Here's an example of someone doing great industrial design before anyone knew what industrial design was: In 1903, a Minneapolis businessman named James H. Boye had the quintessential problem/opportunity. He sold sewing machine needles in a marketplace glutted with 150 different brands of sewing machine. Some of those machines used the same sorts of needles, but there were varieties in shank shape, length and diameter. In an era before a customer could just look up their machine's stats on the internet, Boye needed a way for his salesmen to quickly locate the right needle for a customer.
His first crack at it was this wooden case, patented in December of that year:
The index printed on the inside of the lid gave you the grid coordinates of the correct needle case. The cases themselves were hollow wooden tubes marked in color-coded ink and looked like this:
Pretty cool, no? Like a little wooden crack vial.
By 1906 Boye had moved his business to Chicago and started to blow up. He then invented a serious upgrade for his needle case, this one designed to sit on the countertop of a store. It's an early, and brilliant, example of POP design.
Boye called it a Commodity Cabinet, because different versions could hold different sewing machine parts (feet rather than needles, for instance). His innovative, circular and mechanical design further simplified the selection process: A customer would look up their machine on the index printed atop the case.
Next to the machine's brand was a number. Next they'd turn the arrow on the dial to select the corresponding number.
The arrow was connected to a circular tray underneath the top that moved along with it. Then when the customer slid the little door open, boom, they were presented with a series of tubes holding needle options available for their machine.
You can read more about it on needlebar.org (in an article prepared by Claire Sherwell and Bill Grewe, with assistance from Chrys Gunther and "Daveofsuffolk"), and the photos are from an eBay user currently (as of 12/24/10) selling an extraordinarily well-preserved Boye Commodity Cabinet.