The Industrial Design Process Part 3: Turning Early Concepts into Refined Solutions

This article is a continuation of a series on the Industrial Design Process. Part one: Defining a Product and Setting Up the Designer’s Day. Part two: Concept Design, Ideation and the Creative Day.   What happens to early concept designs once a design direction has been established? Those creative ideas on paper still have a long way to go to become viable retail-ready products on the shelf. In the following article, you'll see how rough ideas are turned into an easily discernible guide for product managers, CAD modelers, marketing professionals and sales teams.

Tightening Up Your Ideas

Once a final concept direction has been established, a refined and informative set of images are created and taken to a higher level of finish. Elements and aspects of several designs are integrated into one coherent solution to satisfy the identified brief, target user and potential market place.

Taking Concepts to the Next Level

The process so far may sound like it would have taken a lot of time, but in reality the timeline could've been anywhere from three weeks to two months to get to a refined concept. Initial reviews involving only the design department would've evolved into larger company-wide reviews garnering opinions and advice from Sales, Marketing, brand managers, C-level employees and even factory representatives to make sure the design satisfies all of the requirements to become a successful product.

Adding the Professional Touch

At the end of the article on concept design, you're left with a refined set of numbered images from which selections could be made. Now, designs have been chosen and the designers can really let loose with their skills in Photoshop, Sketchbook Pro or Illustrator and render high-level illustrations of their designs. In some cases, the designs may even be handed over to another department for illustration with the designer giving a rough idea in color of their final intent. Forms are further defined with light and dark grayscale and ranges of colors are experimented with. Feedback from marketing on trends and color will also be included.

Basic greyscale concept showing form and color variations appealing to chosen demographics. Note that the illustration quality at this stage is still relatively flat.

Creating a Product Guide

At this point all of the concept ideas have been honed and the next task is to create a clear guide as to how the product looks and performs for everyone in the company to reference.

Filling in the Blanks

It’s important to remember that conveying information is still the key with any imagery created, to this end the designs are expanded upon. Additional sketches are created showing differing views, cross sections, specific details or hidden elements. Detailed call-outs are made of any ideas that aren’t immediately apparent or that are open to interpretation. If a specific feature is important to the designer, it’ll be highlighted to make sure it isn’t lost at later stages, such as CAD creation or sales pitches.

Preparation for CAD

If the designer isn’t going to be responsible for building the CAD themselves then other call-outs may be added, such as parting line direction/location or where a functional detail such as a plastic light guide or sensor may go. Exploded drawings can even be created to show a product split apart in space to identify what goes where.

Concept Sketch Model

If there’s time or if a design is particularly complicated, a designer may even create an early block model in modeling foam or a very rough CAD model to make sure nothing is lost of the original idea.

Concept rendered as a finished illustration. An 'ideal image' of the product is still acceptable but the designer may well create a simpler deco pass later to concede to costing. Other images include how the gun will be operated and an early suggestion for assembly.

Final Concept Phase Review

It’s now time for one final review before the idea is cleared to be included in the company’s annual product lineup. This really should just be a ticking of boxes at this stage as many reviews have already guided the process. The idea is generally ratified and the product can move onto the next stages of the design process. The product spec document is reviewed again and the Graphics Team is given final imagery to work with in order to create refined packaging concepts, if they haven’t already been working in tandem.

Time Keeps on Ticking

From the initial creation of the design brief or play spec, anywhere from four weeks to four months have passed. Of course the rest of the company’s been busy creating, selling and marketing the current year’s product lineup, but now they’ll start to integrate these new ideas and concepts as the existing product line goes out the door and onto the shelf.

Product Documents and Project Managers

Having created a set of quality product images, it’s likely that two product documents will be created. One is for internal use with in-depth detail on all aspects of the product including the aforementioned concept designs with call-outs, play scenarios, uses, users, specific engineering features, even potential patent application, estimated costs and retail price points.

This document may be a complete rewrite of the original document or a natural evolution of the original design brief described in an earlier article where we broke down the early stages of the Industrial Design Process. At this stage it is the role of a Project Manager (PM) along with a lead designer to work on this document and to begin initial discussions with the factory and any internal engineers as to what the product may entail.

What Is a PM?

PMs are generally engineers with specific knowledge of what components will go into the product, such as motors, circuit boards, speakers, sensors, inputs, outputs, etc. They’re responsible for liaising with the factory and making sure the designs are grounded in reality as well as estimating the potential costs based on the design requirements and potential component list. This cost shouldn’t be a surprise as the Design Team will also have had a good idea of what they’ve been including into the design and its specific cost implications.

Annual Product Lineup Document

The second of the two documents mentioned above, the annual product lineup document, is also a vital component in the annual cycle of the company. While the first document remains internal and served to get the product moving with the factory and begin transitioning from a concept into a reality, this second document will be used externally to create and gauge interest from Sales, Marketing, potential retail buyers, investors and other departments.

This document is a compilation of all of the company’s products listed in ascending suggested retail price (SRP) and shared internally at the management level and shown to a select few potential early buyers and partners. Each page will give enough information to sell the product, but not enough to give away potentially secretive or damaging information at this relatively sensitive stage. General features are called out, along with images of color variations and, of course, price.

Final Product Lineup Review

Once the product lineup document is compiled, it’ll undergo one final review at the upper management level to see how all of the products will work together as a lineup. There’s still the potential for items to be removed, delayed or revisited at this stage if they’re deemed to have lost their original appeal or could potentially cannibalize another product from a price point or feature set point of view; it’s best to have many ideas and narrow down to the strongest than to try and over stretch the company on many diluted ideas.

Brand Managers

Now that we have a defined product brief and refined visuals, the brand managers can begin their task of creating a brand identity behind the product. They’ll choose retail partners, launch partners and channels to promote the product, along with discussing potential advertising budgets and promotional web content. They’ll have had access to the ideas from day one so they’ll be able to hit the ground running.

Sales Boards

Four to six months have now passed and the company has defined every aspect of the product. All of the following are now clear: cost, SRP, feature set, possible packaging appearance, marketing budget and method, potential launch partners, line extension and support. This information is now ready to be put onto a sales board.

The sales board is not a great deal different from the product lineup document, but it’s tailored to specific buyers and includes all of the information a buyer would need, not only from a design point of view, but a business one too. Information at this point is less secretive with all of the cards being placed on the table as the item needs to be sold, and giving the buyer as much info as possible is beneficial.

Mock sales board with callouts and illustrated features to help sell the item while keeping it brief, acknowledging the volume of items reviewed by buyers daily. While 'tongue in cheek' the content serves to illustrate what's usually featured.


You’ve now covered the part of the design process that takes a concept design from a relatively rough set of sketches into a refined and defined solution. This effort will lead and inform the rest of the company in creating and supporting a successful product line, along with creating documents to facilitate sales. In the next article, we’ll continue the Industrial Design Process into CAD and what it takes to get from flat sketches to something you hold in your hand.