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In this bimonthly column, Glenn Beall of Glenn Beall Plastics Ltd. (Libertyville, IL) shares his special perspective on issues important to design engineers and the molding industry.

Glenn Beall

December 1, 2001

6 Min Read
By Design: Industrial design sells

In this bimonthly column, Glenn Beall of Glenn Beall Plastics Ltd. (Libertyville, IL) shares his special perspective on issues important to design engineers and the molding industry. 

The design of plastic products is important, but why? Because the United States is a great plastics manufacturing country, and processors can only mold what engineers design. The design of a new product and the design of the individual parts that go together to make up a product are two different functions. The product design process was described in the December 1996 "By Design" column (pp. 50-51). Part design was detailed in the last several "By Design" articles. Another design function that has only been alluded to is industrial design (ID). 

The ID profession is more than 100 years old, but the impressive benefits of this type of design are still not being fully utilized. This is an expensive oversight. Today, the manufacturers of durable products have more competition than ever before. A stroll through any shopping mall, appliance store, or electronics outlet reveals a multiplicity of appealing, feature-laden products. Many of these attractive plastic products look similar. A few stand out in the crowd, but why? 

The OEM's preference for single-source purchasing has resulted in an increase in the services now being provided by industrial designers. Appearance design and ergonomics were, and still are, the two primary functions. 

Ergonomics is the function of designing products that fit human beings, or that people can use. The size and shape of an automobile seat and the convenient location of the controls on an instrument panel are obvious examples of ergonomic design. (Human engineering is a topic for another time.) 

Appearance Increases Sales 
Raymond Loewy, one of the founders of the ID profession in the United States, is quoted as having pointed out that, "Between two products equal in price, function, and quality, the better-looking will outsell the other." 

Appearance design is important. It can be the necessary added value that makes an OEM's product stand out in the growing crowd of copycat products produced in Asia. Appearance design is concerned with size, shape, color, surface finish, the way light reflects off of the product, and the shadow it casts sitting on the retailer's shelf. 

Analysis indicates that consumers scanning the shelves of a store give a product, on average, 7 seconds of their time. There must be something in the appearance of that product that causes shoppers to pause and give that product more attention. If they are pleased by what they see, they may touch or pick up the product. If it feels right and the product falls into their hand in a comfortable way, ergonomics will help make a sale. It is important that a product be eye-catching and that it looks like it will do what it is intended to do. What should the appearance of a new product be? The options are limitless. 

Product designers come from all kinds of backgrounds. In fact, the majority of plastic product designers are mechanical engineers. Yet, there is nothing in the standard mechanical engineering curriculum that specifically addresses appearance design. 

Specialized Knowledge 
Industrial designers attend different universities. Their curriculum concentrates on appearance design and ergonomics. These designers attend different conferences and read magazines that would not interest a mechanical engineer. They learn how to determine consumer preferences. Anyone can easily learn what shapes, colors, and surface finishes are currently offered for sale. The trick is to know what shapes and colors will be in vogue six or 12 months from now when the new product is introduced. 

Good industrial designers are sensitive, creative professionals who are keen observers of how mankind relates to his immediate environment. They are part application engineer, part artist, and part marketing researchers, who take a holistic approach to product design. Industrial designers read Futurist Magazine and study trends. They knew that people were tired of dull gray and beige office equipment long before Dell changed to black and Apple introduced its brightly colored computers with transparent panels. They also predicted the demise of the boxy CRT housings with their cold aesthetics and edgy human interface. Warmer-feeling, softer products that appear to be more personal and intuitive are what people will purchase in the future. Being able to predict what will appeal to future consumers is important, but how does an injection molder or an OEM know what will be in vogue next year? 

The majority of product design engineers do not have the time or inclination to go back to school to study ID. A faster way of gaining this special knowledge is to put an industrial designer on staff. Every major industrialized city in the U.S. lists independent ID firms in its Yellow Pages. Smaller companies can use these firms on a project-by-project basis. 

'Between two products, equal in price, function, and quality, the better-looking will outsell the other.'

IDSA Conference 
Another way to access this type of information is to attend the annual Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) conference. This year's conference was held Aug. 15-18 in Boston, MA. Once again, the conference contained many thought-provoking topics. To mention just a few, Dr. K. Chung reviewed Korea's Nationalized Design System, which emphasizes and supports excellence in product design. Korea has a growing plastics industry. It has the potential to be a major exporting competitor in the future. 

The U.S. lags behind much of the world in designing for the environment. The Eco-Design workshop detailed what multinational OEMs have to consider in order to successfully export their products to Europe. This was a rude wake-up call. 

The most heated exchanges took place in the session on protecting product designs. Copyrights, patents, and trademarks are not providing their normally expected protection against copycats in the global market. 

The conference's Design Gallery showcased the products from IDSA's design competition. In my opinion, this display was the best part of the conference. I used to think that the majority of these products were impractical, far-out concepts that would never reach the retail market. Experience has taught me that some of these futuristic designs will be in stores a year or so later. Walking and photographing the Design Gallery is an enjoyable way to make certain that your new products have the look and the feel that your future customers long for. 

Appearance and ergonomics are important design functions that should not be left up to the uninformed. A little professional help in this area can increase sales. If sales increase, injection molders will have more work to do and the United States will continue to be a great manufacturing country. 

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