Industrial Designers Do More Than Design

At Omnica, all members of the ID group are required to understand engineering principles and apply them to solve basic problems and challenges. They have to consider variables like material selection, manufacturing processes, and real-world production constraints. Often, they actively participate in projects from initial concepting through to the end of the engineering phase. 


OMNIview asked three of our designers, Andy March, Tim Payne, and Scott Conway to answer a few questions about their wide-ranging design activities. We wanted to learn how they interact with the engineering group and other members of the product development team. 


Important qualities – much more than design


OV: You do more than concept products with pen and ink drawings and CAD programs. What other aspects or activities of product development are you involved in and what qualities do you need to be an effective industrial designer?

Tim: Until they actually work with an ID firm, people are not aware of our role as a catalyst that brings together design, engineering, marketing and manufacturing. We have to work well in team situations and have a broad knowledge of current technologies. Part of that is having the ability to communicate our ideas to clients and others who can't easily visualize a three-dimensional object from a two-dimensional drawing or CAD model. Another aspect of our job is to be familiar with different manufacturing processes and to suggest appropriate materials. 

Andy: Industrial designers do a lot more modelmaking than people realize, and we don't just work at the computer anymore. Our job description should read "able to do lots of things". We have to be familiar with a wide range of hand tools and feel comfortable operating many of the machines at the facility. Some projects we model in wood, foam, and metal with machinery like the vertical mills, the waterjet, the laser cutter, rapid prototyping machines, and of course woodworking tools. Note: Andy is shown below, spray painting a case cover.


Get the process flowing

OV: After you receive an assignment, how do you get the ideas flowing to prime the design process?

Scott: Clients usually give us some input at the start of the process. I find that pencil and paper is the quickest way to find a direction. I talk with the other team members and usually sketch-out some ideas, and brainstorm how the item may be used and manufactured. We sometimes work with the engineers and the client's marketing people so they can give us a better understanding of what they're looking for and define the constraints of a project. 

Tim: For me, the design process really starts before any specific tasks are assigned- at the first project team meeting where we discuss details, requirements and goals. That's where we do initial brainstorming and get feedback from the client's team who are generally more familiar with the specifics of their particular industry and market. When I can't come up with any ideas I temporarily move on to other challenges. Once a problem has been tossed about, the subconscious will continue to work on it. Typically when I approach the same problem at a later time, I'll be able to attack it from a fresh and different viewpoint.


Elegant design solutions break new ground


OV: Do you find yourself unintentionally incorporating familiar design elements in new projects, and how do you avoid following an accustomed train of thought that might cause you to overlook an obvious or more elegant design solution?

Andy: In school you are taught the elements of good design and how to creatively look at the world around you. Because design is always evolving you are trained to be aware, and not to create the same thing you have done in the past. For designers it's a personal challenge to push the limits of your skills and break new ground in visual design. 

Tim: We try to create something new each time, but unfortunately it doesn't always happen due to the disparity of the usual many competing product requirements. Especially with medical products, "fresh and new" design, handled appropriately, can translate into state-of-the-art desirability over competitive products. Because of the nature and certainty of unforeseen problems, pursuing two or three alternative design directions will increase the possibility of achieving a "simply ingenious" design solution. 

Scott: Designers see things around them that other people pass over every day. Sure, every designer has his or her own style, influences and favorite design elements, but I try to stay observant and make sure that my style continues to evolve and mature. When I get an assignment I try to step outside my preferences and make it a point to design what is appropriate for the client. Note: Above, Scott performs final touch-ups on a thermoform molding buck. He also designed the waterproof IPod case shown at right.


Technical contributions after the initial design

OV: In addition to styling, your overall contributions are becoming increasingly technical. Tell us how you interact with the rest of the development team, and highlight your ongoing role after the initial design and modeling are finished.

Tim: We work closely with the mechanical engineers, which has broadened our engineering abilities. A competent industrial designer can often handle general product engineering with little input from an ME. More sophisticated products and systems require an experienced mechanical engineer to propose a feasible technical solution, and afterwards have the designer develop packaging to support it. Note: Tim, at left, tests the user interface for a device he's designed.

Andy: A lot of the products we work on are inherently technical, but we're trained to solve a lot of problems on our own. Also, we tend to do the sexy swoopy shapes that most MEs would not attempt to solid model. For complex systems that involve things like spring rates, stress, or elasticity requirements and the like, they need to be involved. Projects are always changing, and industrial designers are involved at some level until it's handed-off to the manufacturer.

Scott: When we first sit down with the client, we try to find out what costs per unit they are expecting and the annual production quantities they’ll require. During that initial interview we determine which materials will best fit their needs and discuss which manufacturing methods are most appropriate. Before the final decisions are made and we commit to a given direction, we usually talk them over with other members of our development team.


Hands-on throughout the entire process


OV: You’ve all worked at other ID firms in the past. How does the design and development process at Omnica compare?

Scott: It's much different. At most other companies industrial designers focus on the initial concept and then pass it onto some engineer to figure-out how it will work. We are more hands-on with the mechanical design, modeling of the housing, working with the toolmaker, and meeting with the manufacturer during pre-production evaluations.

Andy: At another company I would probably be chained to my desk and not get the chance to go into the model shop as often as I do here. Here I am involved hands-on from start to finish, from the initial sketch to the final photography. We have the latitude to act as more of a generalist and become practiced in many areas. It's nice to get away from the computer screen every once in a while and get your hands dirty in the shop. In that way, it feels more like being an old world craftsman.