Breaking Down the Industrial Design Process: Defining a Product and Setting Up the Designer’s Day

Have you ever wondered where ideas for products come from? Perhaps you’re a design student or just starting out as a product design professional and are wondering a bit more about the real world, what to expect from your first days on the job and the elusive design brief. You might even be a seasoned professional thinking, "what do my bosses sit around and do all day while I do the real design work?" This article outlines and explores the various early stages of the industrial design process that a product goes through, and more specifically a product being created within a relatively large company in the Consumer Product and Industrial Design world. It covers experiences and workflows from various sectors of the design industry and, more specifically, the toy industry. It does serve, however, as a reasonable account of the overall and general product design process. You’ll even see the part of the process that exists before designers get to pick up a pencil and let loose with their ideas. A clear direction at the beginning of a product cycle will allow you to progress from napkin sketch to polished product in a timely, cost effective manner. Let's explore what to expect when starting your design profession and what it takes to bring a product to life.

Initial Ideas

Before any design work can begin on a product, there must first be a definition of what the product or product line might be. This definition’s genesis can be consumer demand driven, trends and fashion, competitor products, retail buyer advice, continuation of an existing successful line or company brand strategy, or even based on a really cool and unique invention or idea.

This sheet helps the designer understand appearance and quality levels of rival products, generate fresh ideas and stay away from duplicating shapes and forms.

Play Specification

Once a suitable product opportunity has been identified, a specification document or design brief is created to define the product. This document is usually created by the higher management of a company who’ll have access to information, such as budgeting and buyer/seller feedback, along with an intimate knowledge of the companies existing product line and brand strategy. Depending on the company, this will be led with a bias from Design or by Sales and Marketing.

A play ‘spec’ is likely to list the consumer demographic the product will be aimed at along with a suggested retail price to make sure any ideas stay within realistic cost expectations. A short description of the product is included along with any salient features that may be critical to the success of the design and of course the all important how will the intended user play with the item.

This sheet describes the potential user demographic for an action sports item so the designer sees their target user and the environment, along with situations when the product is used. These references also help suggest certain mechanical constraints or requirements such as ruggedness or weight restriction.

The Technical Bit

Features such as a mechanical specification or reference to an existing invention the product might be based upon are outlined. Uses, expectations, and underlying intelligence or programming associated to the product is likely to be included as well. Electronics, including sounds, lights, sensors and any other specific inputs, along with colors and new materials may also be mentioned. Finally, a few focused reference sketches or photo images can be added to convey a possible direction.

This is often a ‘live’ document; it’s intended to guide and inform design efforts and will be added to as time progresses. Imagery and more detailed information will be added with the document to eventual become the basis for sales boards. It’ll have all the relevant call outs and imagery to successfully describe the product at a 15 second glance.

Once the play spec has been approved by upper management, it can be passed onto the designer or design team and they can begin their work.

This sheet can include items from all walks of life and sectors of design that have interesting or unique features or material selection. Attention can be drawn to particular aspects with notes highlighting a particular aspect such as putting certain materials next to each other or particular surface and edge treatments.

Mood Boards

A Design Director or Senior Designer will at this stage put together a set of reference sheets called mood boards. These can be comprised of one to five boards of relevant imagery that helps inform the design and focus the designer’s attention to a specific train of thought.

Sheets may include, but not be limited to, existing products or lines that the company already produces, competitor products that should be referenced but not copied, imagery of users and uses of the proposed item, abstract photos and designs that have relevant themes, colors or features such as movie references, current trends, paintings and art work, or cool design treatments from other areas of design. Reference is also made to materials, fit and finish.

Style Guide

An early style guide may also be created at this stage to begin ideas for branding. This would be more specific to logos and packaging and includes ideas for color, shape, style and any carry over features from existing brands or cross sells. An idea of the perceived quality of the product will be identified at this stage to give the graphics team a guideline for complexity and cost of any packaging styles, die cuts and finishes they may intend to use.

The imagery and fonts represented on a style guide informs the graphics and product teams of any requirements that the brand and packaging must follow.

Pick Up Your Pens, Pencils or Stylus

Following initial discussions and analysis of the play spec, mood boards and style guides, the designers can now begin their work.

These early stages of the design process allow us to define a product need and its users. This material and documentation is created to inform the designer or design team(s) by outlining salient features, mechanical parameters, technical requirements, and limitations while focusing their creative efforts to achieve targeted results and keep a budget in mind.

Continue reading the next article in this series that continues your journey into the world of product design, with a look at the concept design process and beyond.