How Industrial Designers Bring Ideas to Life

An exploration of how industrial designers play a role in the creation of almost every product we interact with on a daily basis.

James Hennessy

October 17, 2023

How We Work is an interview and essay series by Contrary dedicated to surfacing insights about important parts of the economy that have gone unnoticed or under-explored by the startup ecosystem. It profiles the people who power the modern world and the tools, systems, and processes they interact with every day.


Industrial design, as a discipline, emerged in response to the newly mechanized production processes of the Industrial Revolution.

Prior to industrialization, manufacturing was mostly done by craftsmen and artisans who worked by hand and would take a highly individualized approach to their work. While overarching design principles did exist, they tended to be bound by local tradition and heavily contingent on best practices passed down from master to apprentice. Craftsmen would build tools and objects for their customers and local community based on their individual needs and preferences, often incorporating unique embellishments or modifications. The line between design and production was non-existent.

The advent of the Industrial Revolution radically changed this process. Mass production became the norm, with factories churning out standardized products at a mass scale. An increasingly urbanized population — which was being drawn into cities to work in factories — led to increased demand for consumer products, and an emergent consumer class began to take shape. With it grew the need for a new kind of professional who could design products for mass production and consumption.

Enter the industrial designer. This new profession was tasked with creating designs that could be efficiently produced on a large scale while still incorporating aesthetics, functionality, and user experience. The first industrial designers were often engineers or architects who had an understanding of manufacturing processes. They applied this knowledge to create designs that were efficient to produce while being broadly fit for purpose. It was not until the early 20th century that the role of the industrial designer came to be understood as a discrete job of its own, with its own skills and expertise.

On a systemic level, this was an unprecedented division of labor that better served the scale of the industrial economy. Design and production were now two disciplines instead of one. Instead of individual craftsmen accounting for their local customers' needs and personal preferences, industrial designers had to anticipate the needs and preferences of a much larger consumer market. Design decisions were no longer made based on the skills and sensibilities of an object’s creator alone, but also had to take into account factors such as cost-effectiveness and production efficiency. This helped pave the way for scientific management of production.

This balancing act wasn’t always successful, and it had its discontents. The soullessness of early industrial designs in 19th-century Britain gave birth to the Arts and Crafts movement, which rejected mass-produced objects and called for a return to traditional craftsmanship, functionality, and comfort. Ironically, the preoccupations of Arts and Crafts thinkers like English polymath William Morris eventually fed into later industrial design approaches, which valued human-centric, functional considerations.

The 20th century saw further evolution and refinement of industrial design as a discipline. The Bauhaus movement, founded in Germany in 1919, revolutionized design by promoting the integration of art, craft, and technology. Whereas earlier mechanized production often neglected aesthetics and user experience, industrial designers like Raymond Loewy and Dieter Rams emphasized a more thoughtful balance of form and function which blended aesthetics with practicality. After World War 2, a surge in economic growth spurred the emergence of modern consumerism. This led to a design boom, expanding the role of the industrial designer beyond the physical and into the realm of branding and identity creation.

As technology advanced, so too did the role of the industrial designer. The latter half of the 20th century saw a shift from physical products to software and digital interfaces. Industrial designers adapted, contributing to the design of computers, smartphones, and other digital devices, as well as the user interfaces that define our interaction with them.

The Modern Industrial Designer

Today, industrial designers play a role in the creation of virtually every product we interact with on a daily basis. From the ergonomics of a computer mouse to the aesthetics of a car interior, industrial designers dictate the terms of our interaction with the physical, built world. They work in collaboration with engineers, market researchers, and manufacturers to ensure that a product meets both the company's goals and the needs of the end user.

The modern industrial designer plays a key (albeit under-appreciated) role in the economy. This includes:

  • Value addition: Industrial designers add significant value to products, not just in terms of aesthetics but also functionality and user experience. This value addition can command higher market prices and lead to brand differentiation.
  • Influencing consumer behavior: By focusing on user-centered design, industrial designers influence consumer purchasing decisions. They can drive consumer preference and loyalty, which in turn impacts market demand and economic consumption patterns.
  • Supply chain integration: Designers help optimize the supply chain by targeting ease of manufacturing, reducing costs and making production processes more efficient and sustainable. 
  • Innovation: Industrial designers often work in R&D departments, pushing technological and design boundaries. Their work can result in patents and intellectual property, contributing to a firm's competitive advantage and even spawning new industries.
  • Globalization: In a global economy, products often need to meet the needs and tastes of diverse markets. Industrial designers help firms navigate this complexity, creating adaptable or specialized designs for different cultural or regulatory contexts.
  • Sustainability: With an increasing focus on environmental responsibility, designers are now pivotal in turning developments in materials science and green design into marketable products.

