AN ARTICLE by Michael Davis


Why the (product) design professions are beginning to look the same.

by Michael Davis


I remember back in the mid seventies, going to industrial design school at San Jose State U--you know the time, when the BeeGees were hot, (but not for me) when Nixon ended the draft, and when the (Vietnam) war was coming to an end. Design school for me was the school of Industrial Design not in the arts department at the time but in the school of Industrial Studies. It was a sort of tradesman's engineering school where other courses of machine tool technology, materials science, pottery making were taught and where technology and art were combined. Though the times were different than today, the basic philosophy and intent of the design school at San Jose State was a core force in the early days of Silicon Valley.

San Jose State's design school grads are today influential in the development of high technology all over the country.

So it is that the product design profession (like a lot of other things) is suffering a sort of future shock (a throwback to Toffler who wrote the book `Future Shock' in the seventies).

Since that time we have seen the development of the personal computer (only a rumor in the mid seventies), with all it's great improvements that seem to get better all the time. The internet in it's developing form was the subject of predictions by Arthur C. Clarke and CAD was relegated to mainframe systems only affordable by large manufacturers like Lockheed or IBM. The system we witnessed as students residing on huge expensive computers was rudimentary compared to what can be purchased for personal use today.

If I had only realized how stable things were the day Mr. Toffler gave his little talk at the university. It was a sort of 'we ain't seen nuthin yet!'

    Copyright 1996 Michael Davis and Headstuf Product Development  

In sight of the design process:


But it's not that simple. CAD today is the standard, not the exception, Solid Modeling is replacing wireframe at a dizzying clip and parametric modeling will soon be standard in most CAD software as well. By fall of this year, solid modeling will probably replace most wireframe stations, mostly because of the introduction of at least seven different PC based solids programs.

Future shock is out, paradigm shift is in, change is everywhere, yet the product designs of today still are butting heads with the age old problems of `to be or not to be'. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The stage is set.

For the purposes of this article, a few definitions to live by:

    A Definition of Product Design (lest we all get confused)--the process of developing products for sale. Inclusive of all the design professions, including mechanical, industrial, electronic, graphic, engineering etc., that engage

in designing products. Not architecture. This article addresses primarily Industrial design and engineering.

  • CAD, is an acronym for Computer Aided Design. No other definition applies. CAID is an acronym for Computer Aided Industrial Design.
  • A designer is someone who creates the product design. A nebulous term at best, almost as general as 'human' or 'male' or 'female'. My mother was a designer when she went about making dinner. You get the picture.
  • Human Nature is defined as that innate characteristic that tells us we are the center of the universe when in reality, if we realized the truth, we would stop doing what we do, but for a higher purpose (I think that's called personal growth).
  • And finally, the Design Process is the series of steps taken to arrive at a completed product design.
    Copyright 1996 Michael Davis and Headstuf Product Development  

In sight of the design process:


The new future for designers holds tremendous challenges and opportunities.

  • While the design process has only been changed by the technology that delivers it, the design professions are consolidating on several fronts and expanding on others.
  • Some of the professions will disappear or redefine themselves if they haven't already.
  • The tools of the trade use the same or like technology to generate designs.
  • The definition of how the design professions implement and deal with changes is occurring on a case by case basis as products are designed in various corporate and private environments.

Consolidating Professions:

Among the various product design professions, while software development takes the forefront, the design and construction of little plastic boxes by industrial designers and mechanical designers is seeing mechanical designers doing industrial design, industrial designers doing mechanical design, design drafters losing their jobs altogether and the beat goes on. What is happening here?

The design process is a given--concepts, design, layouts,

documentation, models, prototype, production. It doesn't change. (click the Saturn at the top of each page to see the design process.) What has changed is the tools to implement the process, and an awareness among the engineering professionals of the value of industrial design.

There is more than one engineer with aesthetic talent and more than one industrial designer capable of performing engineering tasks. One CAD program can now create all the steps up to machine level code to directly build CNC parts and tooling. Where before, a team of six or seven people would complete the design, now one person with combined aesthetic design talent and CAD knowledge with an engineering background can do the total task.

Add that age old edict that we are all designers in one way or another, and given the tools and authority to build a product, we tend to take advantage of that opportunity--with or without the professional to help us. The CAD tools allowing the industrial designer or engineer to now implement a total design.

While the mainstream mechanical CAD software manufacturers are doing what markets always do--create more choices at a lower cost for less expensive computer platforms, the

    Copyright 1996 Michael Davis and Headstuf Product Development  

In sight of the design process:


industrial design CAD suppliers are trying to increase the gap between the engineering CAD and CAID software packages to more directly service the specialized markets. Yes PC based CAID is available but cost per seat does not compete with mechanical CAD programs that generally provide a better (iges) bridge to creating CNC machine code as well as output to a range of low cost rendering packages.

It has been apparent to this author for some time that CAID is not unlike those dinosaur software programs that used to run exclusively on mainframe systems that only a very few could afford, while the Mechanical CAD software suppliers are slowly increasing capability to meet the additional design needs of industrial designers.

I run Solidworks software.  Solidworks for under 4k seems to be the new shining design tool for engineers and designers.  For years my benchmark for competent CAD has been the test of being able to build any product or concept complete to production level drawings.  Solidworks so far has not presented an inability to construct any concept I have conceived.


But all of this is only a glimmer of what has really happened. Who said there has to be two or three design professions, i.e., industrial design, mechanical design, engineering? Yes yes it is true, the difference between industrial designers and engineers is huge. I would never trust an industrial designer to design a bridge or airplane, and I would not trust an engineer to perform the aesthetic design of my telephone. But we learn, and for the first time in history, if we do learn how, we can apply it.


It wasn't always this way.

