Industrial Design Meets Engineering

July 21, 2011

At Beyond Design, our designers and engineers work closely every day in order to create a product that is both functional and meaningful to the user. This article was written from the viewpoint of Michael Prince, the President of Beyond Design, on what it takes to make this relationship successful in order to create the ideal solution for our clients.


Industrial designers and engineers have two very different functions, but both understand the vital role that each plays in the product development process.

Years before industrial designers started using CAD, the tools of the trade were pencils and markers. While these tools were useful, they limited the scope of industrial designers’ involvement such that their main focus and niche became primarily product styling. Engineers always viewed industrial designers as “sketch artists” and failed to realize the innovation and vision they bring to the development process. Over the past two decades the introduction of CAD has significantly helped bridge the gap between industrial design and engineering. CAD programs like SolidWorks and ProEngineer enable designers to create compelling forms and precisely deliver the data necessary for engineering and manufacturing.

While industrial designers and engineers share the same passion for product development, their approach to solving the problem is often very different. Engineers and industrial designers have been at odds for a long time and it is only recently that each started to acknowledge the benefits they can achieve by working together. In addition, marketing teams have taken notice of this collaboration and new methods for product development.

Engineers tend to be more analytical and approach problems in a methodical manner that is based on mathematical principles. The engineer’s role is to analyze the product efficiency, structural integrity, and performance. It is their responsibility to develop the internal mechanisms and ensure product details are suitable for manufacturing.
On the other hand, industrial designers tend to be more visual and abstract, concentrating on user features, ergonomics, and aesthetics. An industrial designer’s role is to study human behavior and the interaction between man and machine — to enhance the user experience. Designers are inquisitive, bring creativity and inspiration to a product, and present quick visual ideas during the development process.

Since the development of CAD, industrial designers are able to capture their design intent along with information necessary for engineering and manufacturing. Without sacrificing creativity, industrial designers also consider materials and piece part strategies in their design process. Industrial designers are now able to control details including parting lines, draft, wall thickness, and assembly techniques that were once strictly the responsibility of engineers. This has not only helped to speed up the development process, but also enables the industrial designers to communicate more efficiently with the engineers and ensure design details are not overlooked or misinterpreted. Unlike the computers used back in the mid 1970’s, designers are no longer restricted by the limitations of computer software. On the contrary, these tools have become easier to operate and are now an extension of the designers’ ability to capture their vision.

While industrial designers are using the same tools as the engineers, this does not make them an engineer nor does it replace the need for one. Industrial designers still lack the training of physics, chemistry, mechanics and mathematics that lie behind solid engineering principles. Designers do, however, have an obligation to understand materials and processes so that engineers can effectively implement their vision. Likewise, engineers don’t always take into consideration the importance of form, human interaction, and ergonomics that industrial designers are naturally drawn to. This is where the two must come together to create solutions that are compelling, intuitive, reliable, ecologically smart, and designed for cost efficient manufacturing.

The way we develop products today is very different from just a decade ago. Time-to-market is defined in days rather than months and responsibilities between industrial designers and engineers have evolved to a point where everyone is working faster and everything must come together just at the right moment. Over the past decade industrial designers have been able to position themselves in critical product development roles that enable them to provide the necessary vision and guidelines inherent to projects. Industrial designers know when to challenge engineering in order to realize their vision, but they also understand the need to compromise in order to keep the project on-track and on budget.

The relationship between an industrial designer and engineer can be looked at as a relay race—you have two runners that train and support each other with the goal of winning the race. At some point the two must be perfectly in sync in order to hand off the “baton” seamlessly and without error. While one runner takes over, the other runner continues to support their teammate until the finish line is reached—just as industrial designers and engineers constantly support one another and push the limits of ergonomics, performance and aesthetics to create a final product that is both functional and meaningful to the user.

As new technologies emerge, industrial designers and engineers will continue to share their ideas more efficiently and new product opportunities will flourish. The main focus will not only be on features, but also on ways to reduce the carbon footprint and create smarter products for the consumer.

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