Under-appreciated, under-recognized, under-valued and under-paid are some “unders” we can often associate with Industrial Design (ID) and Industrial Designers. Only one “under-“, I can confidently say, is not associated often with ID and its clan; and that is UNDER-STOOD. Yes; its quite easy to find people who don’t understand the value and the amount of work that goes into an Industrial design process. I knew these people existed and whenever I met any of them, I tried to explain to them the depth and breadth of ID. Most of the time, the realization was too much for them, which their facial expressions were an excellent display of.
Why am I writing about this now? Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who belonged to the non ID clan and who had no idea what ID people did and how it affected products. I wanted to share my way of dealing with their questions. He asked me this simple question : “You designers spend so much time designing stuff, what do you actually do?” Well, not a harmful question. I thought I’ll help kill his ignorance. I gave him a high level over view of a design process: Understanding the client’s needs, designing a suitable “shape” (Yes, “shape” and not “form” is what the outer world understands), deciding on the appropriate color, material and finish, planning for manufacture and sometimes making a business plan depending on the setting. Simple question, simple answer. But, his next question was tricky: he said “selecting color and material? How tough can that be? It sounds easy.” I had to explain to him with caution because neither did I want it to sound too important and tough than it really is, nor to make it sound too simple, which it obviously isn’t.
My reply had little design theory and a lot of practical “show and tell”.
Me: Choosing color isn’t easy. There are set principles which dictate which colors can be combined to give a good result. Its called the color theory. I don’t want to bore you with the details, but one example I can give you is that it says blue and orange are a better combination than say, blue and yellow or even blue and green. There are plenty of “rules” similar to this.
Friend: If you have these “formulae”, it should be pretty easy right, to choose the required color?
Me: Well, that doesn’t have to be true for every application. You can break these rules to get the effect you want. The modern, colorful design used by companies like google has combinations of colors which do not adhere to those rules.
Also, the color selection depends on the “shape” of the product too. Not all colors look good on all shapes.
Friend: What? How? I don’t get it.
Me: Alright, here’s a simple way for you to understand this. You have seen an iPhone 5 right?
Friend: Yes. Why?
Me: Do you think it looks good with the current color options of grey and variants?
Friend: Yea I like it. It looks good. But I still don’t get it.
Me: Wait, wait. Now imagine the same phone in a bright orange, or a nice yellow. How does it look now?
Friend: *After a few shut-eye seconds* It looks terrible.
Me: But, the same orange and yellow colors look good on a Nokia Lumia or even on an iPhone 5C right? Thats where what I told you comes into play. The color selected depends on what shape its applied onto.
Friend: Oooh! I see now. But what about material and finish? That is pretty standard right? Matte and glossy options are the only ones I see.
Me: You have to observe objects closely to understand that there are different feels to different materials. Let me show you this. *Shows a car’s door*. See, this door is metal and the window is glass. Both have a glossy finish, both are smooth, but both have a different feel when you slide your finger on them. Feel it for yourself.
Friend: Yea. The door feels different than the glass.
Me: Exactly. The door’s finish type is something that could be implemented on the back of a phone, whereas the window’s finish is needed on the screen where you slide your fingers on. This is because it needs to feel smooth on the front, needs less friction. Ideally, you would have a matte finish on the back surface to increase grip, but it depends on the company.
Here’s another example: You see your laptop’s (Not apple) trackpad? There is a patch of smooth area in the middle where you most often touch. Now touch the outer sides of this patch. It feels rough and uncomfortable right? This is a classic case of wrong material texture selection. Now, if you look at a Macbook’s trackpads, they have a glass cover on top and it is very smooth and easy to use even for prolonged periods. Those yellow water sport tubes with smooth finished handles making it difficult to grip when wet is another example of poor material finish choice which we experienced recently. You knew that it was tough to hold onto, but thought that it was due to a bad design. Its not the design, but the finish that is to blame. *we were returning after a fun afternoon in the beach*
Friend: Oh wow! Man, I never knew there were so many things to consider while choosing color and material finishes. I always thought it was simple and didn’t take much time.
Me: Well, looking at your trackpad and other poorly designed things around us, I can’t blame you for thinking that way. Very few products that are released into the market have this amount of thought put into them, and it is those few products that succeed in the market. Designing a product is not as easy as it seems; there is a lot which goes on behind the scenes. You guys only see the end result and not the entire process, unlike in your construction field where we see the entire process and not the end result directly.
Another day, another person educated on how designing something is not easy.
People still do not sufficiently understand the importance and difficulty of a design process because they do not see all the hard-work in the back-end. I don’t know of a way to show them all this effort and process in a manner that they would care to divert their short attention spans to. I also don’t know if it will ever be possible. Until then, it is up to us designers to rid the world of this ignorance. I’m sure many of you have been on either sides of a similar conversation; does it resonate with the experience you had? If it did, comment below. I’m interested to hear about your experience.
Until then, cheers!