What makes a great product design? From thoughts to reality

Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along and changes everything. We have been very fortunate to live in this generation which has transformed the conventional design culture into a uber-geeky one. Companies are continually striving to create new products equipped with cutting edge technologies. Such nail biting competitions can only most often give way to innovation and progress.

Today, we are on the verge of a technological breakthrough where our handheld devices are becoming faster than our desktops and laptops. Components are shrinking at a considerable rate and providing opportunities to design engineers to come up with lighter and more powerful products. This an example of how design and engineering is mutually evolving at an alarming rate. What is new today will become obsolete tomorrow. Amidst all this changes, how do the product designers and engineers make sure the product meets the expectations of the consumers and also keep evolving from time to time creating not just a renewable environment but a sustainable one.

paul rand quote

Design is not just about making things look pretty. It gives a product structure and function more than just form and style, but in a general sense however, it doesn’t matter whether it is a product, a building or even a web application, unless the underlying structure isn’t given enough attention (to the very last detail), the final product will ultimately be a failure regardless of how good it looks from the outside.

Product designing has been through a lot of transformations in the past couple of decades. When the consumers were getting bored of conventional aesthetics, they needed something that would brighten up their living spaces and eventually making their lives a lot more interesting. The advent of newer and more durable materials made it possible for design engineers to think beyond the box and create products that would not only function with a high degree of perfection but also create products that would make users fall in love with them.

product design by dieter rams

Product design, itself, is often difficult to define to non-designers because the meaning accepted by the design community is not one made of words. Instead, the definition is created as a result of acquiring a critical framework for the analysis and creation of artifacts. It is critical to the product development process that the industrial design and engineering aspects of a product are considered simultaneously.

Wikipedia puts it this way, “Product designers conceptualize and evaluate ideas, making them tangible through products in a more systematic approach. Their role is to combine art, science and technology to create tangible three-dimensional goods. This evolving role has been facilitated by digital tools that allow designers to communicate, visualize and analyze ideas in a way that would have taken greater manpower in the past.

In this article, we will learn what product design means, and how we can strive towards creating great products. We will also learn the principles of design, as practiced by the ‘Father of modern product design’ -Dieter Rams, and also how the world of product design is going to shape itself in the near future.

Note : This is a pretty detailed article. I urge you to read it completely so that you get a clear picture on how to approach product design in a more sophisticated way.

How to go about designing the right product?

Product design is not just about creating a great product. It also reflects the culture upheld by the brand. Innovation has a different impact when the product is something you can hold and love. A tangible product tells you much more about a brand than an advertisement. A product (or service) also gives you insights into how that business sees the world–your world–and the role that they would like to play in it. There are several methods employed in the product design process that enables the design engineers to come up good ideas and eventually a great product. Although most of these methods use the general aspects of ‘Creative problem solving and analysis‘, one such methodology commonly referred to as ‘Design Thinking‘ is a proven and repeatable problem-solving protocol that any business or profession can employ to achieve extraordinary results.

dieter rams quote

There are several steps involved in ‘design thinking’ process, starting from ideation to the evaluation of the final product. I would like to share some of my thoughts on what steps one must employ to create products that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also functionally great.

1) Define the problem

2) Identify the need

3) Research the problem

4) Brainstorming possible solutions

5) Engineering analysis

6) Construct a prototype

7) Evaluate/Manufacture the final product

Now let us look at the above steps in detail. Please remember that steps are in order. We start by identifying the problem and end up evaluating the final product.

1) Define the problem

Sounds simple but doing it right is perhaps the most important of all the seven stages. Another way to say it is, ‘defining the right problem to solve’. Design thinking requires a team or business to always question in brief, the problem to be solved. To participate in defining the opportunity and to revise the opportunity before embarking on its creation and execution. Participation usually involves immersion and the intense cross examination of the filters that have been employed in defining a problem.

In design thinking observation takes center stage. Observation can discern what people really do as opposed to what you are told that they do. Getting out of the cubicle and involving oneself in the process, product, user experience and the operating theater is fundamental. No one’s life was ever changed by just a PowerPoint presentation.

Design thinking is a very powerful tool and when used effectively, can be the foundation for driving a brand or business forward.