David Sutton, an industrial designer with 20+ years of experience in the field who we interviewed for this piece, described his craft this way:

“Design is a business tool. As a designer, there's a part of my heart which is romantic — like, let's design beautiful things to create a more beautiful world where products work better, more efficiently and they're less harmful to the environment. But really, the products that we develop have to serve the business first. Otherwise, they don't exist. If the products that we develop aren't sustainable from an environmental perspective, from a cost perspective, from a manufacturing perspective, there are no products, at the end of the day.”

The dynamic David points to, that industrial design is both an artistic discipline and a business function, is what makes the modern industrial designer such an interesting job in the modern economy. Industrial designers must balance personal interests and creative instincts with the business demands of the product they are creating. They need to think laterally and creatively, while also acknowledging that the objects they are creating must be built efficiently at scale if they are to be successful.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 32,400 industrial designers working in the United States in 2022. They worked across a variety of operational and employment arrangements — from working in-house at a company to working as freelance designers, to contracting out with design agencies.

Industrial designers today are expected to have a broad skill set, including proficiency in computer-aided (CAD) software, an understanding of materials and manufacturing processes, and knowledge of brand marketing and business strategy. They are often involved in the entire product development process, from initial concept to final production.

Their work is no longer confined to physical products. The digital realm has opened up new avenues for industrial design, with the discipline expanding to include software user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design. Designing for digital products and interfaces like apps and websites requires an understanding of how users interact with technology, and a keen ability to predict future trends and user behaviors. This shift has led to a blurring of lines between industrial design and other fields like graphic design and software engineering – particularly as more and more physical products demonstrate internet connectivity and screen interfaces.

Some industrial designers have chosen to specialize in niche markets such as medical devices or sustainable products, reflecting the diversification of the field. In addition, globalization has expanded the scope of industrial design, often requiring designers to consider a broader, more diverse user base and to collaborate with international teams and manufacturers. 

New principles of design thinking, which focus on empathy and iterative problem-solving, are now widely employed in the industrial design process. Today's industrial designers are increasingly expected to collaborate with professionals from other disciplines such as engineering, psychology, anthropology, and data science to create more holistic products that better serve their intended users. 

The Industrial Design Process

The industrial design process can vary significantly depending on the specificities of the project, the particular demands of the client, and the nature of the business or organization the industrial designer works in. However, a standard process looks like this:

  1. Research and Analysis. The first phase involves understanding the problem, the market, the users, and the competition. The designer will often conduct user interviews, observe user behavior, analyze market trends, and study competing products.
  2. Concept Generation. Once they have a thorough understanding of the problem and the user's needs, the designer will begin generating ideas for potential solutions. This phase often involves a lot of sketching, brainstorming, and iterative concept development.
  3. Concept Development. The designer will then select the most promising concepts and further develop them. This might involve creating detailed sketches, building CAD models, or developing physical prototypes.
  4. Prototyping and Testing. The designer will then create physical or digital prototypes of the product and conduct user tests to gather feedback. This phase is essential for identifying any potential issues or areas for improvement in the design.
  5. Refinement and Production. Based on the feedback from the testing phase, the designer will make necessary refinements to the design. Once the design is finalized, it is ready for production. This phase may also involve working closely with manufacturers to ensure the product can be produced efficiently and cost-effectively. 
  6. Evaluation and Iteration. After the product has been launched, the designer will continue to monitor its performance, gather user feedback, and make improvements as necessary. This is an ongoing process that helps ensure the product continues to meet the needs and expectations of users.

For industrial designers like David, the research phase is particularly key to understanding everything from a project’s complexity to the way the intended end user will ultimately engage with the object in question. As he told Contrary in an interview: 

“We always start every project with a research phase. That may be a few hours to a few months, depending on the scale of the project, the type of project and the product complexity. For instance, we design pet products for some of our partners, like leashes and harnesses — simple objects, relatively speaking. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, we're designing kitchen appliances. And the needs of those two categories are vastly different.”

