What is product design, and how can it help me?

27th February 2019

What is product design, and how can it help me?

Design is a rather vague word. It can be used to describe the process of developing a rocket motor or the appearance of a birthday card. The reason that both activities can be said to involve design is that they use original thought to create something new that has a function.

Although it is often only associated with appearance, design is just as concerned with problem solving, whether it is an engineering challenge, finding a way to minimise costs or communicating a marketing message. Above all, design is a business tool. It is a means of maximising the profitability of any product, however simple or complex.

Industrial design or product design?

If the term ‘design’ is rather vague, the terms used to describe its function within product development are downright confusing.

For example, the term ‘industrial design’, is described by the Product Design Society of America, as:

“The professional service of creating and developing concepts and specifications that optimize the function, value and appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer”.

According to Wikipedia, the product designers’ role can be described like this:

“In a systematic approach, product designers conceptualize and evaluate ideas, turning them into tangible inventions and products. The product designer's role is to combine art, science, and technology to create new products that other people can use”.

Do you see the difference? No, neither do we!

Both definitions involve the integrated consideration of function, appearance, manufacture and the user in the development of new product ideas. Of the two, we prefer ‘product design’.

Yes, but is it art?

The description of a product designer’s work often results in the question “yes, but are you an artist or an engineer?” The somewhat unhelpful answer is… ‘Both and neither’.

Product designers should know enough about contemporary culture and market trends to create design concepts that will delight your customers. They also need to know how to visualise those concepts and communicate them clearly to colleagues and clients.

Equally, they need to know how the product will work, and how it will be built, used and maintained. Finally, they need to know enough about manufacturing processes and materials to deliver that design concept as a technically viable, safe and economic product.

The key to product design skills is the integration of all these technical, commercial and aesthetic issues and the ability to resolve the many competing requirements that products need to meet, from cost and appearance to performance and efficiency.

This is the challenge and the satisfaction of being a product designer: being able to consider creative, economic and practical issues at the same time, and make them work together in order to create a commercially successful product.

How does this help you?

The first and most obvious benefit of product design is improved appearance. Making things look better has two very tangible commercial results – it adds perceived value to your product in the eyes of the purchaser and – more importantly – it reinforces your brand values, making your company look more substantial in the marketplace. The proof? One example is the Eclipse hand drier, designed for Airdri Ltd and sold by Bobrick in the USA. Over 30,000 have been made to date:

Airdri Eclipse hand dryer

The second benefit of product design is innovation, and – like appearance – it has two distinct roles, technical performance and production technology. The commercial results can be substantial, particularly if new features can be added at little or no extra cost. The proof? We were asked by the Tropical Marine Centre to redesign their ultraviolet water treatment system. By changing the way the product was made, we lowered production costs by 23%, and their sales doubled. Not only that, but the product remained on the market for over ten years:

TMC Pondclear water treatment unit

The third benefit of design is the human interface, which dictates how easy, safe and enjoyable your products are to use. This aspect of design can make a huge difference to the perceived value of the product The proof? The MQC magnet we designed for Oxford Instruments won an award from IBO in Los Angeles, and the judges commented that the design of the magnet “is not only intelligent but also fun. The smooth, crisp blue finish and design details create a striking visual look that communicates that the instrument is easy to use.”

Oxford Instruments MQC magnet

Finally, and not always closely associated with design, are the benefits of improved manufacture. The critical aspect of this role is the involvement of design from the earliest stages of the process. If, however, the design and manufacture are considered at the same time, significant commercial benefits can be realised in terms of reduced costs and increase profits. The proof? We worked with Suez, a manufacturer of laboratory water purification equipment in Thame, on a new range of products. We worked closely with the development engineers at Suez to develop a modular range of products that could be assembled from pre-built sub-assemblies, reducing inventory costs and assembly time. Specifically, the production time went down by 26% and the improved production efficiency reduced warranty costs by 44%:

Suez L3G water treatment unit

What it looks like, how it works, how you use it and the way it is made. These are all issues where product design can deliver significant commercial benefits to your products and your company. If you are still feeling sceptical, please call us – we would be happy to visit you and discuss how product design can make a positive contribution to your business.


Product design consultancy

T: 01235 833785 E: info@crucibledesign.co.uk

Crucible Design Ltd, Boston House, Grove Business Park, Downsview Road, Wantage, Oxfordshire. OX12 9FF