the way consumers buy certain products, and why they make those decisions.

At its core, industrial design is a collaborative process. Entrepreneurs can identify specific wants and needs among consumers while engineers and designers can conceive a product that addresses those issues in the most feasible yet intuitive solution.

In recent years, there’s been a growing interest in industrial design. The 2009 documentary, Objectified by Gary Hustwit, explores the field’s theories in application. Interviews and segments focus on key influencers such as Jonathan Ives, senior VP of design for Apple, and legendary designer, Dieter Rams, who was famed for stating,“Good design is as little design as possible.”

Purpose & Processes

There’s a general consensus that the role of an industrial designer is to coalesce varied priorities such as ergonomics, material use, form, function, and brand development into a focused solution. However, the processes that drive designers to that end goal are as diverse as the designers themselves.

According to Cia Mooney, Associate Professor of Industrial Design and MFA Chair at the Oregon College of Art & Craft (OCAC) says that design follows a sequential process summed up by the notion of: “Think. Make. Do. Repeat.”

Meanwhile, Dean Bacalzo, who teaches industrial design at Arizona State University, says “Design is a problem-solving process that considers user’s needs, the environment that it is used in, the use and abuse of the product, with the end deliverable being a product/system that looks great and is intuitive to use.”

Case Study: IKEA

In terms of the commercial application of industrial design’s principles, perhaps no other company affects consumers worldwide quite like Swedish home furnishings giant, IKEA. Founded in 1943 by Ingvar Kamprad, the company has grown to become one of the world’s most successful businesses, ranking among Forbes’ Top 50 Most Valuable Brands.

In a 2015 interview with Forbes, Leontyne Green Sykes, CMO of IKEA North America, outlined the company’s unique insights and perspective on industrial design, and how these inform everything from marketing and branding to even the most minute details of in-store experiences, catalog layout, to the brand’s ubiquitous illustrated instruction manuals.

Sykes breaks down IKEA’s driving principles into 5 cogent points:

  • Start with a price tag.
  • Use anthropologically-based consumer insights.
  • Apply solution innovation to marketing.
  • Put the priority on the design, not the designer.
  • Apply a democratic corporate culture.

Throughout all aspects of IKEA’s design process, there is a call for “democratization.” As a testament to Swedish egalitarianism, the company always starts with a deliberately low price. This keeps the company true to its commitment to provide a better everyday life for all consumers through making good design accessible.

During the research and development phase, this focus on accessibility starts with firsthand observations of real consumers in their homes. By taking note of routines, aesthetic tastes, and ultimately how people live in their homes, IKEA uses these observations and turns them into consumer research findings, available online through their Life At Home report.

Ultimately, the same standards applied to physical design are also held for marketing and branding. In terms of marketing, Sykes notes that her team always starts with the question, “How do we do something that is consistent with the IKEA philosophy, prioritizing what is effective and efficient?”

Internally, IKEA rounds out its democratic ethos by leveling its corporate hierarchy and putting the emphasis on design rather than designers. Unlike other home retailers such as Target or Sears, IKEA doesn’t rely on big names for brand-name recognition. While Target frequently collaborates with big names like Vivienne Tam or Lilly Pulitzer, these celebrity-driven collections are typically only available for limited runs. Instead, IKEA seeks out designers renowned for their kindred approach to the brand’s values and ethics, and adds their designs to IKEA’s general global range of products.

Design Challenges

Of course, the process of creating familiar objects isn’t without its challenges. Designers must juggle any number of factors and restrictions from budgets, fluctuating aesthetics, and the availability of certain materials.

Dean Bacalzo of ASU has over 25 years of experience in product design, creating everyday objects from athletic shoes to spinning bikes, lighting, and power tools, sums up design’s biggest challenges.

“The biggest challenge in the design process is the transfer of the idea/concept/form to engineering/manufacturing where it can be made,” Bacalzo says, “The design intent needs to be maintained, but the product must be made so that the consumer can afford it and the company can make a profit.”

Social & Corporate Challenges

In more abstract terms, Steve Gill, who teaches at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales, wrote on the six challenges facing user-oriented industrial design:

  • Cultural bias
  • Breaking with convention
  • Social context
  • Ingrained thinking
  • Company size & structure
  • Company politics

Design at large tends to be a field dominated by the West. As such, when companies and entrepreneurs attempt to penetrate global markets, they must take cultural biases into considerations. Gill cites differences between consumer culture between Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Western nations. In these East Asian countries, consumers, especially younger generations, will take the time to work with function-heavy devices, especially if they’re multifaceted. This is diametrically opposed to Western notions of simplifying electronics as much as possible to make user experience seemingly “effortless.”


So, what role does packaging play into how everyday objects make their way into consumers’ shopping carts? Whether customers are browsing department stores or unboxing new online purchases, packaging can directly affect how people interact brands and their perceived quality.

According to Dean Bacalzo, “Retail packaging design affects buying behavior in the following ways since the packaging is the first touch point of the product experience.”

Bacalzo breaks down packaging into four distinct priorities:

  • Product distinction: Discounting product placement, what’s the first product that attracts a consumer’s eye on a crowded store shelf?
  • Branding: When looking for a specific brand, colors and form make it easy for brand loyal consumers to find their brand; for example, Coca-Cola and its trademark red and white color scheme or Apple’s minimalist logo.
  • Image: Consumers often times buy into the image of products, so if the packaging is designed to look expensive or “green”, then they tend to think that the product is of high-quality or “environmentally friendly”
  • User Interaction: It’s important that packaging allows consumers to interact with the product as much, and as organically, as possible. In other words, let the function and quality of the product sell the product itself.

Several of these points are echoed by Cia Mooney, who notes that “A well-designed package has a gravitational pull for the consumer in the retail experience. Through form, scent, color, texture, materials and graphics, the message and promise of the contents are revealed.”

Mooney cites Method, a leading producer of cleaning products, as a brand that has evolved through an integrated view of form, function, and a clearly-stated purpose. The brand makes it a priority to cut down on waste while promoting the use of biodegradable materials. With clear containers, a vivid use of color, and minimal typography, Method infuses a sense of familiarity in its packaging. As consumers see Method cleaning supplies on store shelves, they don’t see some bold statement or overbearing branded identity. Instead, they see a product that complements their own homes and lifestyles.

Along with aesthetic sensibilities that appeal to our core senses, Behnoush McKay, MFA Chair for Graphic Design at Woodbury University, discusses how packaging design affects buying behavior. McKay highlights durability, integrity, and responsibility as new directives that good packaging should strive for.

In terms of durability, packaging should preserve a product throughout the initial stages of its distribution cycle, ultimately arriving in the customer’s care in pristine condition. It should also possess integrity, clearly stating the product’s purpose. Lastly, as more and more people are becoming cognizant of the environmental toll that industrial design and mass production are taking on our planet, companies, and by extension designers, should strive to design responsibly.

Lasting Impact

How can design’s impact be measured? While it has a clear and direct correlation with a company’s financial success, what does this mean for individual consumers? In the case of IKEA and the resurgence of hyper-personal, yet accessible interior aesthetics, millions of people can now curate home environments that utilize design for self expression as well as convenience. For designers, the challenge is to create something that all at once captures an economic, cultural, and stylistic zeitgeist that’s packaged and available for use in everyday life. Aftermarket testing, research and development, production runs, branding, marketing, and distribution, good design is measured by simply leaving a lasting, irreplaceable mark.


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