Depending on the product in question, there may be more complex regulatory requirements that an industrial designer must take into account. For example, a dog harness will not be subject to as many rules as a medical imaging device. An industrial designer must be cognizant of all these obligations from early in the research phase, as they will heavily influence the ultimate design.

David likened the overall industrial design process to a funnel, beginning with ambitious ideas informed by a robust research process, which are slowly refined over time into a final project. This refinement usually comes hand-in-hand with deep collaboration with other disciplines like engineering, depending on the nature of the project in question. David said that engineering is the most common secondary discipline which becomes involved in the design process, but that even the simplest objects usually require outside expertise.

Contributions to the industrial design process can come from these other disciplines. For example, engineers can provide valuable insights into the manufacturability of a design while a marketing team can offer advice on the product's appeal to its target customer. New advances in technology and manufacturing can open up opportunities at the design level that did not exist before.

“Take TVs. It's not necessarily an industrial designer who said, “Let's make the thinnest TV ever,” right? That comes from the people who are manufacturing the displays that go into the television. They say they can make it thinner, then that trickles all the way to the design team. Or the engineering team figures out they can make it thinner because we can manufacture it in this way and move these components around.”

The intended function of industrial design is to create products that are ultimately manufactured efficiently at scale. As such, the industrial designer must think about the manufacturing process alongside the needs of the end user. According to David, some industrial design firms — including his own — are more involved in the manufacturing side, while others require “more input from engineering” to bring products to life.

An industrial designer will also take different things into account depending on the ultimate scale of production. A startup building an experimental product with a limited initial run of a few dozen units will have vastly different needs to an established brand producing millions of units, and the industrial designer will approach their craft differently for each.

The Tools of the Industrial Designer

Industrial design is a heavily digitized industry, and designers work primarily with a wide range of computer tools. These tools include CAD software for developing and refining designs, 3D rendering software for creating realistic visualizations, and prototyping tools to test and refine the functionality of designs. Stress tests and fluid dynamics simulations can also be done digitally before a prototype is made. Additionally, design teams use project management and collaboration tools to effectively work with multidisciplinary teams.

“As for tools, we start with the digital. We use CAD modeling software, we use lots of image generation tools, like all the typical CAD packages, KeyShot, and other rendering tools. Adobe products. A lot of these tools have become better over the years for working collaboratively. For instance, the CAD package we use is a product called Onshape, which is web-based. It’s amazing. Everything is based in the cloud, meaning everyone in our office can look at files as someone else is working on them in real time. We use a bit of everything that you would imagine. We do 2D stuff, and we still have sketchbooks we draw in.”

A typical industrial design studio will likely have a mix of traditional and modern tools, from calipers and drafting tables to CNC machines and 3D printers. This combination of both analog and digital tools allows designers to iterate between different stages of the design process, from initial sketches and concept development to detailed 3D modeling and prototyping.

Despite the increased digitization of the industry and the widespread use of computerized tooling, there is still a strong hands-on element. Though there has been a significant amount of hype around VR and AR solutions which allow a designer to visualize a product in 3D space, David said that these methods are not widely used yet. A prototype can be anything from a simple cardboard cutout which establishes the size of the object being designed to a fully or partially functional product.

“We design physical things for a living, so as part of that, we like to make lots of physical things. So we have a small workshop in our office. We also have some fairly rudimentary 3D printing capabilities in-house. We like to make things as often as possible because nothing will tell you more about an object than seeing it in real space in the real world. Even if it's a paper mockup mashed together with masking tape and paper clips. You'll learn a lot of stuff by just bringing something to life. The most basic form of that might be printing a two-dimensional image of a picture of an object at scale. You might print it out and just put it on the table and say, “Does this feel big or small?” That might be our first step of bringing something into the physical.”

Industrial design firms will often maintain a collection of various materials they can use for their designs, which is called a materials library. It's not uncommon for a team to have samples of various textiles, metals, plastics, and composites on hand. They might also keep samples of different finishes and colors, allowing them to quickly visualize how a design might look in different configurations. A wide range of third-party materials libraries and databases also exist online for reference.

Designers will also engage in user testing to understand how an intended audience for a product will engage with it. They observe how users handle the product, where they encounter problems, and how intuitive the design is. This direct interaction can reveal unforeseen issues, from ergonomic problems to functionality challenges. This can involve everything from focus group testing to more contemporary digital tools and analytics. ​​For example, heat maps can show where users most frequently touch or interact with a product or eye-tracking software can reveal what parts of a product draw the most attention.