2) Identify the need

After having formulated the problem in a way the entire team comprehends, we start out by identifying the need for our product. Instead of asking “what do we want to design?” we ask “why do we want to design that?” and “what problem and or need will our design ultimately be solving?”

Next, we may want to identify our target population, which is the group of people who will benefit from our product. Is the target population ultimately one individual, a group of individuals, a specific community, or a larger, identifiable population? Is the target population from a specific location (country, region, town), demographic (age or gender), or other identifying characteristics (health condition or employment)? How is our target population connected?

After we understand our need and our target population, we will identify our requirements and constraints. A requirement is a need or a necessity; it’s what a particular product or service should do. A constraint is a restriction on the degree of freedom you have in providing a solution to a need or problem. For example, a child may be required by its parents to receive good grades. At the same time, it may be constrained by other activities such as work, sports, sleep, spending time with friends, and so on. Although worthwhile, these time constraints may impinge on the amount of time it has to study. So, its challenge would be to find out how to meet the requirement of receiving good grades under the given time constraints.

Back to our product design — our final step today is to develop a project definition within each of our design teams. This includes relating the product design or need to some aspect of our personal lives. Ultimately, we want to design something that would help us if we were experiencing the same problem or need as our target population.

3) Research the problem

Similar to real-world engineers, we must develop a thorough knowledge base of the information related to our design to determine if a similar product already exists or if any regulatory and standards issues (such as intellectual property issues, safety or environmental issues) exist that must be considered in the design of the product. We do this by conducting a variety of information searches and compiling all the information in a useful way.

steve jons quote

Sometimes it is hard to know what information we need to find before we have a product design. One way to identify what information we should be looking for is to break down our problem statement or “need” into an idea web. An idea web starts with the main need or problem in the middle of a piece of paper. Then the team draws branches from the main problem to represent different parts of the problem, such as audience, requirements, constraints, and questions. Each designer on the team may choose to or be assigned to focus on addressing one particular part of the problem or the team may work together to establish the knowledge base. Often, new questions arise, requiring the team to do additional background research in order to answer them.

A patent search is another way to find existing information about a related product. This type of search is often done by design engineers in the beginning stages of product design and is really helpful for avoiding designs that infringe on an idea that has legal protection. Many websites offer information on existing patents, including the US patent and Trademark Office.

model airplane patent application

Standards and codes developed by industry or federal, state or local governments are also important to know for product design. Standards are any agreed-upon common criteria, item or process that helps to ensure the safety and interchangeability of a product. For example, having standard bolt sizes helps designers communicate to manufacturers located elsewhere exactly which bolt to use in making a product. A code is a collection of standards that are mandatory for use in the development of a particular item. For example, building codes specify the height and area limitations for certain types of buildings in a city.

Reverse engineering an existing product is another way to learn about technologies that relate to the design of a new product. When possible, design engineers test competitor’s products to determine how to make their new design even better. They take products apart to figure out how they work, and then they often reassemble them to see how the parts interact. Reverse engineering requires careful observation, dis-assembly, documentation, analysis and reporting.

Lastly, user interviews can give us valuable insight into a product design. We have already identified our target population, and, when possible, interviewing members of that population about our product can be extremely helpful. After all, it is the customer who ultimately determines whether a product is a success or failure. It is important to communicate often with the user during the design process. It is useful to use props during the interviews to watch how a user interacts with a product. Sometimes how the user uses the product is more telling than what they say about it. Gathering initial data from the user helps the engineering team identify which aspects of the problem are the most important to address for its audience.

4) Brainstorming possible solutions

Brainstorming is a team creativity activity that helps generate a large number of potential solutions to a problem. By this point, you should have a good understanding of your design challenge. You and your team have worked to define the problem, identify the project’s constraints and requirements, and complete some background research.

When we are working to first come up with ideas, we want to keep open minds and encourage all ideas — even if they don’t seem realistic. We want to withhold criticism of our ideas and those from our team members. Also, when we brainstorm, we are striving for quantity of ideas, not quality. It also improves your chances that you will find your main prize!

brainstorming using design thinking

Brainstorming is meant to encourage creative thinking; however, some basic ground rules make it more successful. Most importantly, when you are brainstorming, remember to withhold criticism of any ideas, including your own. Don’t worry about saying something that seems silly or unrealistic. Silly ideas can lead to excellent creative design solutions!

