An Inside Look into the Industrial Design Process

May 11, 2011

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industrial design process

Some of the products we use in our everyday lives took careful planning by a team of researchers, industrial designers, and engineers.

Before a product hits the shelf, a considerable amount of time may be spent on developing that product. It begins with discovery and works through the process to final product launch.

Ai InSite asked two industrial design professionals to give us a glimpse into the design process. Although the details of the product design phases are dependent on the product, industry, company, and goals, their insight serves as an overview of the process.

Meet the Industrial Design Professionals

James W. Arnold
Arnold, an Industrial Design instructor at The Art Institute of Portland, has varied experience in industrial design, including work as an industrial designer in the recreational boat and healthcare industries. He also has managed the design activity from concept to production. At Sea Ray Boats Inc., a recreational boat manufacturer, he designed recreational boat exteriors and interiors. At Pride Mobility Products Corp., he managed the design of electric vehicles that effectively address the mobility needs of people who are elderly or have disabilities.

Paul Backett
Backett is an industrial design director at Ziba Design, a strategic design consultancy headquartered in Portland, Oregon. He has more than 10 years of design experience in numerous categories, but mostly consumer electronics, medical, telecommunications, home goods, and personal care products ranging in complexity from tactical product design to complex design strategies. At Ziba, he is responsible for the creative output of product design projects and guiding and mentoring the industrial design group as they progress in their careers.

Industrial Design Process

The specifics of the design process can look very different depending on the type of design work being done, the industry producing a design, or the individual company within the industry, according to Arnold.

“Variation occurs mainly due to the goals of the organization or the strategy for market success,” he says. “A strategy for success at Company A might be to slowly and safely evolve the product offering that maintains current customers and satisfies current expectations.

“Another strategy might be to revolutionize a particular industry or create a new one, (think smartphones, iPods, or the first Walkman radios), through a design process that seeks true innovation,” he continues.

The product design phase usually involves several flexible phases, including:

  • Research (finding problems)
  • Creatively developing a variety of valid concepts (problem-solving)
  • Refinement of a focused concept into a prototype
  • Testing/validation of the prototype(s)
  • Final part design, tooling, and production


Backett describes the design process as a large loop in a rollercoaster.

“If you can envision what that looks like, we start by framing the problem and then move to building design themes, brainstorming, and creating sketch models,” he says. “Then we check this work against our framing, and if it’s not there, we do another loop. Lastly, we select and refine the final design, and present to the client (and the rollercoaster comes to a stop).”

Arnold says the design process includes more than just the designer.

“An idea can come from anywhere, including designers, engineers, marketing, company executives, and customers (typically in the form of complaints about existing products),” he explains. “Interestingly, all of the people I just mentioned can be involved in the ‘design process.’”

After the idea has been defined, approved, and distributed, a traditional approach is to then have the design team research the context for the product – possible users, potential technologies, and environments. The design team creates concepts, along with engineers. Prototypes are created, testing occurs. Along the way, the business executives can be brought into the process to make decisions or gain approval of the design.

Marketing can be introduced into the process after directional decisions are made and prototype testing occurs so that the process of creating marketing campaigns can start, Arnold says.

“A marketing-led process can also occur when a concept or idea for a new product experience is created and then a product or product system is created to fill the intended customer experience,” he says.

Backett says his team at Ziba continuously works with a collaborative team that includes design, manufacturing, marketing, and advertising teams and clients.

“This isn’t always the case, but it’s ideal,” he says. “It’s no surprise that the more closely aligned the team can be in all steps of the product to market strategy, the more successful the project will be.”

According to Arnold, a newer approach to product development involves bringing potential end users into the research and design process early on so that their creativity can be leveraged and they can actually generate new ideas or evaluate design during the design process.

“This approach is known as co-design and it places the end user in the position of ‘collaborator’ rather than simply a ‘subject’ to be studied in a focus group or interview,” he says.

Computer software, including 3D CAD software like Rhino, SolidWorks, Alias, and Creo Elements/Pro, and 2D graphic design software such as Illustrator and Photoshop are often used by product designers. Rapid prototyping technology like 3D printers and CNC mills are also staples in the design studio.

After a product is launched, it may be reviewed to help guide modifications for other products or future versions. Feedback from dealers, distributors, and retailers is typically evaluated. The design cycle for a new product can take months or years depending on the complexity of the design or how innovative it is.

“If we are involved in the process through manufacturing, there really shouldn’t be any surprises or disappointments when the product is launched,” Backett says. “[At Ziba], we also have numerous repeat clients and often get to work on second and third generations of the same product, be it over the course of a few years, or 20 years. When given this type of opportunity, we can often integrate key learnings from previous projects.”

Arnold says it is sometimes frustrating as an industrial designer to see an opportunity for a new product and not be able to design it because of a focus on an “evolutionary” strategy toward product development rather than a “revolutionary” approach to new product development.

But overall, he says the industrial design field has been very fulfilling to him.

“I enjoy the opportunity to design helpful things for real people that have real problems or needs,” he says. “Being involved in the creative process is enjoyable and gratifying.”

Backett agrees that industrial design offers creatives a chance to connect with people on both functional and emotional levels.

“We have conversations around specific activities [consumers] do and observe their behaviors as it relates to a product we are designing,” he says. “We have tons of really interesting tools that are very abstract and creative, but this is often where the most interesting consumer insights lie, and it’s our job to translate them into actionable design insights.”


Author: Darice Britt
Contributing writer for EDMC.

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