Aside from the fact that it is the defacto way things currently are, there has long been a sad mismatch of education and training in the engineering and design schools. It has only worsened in the past 20 years or so as most design schools have shifted into art departments of universities, while engineering schools have held on to limited control of design only through the science of human factors engineering and by the sheer power of control of the design workplace.

    Copyright 1996 Michael Davis and Headstuf Product Development  

In sight of the design process:


The current model used in industry and universities for product design goes much further back in time than the recent technological silicon revolution.

The Bauhaus is my favorite Zero Point for the current system. There was something lost I think during world war II that caused a shift in the evolution of the design professions. Sure, the modern era is a 20th Century phenomenon, but the definition has never solidified because the image of the 20th century is one of transition and change more than that of a singular result.

From a design perspective, the modern style has been remarkably consistent, and remarkably missing from most product design. The great bulk of design is performed by engineers, mechanical designers, drafters, managers and manufacturers. The influence of trained industrial designers has been at a minimum not out of intent, but more out of the natural result of product development cycle.

Historically industrial design has had a difficult time integrating into the design process. Even when companies use industrial designers, their contribution is usually watered down

by the forces of practicality and political influence of power over the product build process, not to mention the weak mechanical design training most ID students receive.

The Bauhaus was the defining design movement in the twenties and thirties that sculpted this century's modern design style now influencing the definition of so called award winning design. I find it curious that the bulk of the award winning designs today are often not the most successful designs. Successful design has a magic and classic aspect all it's own that usually has nothing to do with industrial designers.

The Bauhaus was founded by an architect (Walter Gropius) and run by artists and technicians and guided by what is called the Masters Council. The concept of a Master Designer has that magical ring to it--implying that this person is a skilled craftsman; an artist and an engineer. That truly was the intent of the school, to civilize the man-made world around us with detail, finesse, art and sensibilities of style. I find it curious that the Bauhaus started and ended with the devastation of war all around its walls, which is not unlike the experience of trying to implement that level of sophistication and art in a product design cycle among a hostile engineering structure.

    Copyright 1996 Michael Davis and Headstuf ProductDevelopment  

In sight of the design process:


Only portions of the Bauhaus curricula survived to today, and mostly it has been adapted to fit a set of cultural restrictions rather than to be expanded as a model for design and engineering education. A true Bauhaus school would today combine engineering and industrial design to create generalist specialists capable of understanding art but knowledgeable enough to manage the technology.

I am speaking of the concept of product design as a single process expanding from a core knowledge base of process combining engineering, art and design. The concept ultimately allows students to earn the title of Master Designer.

And there was Walter Gropius' concept of the designer architect, artist and engineer as craftsman. As published in Gropius' manifesto, `the ultimate aim of any creative activity is building . . . architects, sculptors, painters, we all must become craftsmen again . . . no essential difference exists between the artist and the craftsman, the artist is a craftsman of heightened awareness . . . But the basis of craftsmanship is indispensable to all artists. It is the

prime source of all creative work.'1 The Bauhaus curricula did not have all the answers, and history has proven that the school--though exciting in it's results was probably about 75 years ahead of it's time. Golly--if that is true, then now is it's time. And I believe that the start should be with changes to the educational process.

A new Circular Syllabus for Product Design Education.

I have always felt a little miffed at the way there has never been continuity and consistency in the education, implementation and execution of product design activities during the 19 years I have been practicing. Some of that is me personally, but a lot of it is the ever increasing need to overhaul the system by which products are designed. I am firmly convinced that the current models used for product design development in the US (even the ones including industrial designers) is in need of an overhaul. Each year there seems to be more and more separation between individuals involved in the process at a time when more and more cooperation is needed.

  1 from Johannes Itten, Design and Form, the Basic Course of the
Bauhaus, revised edition, 1978, Thames and Hudson, London.
Copyright 1996 Michael Davis and Headstuf Product Development  

In sight of the design process:


A first year design education model.

Note that this model has engineering and design students in the same curricula attending the same classes.

This altered first year design school syllabus is patterned after the Bauhaus first year syllabus as provided in Johannes Itten's
`Design and Form, The Basic Course of the Bauhaus'. (Thames and Hudson, 1978)

  Copyright 1996 Michael Davis and Headstuf Development    


 In sight of the design process:


This has probably been caused by the extended downsizing corporations have been performing everywhere, making us all a little insecure. While the other reason is the consolidation of the profession caused by new technology itself.

I think there is no question that the need for Industrial Design and Engineering will never change in the product design cycle. What is not clear is how to manage the technological consolidation of both professions into a more closely related set of professions or singular profession. I know what you are thinking--the mindsets are different. Yes they are, but today the system is locked so the creative engineer and the technical designer cannot easily perform at their best.

I believe the answer lies in the unification of design and engineering at the first and perhaps second year of university level design education, allowing students to sift out who they are and what they want to do in the field. Then at the second or third year, the student would diverge into the specializations required by the real world. Industrial designers would get a much stronger understanding of assembly design and layout

development and the engineer would get trained in the sensitivities of the design world. The real plus for doing this would be the way engineers and designers would have the same basis for working together when they graduate a few years later and enter the work place.

It would provide the humanities basis for education missing in so many technical schools and it would act to provide a much smoother product design process in the corporate world once the new professionals began practicing. It also would allow the re-introduction of those wonderful educational concepts so powerfully implemented at the Bauhaus in the first half of this century. Where the engineer became a craftsman and an artist and the artist became a craftsman and engineer.

For more information on the design process, click on the ringed planet in any of the boxes above. The design mechanics page will expose the Headstuf Development design process.

Your comments and feedback are welcome. Email to me at mdavis@headstuf.com


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Copyright 1996/1999 Michael Davis and Headstuf Product Development