5) Engineering Analysis

Engineering analysis distinguishes true engineering design from “tinkering”. It can be described as the breaking down of an object, system, problem or issue into its basic elements to get at its essential features and their relationships to each other and to external elements. Often, a thorough and varied analysis of a design prior to implementation leads to increased safety and efficiency in using the product.

Engineering analysis helps us make decisions and guide the design process. A design project without analysis is like a softball team without a coach, a ship without a sail, or a class without a teacher. Basically, it is the breaking down of an object, system or problem, into its fundamental parts to understand their relationships to each other and to outside elements.

nokia n950 complete breakdown

For example, let’s say you are a part of a team of engineers working to reduce the number of car accidents that occur during rush-hour traffic. You might start by generating a set of design alternatives to this problem: Expand the roads and highways? Build more bike routes? Design a new subway system? Let’s say your team determines the best alternative is the expansion of roads and highways. Now another design analysis is needed: How many new stoplights should be constructed? How many lanes do we need? How much money will it cost to maintain these new roads? Will many trees need to be cut down? If so, will this displace birds and other wildlife? Even in the case of building a new road, engineers must analyze the impacts of the new road on the city budget and the surrounding environment and impacted wildlife.

6) Construct a Prototype

Prototyping is underutilized in product development. And you don’t need specialized knowledge to develop them. Fearing failure stifles creativity and progress. If you’re not failing, you’re not going to innovate. Do your product or service a favour: embrace failure and blueprint a plan that affords you the opportunity to do it early and often. Prototyping can help you do just that.

A prototype is a working model of a product that is used for testing before it is manufactured. Prototypes help designers learn about the manufacturing process of a product, how people will use the product, and how the product could fail or break. Getting the idea out of the designer’s head and into a demonstrable format is an effective process for eliminating initial shortcomings and misplaced design assumptions.

prototype design sketches

Iteration is when design engineers try again and re-design, re-build and re-test. Designers often iterate many times before determining the final solution to a problem. Once a successful prototype has been developed, the engineering team can use it as a mock-up for full-scale manufacturing.

Including quick prototyping in the design process will not only help communicate your ideas but allow you to harness one of the virtues of creating something truly innovative: failure.

7) Evaluate the final product

Creating a final product is the culmination of the product design process. Although you will be manufacturing a final product, you won’t be doing so on a large industrial scale. Instead, to create your final creation, you will work with more advanced materials than what you used to make your prototype.

apple iPhone 4 final

Prototypes are used to explore design alternatives, test theories, confirm performance, and ensure a product is safe and user-friendly. A successful prototype is used as the basis for creating a final product. The goal is to extract the most successful features of the prototypes and integrate them to create a final product.

Before constructing the final product, it is important to have a detailed engineering drawing in hand. An engineering drawing is a type of technical drawing used to fully and clearly define requirements for manufacture of the product. These drawings usually provide information on materials and dimensions, as well as multiple drawing views of the product.

What you want to do is select the most successful attributes of your final prototype and incorporate them into your final product. For example, maybe you designed a promising hinging mechanism for your prototype that could work even better with sturdier materials—say pieces of sheet metal and screws. Now, you can apply advanced techniques to achieve a step of improvement in the final model, by understanding the shortcomings in the prototypes.

Being design-driven helps achieve perfection

In this article, Robert Brunner explains how a company must use the aspects of design pervasively. Instead of making design just one of the several steps in the process, encourage every person in the project to understand and embrace the principles of design in their contribution. Let design take the center stage instead of just a cameo appearance. Look at the entire system as a whole instead of just isolating the design concept.

paul rand quote 2

The problem is that, most companies look at design as a single step in the process to deliver a product. The better ones also view it as a corporate identity or brand function to control their outward image. But typical management thinking isolates these functions to ensure consistency and rule-keeping. “Design it please, then get the hell out of the way so that we can do our job.”

design thinking process explainedThe relatively few companies in the world that are really design-driven know how to use design as the motivational factor to achieve great results. Design is, in fact, everybody’s job. Rather than making design a single step in the process where requirements flow in and ideas flow out, they see design as a constant topic of discussion across all disciplines and steps in the process. It is not a vertical stripe in the horizontal process flow, but a horizontal one that extends from inception through customer service and end of life. Apple has shown us that true consumer experience starts right from the box. So that is why even the packages in which the iDevices are shipped are so creatively designed to let users enjoy the experience even before they lay their eyes on the product.

