Is product design just about styling and appearance?

6th April 2017

Is product design just about styling and appearance?

The old fear that computer aided design would limit creativity has been turned on its head, with new design tools offering almost unlimited creative scope to designers. You can see the effects of this most clearly in car design, with incredibly complex surfaces becoming the norm, but it is also true for other products.

With all this freedom, it can be easy to forget that the design still needs to be capable of practical manufacture, and for a reasonable cost. The issue is, do you engage with these limitations from the beginning, and run the risk of constraining the design concept, or focus on creativity and argue about the practicalities later?

I recently came across an interesting comparison of two projects from the car industry that give a clear indication of the right approach. The first example is the infamous case of the Austin Allegro from the nineteen seventies. As the designer, Harris Mann, said later: “We wanted to make a far more modern version of the 1100/1300. Then a lot of other things affected it. A heater was developed which was very deep. Then we had to put in the E-Series engine, which was more suitable for a truck. So, the whole car gained in height. That made it look shorter and stumpier”. The quote makes it clear that engineering and design were carried out as separate functions, rather than the closely related issues that they actually are.

Now, fast forward almost fifty years to 2017, and the design of the Jaguar I-Pace electric car. Asked about the way the concept car is so close to a production solution in an interview in Autocar magazine, the Vehicle Engineering Manager, Dave Shaw, said: “As a company we realised, about five years ago, that it saves us all a lot of pain further down the line if we all sit around a table early on to decide what’s the best we can do with what we ‘ve got. Otherwise the designers come up with a car that aesthetically meets everything they want it to do, only to hand over to the engineers who have to say ‘yeah… but actually, that bit can’t, that bit can’t and this bit won’t.’ This way we’re all in it together.”

You could say that the British car industry could have saved itself a lot of pain if it hadn’t taken nearly half a century to figure that out, but the results speak for themselves. The I-Pace is an elegant, exciting car that shows what is possible when designers and engineers work together, rather than against each other.

So, to answer the original question, you should engage with the practical issues from day one – but use them as a chance to explore new creative possibilities. The point is that practical requirements are not – in themselves – limiting. It is our response as designers that make them either an opportunity or a threat.

This is the approach that we take with all our projects. We start with a detailed discussion with the client to establish what is needed – in terms of the commercial result, the engineering limits, the cost targets, the timescale and, of course, the product appearance. We then work with that specification to create design concepts that meet all the requirements and develop the chosen idea into a finished product. A good example of this approach is the Airdri Quest hand drier. Based on tried and tested mechanical parts, the Quest was intended as a modern update to the companies’ most reliable product. By modifying the internal parts and creating a new housing and outlet grille, a successful design has been developed that uses the practical requirements as the basis for an exciting new product.

This kind of fusion between practical and cost limits on the one hand, and creative and marketing opportunities on the other is what good design is all about.

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Crucible Design Ltd, 16 East Lockinge, Wantage, Oxfordshire. OX12 8QG