Photo by Brian Quan
For our September 2014 Back-to-School Special, we're going back to the basics and delving deep into the Core77 forums to answer common student queries. This seven-part series of crowdsourced wisdom includes a comparison of ID degree options, some pointers on teaching (and dealing with teachers), insight into why it's never too late to get into ID, a handy list of resume do's and don'ts, advice on overcoming design OD, and the ultimate list of pro tips. First up, we tackle a question as old as time... or at least the first time you heard of "Industrial Design."
Just what is Industrial Design? After surveying posts on the subject and consulting our own deep internal wisdom, it's simplest to say that ID is the process of designing objects to look good and work well.
It's difficult to come by consensus beyond that, but the work of industrial designers is at the heart of virtually every industry that entails mass production, from humble office supplies to fast cars. A standard ID toolkit includes CAD programs, drawing tools both OG and digital, but also modeling materials like cardboard, clay, and finds from the Dollar Store. So, are industrial designers dreamers or makers? Are they artists, engineers, or inventors? To explore what Industrial Designers are and what they do, we turn to the crowdsourced feedback of fellow designers (and trolls) on our forums.
Note: This isn't the first time we've turned to the collective wisdom of the discussion boards for a definition; see also Michael DiTullo's "Thoughts on the Term 'Industrial Design.'"
Is ID engineering?
In my experience, there are purely designer type of people, involved in the front end, thinking out the innovation and setting up the concepts. There are pure engineers who like to tackle technical challenges. Then there is the design engineer who can handle both, but generally is not as good in any of them. In small firms you may find the last type of person more, in larger companies they will have a separate department for the creative process and one to get it to the factories. This division is often a bit too large in my experience, better concepts come when immediately from the start the technical knowledge is also taken into account.
Noahwangerin agreed that the fields blend, stressing that the purview of both industrial design and engineering are huge! "ID and engineering tend to overlap when it comes to product development... But both ID and engineering have their own spectrum that reach to opposite ends. For example ID can encompass systems, experience design, or concept art for movies and video games. Engineering can encompass stress analysis, performance tests and evaluation." But elsewhere, Bulletproof raised an eyebrow about that notion: "The only overlap I would say between [Mechanical Engineering] and ID is in knowing how to use CAD programs, and knowledge of production methods."
The degree to which they overlap notwithstanding, Cyberdemon puts it simply: "Designers are the ones who need to bridge the gap between the art and the engineering." Elegant—but how exactly does that work?
...typically on large and complex projects the designers and engineers work collaboratively. Where do the components need to go, how are the mechanisms going to work, what are the requirements. The designer can lay a groundwork for this, or it can come from the engineers, it depends on the project. Once the groundwork is laid the designers will usually translate that all into CAD that then goes to a mechanical engineer who will start to detail the parts, make them feasible for manufacturing, add in all the screws and structure to make the part work, and that is what will go out for tooling.
Got that? No engineering chops needed because teamwork is good. But that still sounds really technical.
Does art play a part?
User Jack_Daniel asked whether someone with a traditional BFA at the advanced age of 27 (more on that later) could possibly get into Industrial Design, observing that "it looks like to do industrial design people are passionate about physics, geometry, furniture; and are Fulbright holders, and dream about chairs."
Based on a cursory review of most portfolios you'd think ID work was 98% sports cars, improbable bikes, uncomfortable chairs and suggestive lampshades—not exactly the bailiwick of Renaissance Masters. However, those solid-looking concepts take a lot of skill to execute, especially when you're starting from scratch. As Nxakt noted, "drawing and illustration are key aspects of making a visualization real, it is a great talent to have." The same goes for sculptural skills such as model-making and the ability to think in 3D. Anything to help get your idea across quickly and elegantly will go a long way.
In this sense, design may have more in common with a more traditional approach to art—i.e. realism, where technical prowess is a means of effective visual communication—than nonrepresentational modes that prevail today. Yet a solid foundation in rendering is valuable, if not essential, for designers. Whether you're just interested in ID or already practicing, designers throughout the forums emphatically support getting your art skills dialed to a point where you can deliver an idea quickly and accurately. As Bepster put it, "I have a hard time seeing someone getting hired who has no way of visualizing their ideas."
So ID uses fine art technique towards a functional end, which doesn't exactly sound creative... or is it?
Industrial Designers: true innovators or drawing drones?
Just about everyone writing on this points out that the project/team/industry/skill of the individual will dictate the specifics, but most do see the ID field as a creative one. How that creativity is defined is a little contentious and definitely subjective. Do you see creativity in problem-solving? At the micro- or meta-level perhaps? In working in subtle unusual flourishes, or reinventing forms? Or is it just about novelty and control over your work?
Nxakt breaks it down to the designer's thought process: "Do you look at the things around you and think of how they are made, work, and could be better? That seems the key spark of being an industrial designer."
Then again, you could just be sketching in circles; Iab draws a distinction between creativity and innovation:
[Oprah once] did a show on dream jobs. She had a young woman on in her first year as a designer at Ford... She showed a ton of sketches of steering wheels and was quite proud that one of them was going to be used. You know she sketched a circle in a thousand different ways that year. So, she did get to come up with a new circle every time, but she was stuck designing circles.
Creative? Sure. Innovative? Not until the end by my definition.
We also like the long-view take that Ralphzoontjens offered:
There is usually a lot of room for creativity, but if you're experienced enough you'll come to see that even a creative process becomes more like a procedure, kind of basically the same thing every time, the same areas of the brain doing their thing. The only mysterious part there is where the initial inception of the idea comes from. But after it becomes procedural, you may find out there's a depth that comes with repetition, so in the end the loss of 'newness' is just something to accept. You can of course create new challenges for yourself anytime you like.
So there you have it. Industrial design where art meets engineering but remains distinct from both disciplines, and creativity constitutes the very process of design. Still confused? Just read Rain's essay and Michael's op-ed—on why "Industrial designers can in fact be designers of industry"—and it'll all make sense.
Back to School 2014: Discussion Board Digests
» Just What Is Industrial Design, Anyway?
» Which Degree for Thee?
» Tips and Tricks for Teaching (and Learning) ID
» Is It Too Late to Become a Designer?
» ID OD: Diagnosis & Treatment of Design Overdose
» Selling Your Soul (In the Good Way) - Quick Resume Tips for Designers
» If I Knew Then What I Know Now - Hard Earned Advice for Students