So if you really want design to be in the driver’s seat, better start giving everyone the keys.

Follow the principles of good design

Back in the early 1980s, Dieter Rams was becoming increasingly concerned by the state of the world around him – “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colors and noises.” Aware that he was a significant contributor to that world, he asked himself an important question: is my design good design?

As good design cannot be measured in a finite way he set about expressing the ten most important principles for what he considered was good design. (Sometimes they are referred as the ‘Ten commandments’.)

1) Good design is innovative.

The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

2) Good design makes a product useful.

A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

3) Good design is aesthetic.

The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

4) Good design helps us to understand a product.

It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

5) Good design is unobtrusive.

Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

6) Good design is honest.

It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

7) Good design is long-lasting.

It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

8) Good design is thorough, down to the last detail.

Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.

9) Good design is environment-friendly.

Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

10) Good design is as little design as possible.

Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

A step towards sustainable design:

We are getting better at understanding what needs to happen to develop great products. The product/service development tool kit has expanded greatly in the 20 years. There is design research to ascertain the needs of the user. There is design narrative to give meaning to products and product interactions. There is design strategy to consider the things we make in broader context. Designers are striving to answer larger questions and calling on a broader set of specialties. We’re doing more and more to understand design problems and search for opportunities. We must be careful to balance this new understanding with a vocabulary that allows for us to express it.

We need to take more responsibility for the uncertain state of the world around us; to consider how we can continue to live on a planet with finite resources if we simply throw everything away. We must live in a way which meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The need of the hour is not just to create renewable products but sustainable ones.

Sources and references:

1) Teach Engineering – Creative Engineering Design

2) Industrial Design – Wikipedia

3) 4 fields of Industrial design

4) 30 most important books for product designers

13 Responses to “What makes a great product design? From thoughts to reality”
  1. Amenda Winter says:

    Hey!!What a very informative post…Thanks a lot for sharing this to us…

  2. John D says:

    Really nice explanation, captures the essence of product design really well.

  3. ella says:

    What a great post, with today’s current unfortunate events social responsibility and sustainable development is not an option anymore it’s something that MUST be at the core of every decision that we make when designing and when living.

  4. Tracy F. Presley says:

    I think inspiration and determination can be the best ingredient for it…

  5. This is such a great post! Very informative and a great way of explaining things bit by bit. Really learned something and hope to see more similar post from you.

    Thumbs up, Richie!

  6. Robin says:

    Creating a product design is not easy because we have to consider a lot of things like likes and wants of customers…

  7. Ohmz says:

    I like that uncertainty design chart flow, it’s telling what have been through all the process in just a glance.

  8. WOW!!This is really great!!We must all admit that creating a design for the product is not easy and it always require patience and a lot of experience and knowledge too…

  9. Penelope says:

    Thanks for all the tips! I love that you said design is more than making things look pretty, I totally agree! Keep posting :)

  10. Great and informative post. I am so pleased that the environmental aspect is in the “ten commandments” and hope that every designer is embracing this important aspect in their design processes. Sometimes it can be tricky with material use but we are really putting pressure on our business partners throughout our value chain and demands recycle packing, FSC certified wood and think of “cradel 2 cradel”… We have too, it is our duty and possible!

    Also really like quote in the beginning “…Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.” – Paul Rand.

  11. Rina As says:

    An era influenced the design of products, for the moment I saw the design of various types of products more toward the modern and technological developments. But it also emphasizes the aesthetic and simple impression, an impression which illustrates how dynamic life of people in this age.
    Thanks, your article is very valuable for further study

  12. Creating a product design is not easy because we have to consider a lot of things like likes and wants of buyer

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