Industrial Design

from The New Book of Knowledge®


Every human-made object has a design. Throughout history, people have learned that the design or shape of an object has much to do with its usefulness. As people discover new materials and learn to produce things more skillfully, designs change and objects become easier to use.

When people made objects only by hand, designs changed slowly. But with the increased use of machines during the 1600's, changes in design began to occur more rapidly. By the 1830's machines of all kinds were in use, which also allowed identical products to be made quickly and by the thousands.

Early machine-made products were copies of handmade objects, but the machines of that time were unable to reproduce many of the beautiful details of what had been designed as a handmade product. As a result, many early manufactured goods were clumsy. Also, the person who operated a machine was not able to change a product's design. If a product needed a new shape, someone else had to design it. The machine would then have to be changed so it could make the redesigned product.

Today new product designs and design changes are created by industrial designers--people who are specially trained as planners and stylists of mass-produced, machine-made goods. In fact, the designs of almost all the manufactured objects we use, such as cars, bicycles, toasters, telephones, and pens, have been created by industrial designers.

What Determines Design?

Many things affect the design of objects. Among these are the way people live, the materials available for making objects, and the current technology.

A well-designed product suits the age in which it is created. In England in the 1700's, a silver coffeepot was carefully made by hand to fit the very formal life of the upper classes. The practical value of such a product was less important than how it looked. An intricately decorated coffeepot took a long time to make, but the cost of the labor of people to make it was cheap. The silver needed frequent cleaning, but the people who owned silver objects often had servants who kept them polished. Today, such labor is expensive and scarce. A coffeepot manufactured out of stainless steel, aluminum, or Pyrex glass is more suited to modern life. It can be made quickly and inexpensively, is easy to keep clean, and is free of extraneous decoration. Today life is more casual. Machine-made objects are designed as much for use as for decoration. They are made to be practical as well as good looking.

Science and New Materials

Science makes possible the use of new materials and new methods of producing objects. Materials developed in the 20th century, such as plastics and special metals, were undreamed of in earlier centuries. Today's mass-production techniques could not have been developed without modern technology.

New materials sometimes also lead to new forms for objects. For example, plastic made it possible to manufacture objects out of a single, continuous piece of material. Such molded plastic eliminates the need for joints and for the assembling of individual parts. It can be molded quickly as one piece, with little finishing work required. As a result, plastic has changed the form of many household products and furniture.

The Principles of Design

Ideas of what is good design change with the times. The modern industrial age has developed its own principles for design. One principle states that the design of a product must contribute to its use or function. Equally important, the materials used to make the product must be suitable. A third principle is that the method of production must be considered. The taste and skill of each industrial designer guides his or her use of each of these principles.

Functionalism. Functionalism means that the shape of an object is determined by its use. A drinking glass must be shaped so it can contain liquids, be held comfortably and securely, and be cleaned easily. A car must operate properly, and be comfortable and easy to drive. An airplane must be shaped a certain way or it will not rise and move through the air. The principle of functionalism was first summed up by Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), an American architect, who said that "form follows function." A center of modern functional style was the Bauhaus, an art school in Germany. Founded in 1919, the Bauhaus helped spread modern design principles all over the world.

Use of Materials. Industrial designers should be familiar with the physical properties of the materials they can use. For example, because plastic is lightweight and does not break as easily as glass, it is a good material for soft-drink or baby bottles. Plastic melts or burns when heated, however, so it does not make a good frying pan. Different products require materials of different weights and strengths.

Methods of Production. Designers also need to consider the technical problems involved in making a product. They must make sure that a machine is available or can be built that will produce the object correctly. Generally they must understand machine production and work closely with industrial engineers.

How a Designer Works

When industrial designers are hired by a manufacturer, they are told about the product to be designed or redesigned and are given information about its purpose and how and where it will be used. They try to determine the needs and tastes of potential buyers, and they study similar products made by competing companies. The designers talk to the manufacturer's engineers about materials and construction, and learn what equipment is available in the factory.

On the basis of this information, a design is created and drawings are made of the product. Many changes may be made in these drawings before a design is finished. Mock-ups, or full-sized models, of the product are often made out of wood, plaster, or cardboard. When the manufacturer approves the design, a final model is made. Today computers are frequently used in the design process, often replacing hand-drawn plans and small-scale models. This technique is known as computer-aided design, or CAD.

Large design firms have a staff of specialists--draftspeople, illustrators, engineers, market researchers, and modelmakers--working under the direction of industrial designers. Some firms offer many specialized services as well as a total design service--designing everything connected with a business from the buildings to the stationery. Industrial design firms may also serve as consultants or advisors to those companies that have their own design departments.

Industrial Design Since the Bauhaus

In the late 1920's and early 1930's, many mass-produced appliances were redesigned because the pioneers of American industrial design, Raymond F. Loewy (1893-1986), Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972), and Walter Dorwin Teague (1883-1960), convinced manufacturers that well-designed products could sell better than products that were badly designed.


American designer Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) was among the first to use streamlining in design--the technique of designing objects so that they have long, curving lines with no sharp angles. Streamlining allows air or water to flow easily over an object, and it is well suited to objects designed for speed, such as airplanes, boats, trains, and cars. But streamlining became a fad and was applied to all kinds of products, such as toasters and teapots, that did not need to be designed that way. In these instances, styling went against the principle of functionalism and in fact sometimes even interfered with the usefulness of the product. More often than not, however, industrial designers improve objects so that they are more efficient and better looking.

In recent years the miniaturization of electronic parts has had an impact on the design of products. The internal components of many machines are now so small that they no longer need to influence the outer form of the machine. As a result, designers are free to consider other factors, such as ergonomics--the study of how things such as machines and work situations can be adapted and used more effectively by people.

Reviewed by Cara McCarty
The Museum of Modern Art

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