Unsolved Problems and Opportunities

Reshoring is an increasingly relevant movement that would have implications for industrial designers. Since the late 20th century, global production has largely shifted away from the United States and other advanced service economies and toward countries like China, which have become manufacturing superpowers with a deep labor pool and local expertise. As countries like the US look to reinforce their supply chains in an increasingly unstable world, designers may be obliged to take into account production realities in reindustrialized economies, where skills and materials may be different. 

Here, David describes the current state of play with securing manufacturing partners in China:

“People who manufacture kitchen appliances typically continue to manufacture kitchen appliances, because they understand that world and what's required to get it done. And they leverage their experience to become attractive to people who need to make that sort of product. So, as an industrial designer, you search for manufacturing partners who have general experience that is suitable for the type of product that you're trying to manufacture because they will help you to an unbelievably huge degree.”

With increasing consumer awareness about environmental issues, designers are under pressure to create products that are sustainable. This means using materials that are recyclable or biodegradable, minimizing waste, and ensuring a product's longevity. There's a challenge in sourcing sustainable materials that don't compromise on product quality or significantly increase production costs. Similarly, many companies are thinking about circular economy solutions, where products are designed for reuse, refurbishment, and recycling.

There are also opportunities in the tooling industrial designers use. Advanced prototyping techniques like 3D printing are still relatively expensive, which can be a barrier for independent designers or small firms. Small production runs are expensive, making it hard for designers to bring unique or niche products to the market. As David said, much-hyped technologies like virtual and augmented reality are not yet sufficiently advanced to be reliably introduced into the design process.

According to David, one of the major challenges he deals with as a designer is client expectations. The rise of ecommerce, the refinement of consumer supply chains, and the increasing importance of digital goods like software has changed expectations on how fast things move in the world of product. As a result, there is a widespread lack of understanding on the part of newer clients as to how long it takes for a physical object to be effectively designed and put into production. 

The Future of the Industry

As a thoroughly technologized industry, the future of industrial design will be highly driven by the development and adoption of new tools and processes.

VR and AR technologies, while still nascent, are being utilized for prototyping and design testing, which could significantly reduce the time and resources required in the design process. Sufficiently effective VR and AR integration into the design process could also help enable more remote work in the industry. David described the current challenge of working remotely in a job focused on building physical products, where it is necessary for multiple stakeholders to physically touch and interact with an object at various points in the design process.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) offer predictive insights, optimize designs, and automate routine tasks, suggesting a future where designers can focus on more complex and creative aspects of their projects. AI could play a role in less direct ways too, such as by assisting with knowledge management or the production of supplementary materials like pitch decks and imagery.

These labor-saving innovations raise the possibility of a future where industrial designers spend more of their time focusing on the creative, human-centric aspects of their job, while automation plays a larger role in the more systematic processes that currently absorb a substantial amount of focus. Additionally, the rise of consumer AI raises the prospect of a future where a range of consumer product interfaces will integrate these new technologies, and industrial designers will play a role in reimagining them. 

Industrial designers of the future will likely contend with deeper integration of internet connectivity and smart features. A growing consumer class in countries like India and China will compel global firms to further consider local tastes and user preferences in their product designs. The aforementioned shift towards reshoring, on the other hand, raises questions about where and how industrial designers can work with reoriented supply chains in countries like the United States. 

As with many industries and jobs covered by the How We Work series, industrial design is facing a generational shift in knowledge and skill set. The incoming generation of designers is highly skilled in digital technologies, while broadly less well-versed in the hands-on skills which are still important to the industry today. As David puts it:

“It's a different way of thinking sometimes. Some of the junior designers that we've come across in the last few years feel to me to be maybe a bit more apprehensive about actually making physical things with their own hands. That's been an interesting change, and I don’t know if we’ve found the balance yet. We will get to a point where digital tools are so good — including 3D printing — where you won’t need to make anything with your hands.”

Deeper integration between digital and physical product design – led by a new generation of designers literate in both – could change the way the job operates. Soon, as David points out, it may not even be necessary to work in the physical realm at all, with digital designs being able to carry a product from conception to production.

As design moves towards the next frontier, and the industry faces further digitization, globalization, and disruption, the industrial designer will continue to play a key role in global commerce and bringing products to market.

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