Industrial design, or ID, is a terrific profession with an extremely bad name. It really tells you nothing about what we do. Typically, when I begin explaining to someone what ID is, most ask, “What, do you design industry?” One of my clients, Augie Picozza has a much better name. He feels that we should be referred to as “Product Architects”. Everyone knows what a product is, and everyone knows what an architect does.
In a nutshell, industrial design is product design, product development and product styling. We carry the product from an idea through the development process and ultimately to the shelf. Sometimes the seed for the idea comes from us, other times it's provided by a client. Our responsibilities vary greatly depending on the product, industry and end consumer. We work on research, concept development, styling, colors, materials, textures, form development, CAD and even manufacturing sourcing and management. We are problem solvers, jugglers, sales people, managers and artists rolled into one.
As industrial designers, the biggest difference from “just making art” is the medium. As an artist, your medium is right in front of you. Be it pen, pencil, paper mache, paint or sculpture, you work directly in the medium that the end consumer will receive. In contrast, the medium for ID is mass production. In most cases, this medium means big business and big dollars.
If I am working on a project, and complete concepts in Sketchbook Pro, the end consumer will more than likely never see that artwork (maybe in some marketing material at best). They will buy the product that they like, fills a need, completes a job, makes their life easier/better or they think is out right cool. To manufacture this product requires complex techniques, assembly systems and delivery methods on a large scale.
“Design Thinking” is a new trend in the business now. It is something completely natural for ID people, but foreign to the other members of the typical development team (marketing, sales, engineering, quality assurance and so on). “Design Thinking” is forged in design/art school. Participating in critiques is how we hone this skill. You put designs and artwork on the wall and present them to a team of peers. Through this process, you learn how to take criticism and defend ideas that have merit. Most importantly, you learn how to let ideas go when shown a different perspective on why it is bad. This experience alters how you generate ideas, present ideas and think about a project. We approach a challenge with a completely different mindset than traditionally trained business people.
I am a believer that industrial designers should be comfortable sketching in pen on paper. Not only is it a great tool that forces commitment to what you are drawing, it is a powerful psychological tool in a business situation. In a meeting you quickly throw down a sketch, using a permanent tool that others in the meeting use to sign contracts. The magic you wield sketching is made more magical by using pen. The only way to master it is to draw with it all the time.
Having said that, as of late I use Sketchbook Pro and my Wacom more and more to kick off projects. It really is digital paper (with layers) combined with all the traditional sketch tools and no mess. I find that starting with this program makes me faster on each additional refinement sketch phase I complete. Building on the last sketch phase is a very natural and effortless step with a little layer planning and management.
Sometimes it is very nice to start off loose with shape and geometry exploration. If you have seen my video sketches, you have seen perspective guidelines that I throw down as I work. As much as I enjoy starting this way, sometimes ID work is very parameter driven. If proportions or a specific size/component is required, I often use a CAD screen shot as an underlay. It is efficient and insures my sketch is the right proportions and tells an accurate scale story.
This past spring marked twenty years in the profession for me. I consider myself extremely lucky to have found this career. In addition, I am a believer in giving back to design education. As working professionals, we owe this great profession to give back and make the next generation of artists and designers even better.
Jeff Smith is a SketchBook user and Design Director/Principal at a consulting firm, Reflex Design, Inc.