Product Design & My Thumb, copyright 2004 by Ernest Valtri
I hurt my thumb vacuuming a few months ago. It was one of those vacuums with a “suitcase” style handle…the kind you slip four fingers through rather than the straight “pistol grip” ones you wrap your hand around. Somehow while pushing and pulling in pursuit of scurrying dust bunnies I managed to twist the thing the wrong way and sprain my thumb! Should I feel like a dork? Perhaps. Should I question a design that invites potential injury? As an industrial designer myself, you bet.
Industrial design, usually in the context of product design, is all around us and inescapable. Should we care to take the time to notice it, it can make us more aware of our world and appreciative of the thought behind so many things we take for granted.
Manhole covers can’t fall through the manholes they cover and bonk the worker below. A circle is the only shape that will yield this “safety” feature. The cap on a beer bottle comes off in only a quarter turn yet it provides a solid, secure seal. The clever thread design behind this is actually four separate, individual threads nested together. (Check it out next time you’re elbow is bent.) Speaking of beer, when’s the last time you saw one of those chains made out of zip top pull rings from beer and soda cans? (Yes, I went to school in the ‘70s). They aren’t around anymore because someone smartly redesigned the pull rings to stay on the can rather than litter up the streets.
We’re not talking rocket science here, though we could as rockets are certainly complex examples of electronic, aeronautical, chemical, and among many others, industrial design.
As I write this I am sitting in a $700 adjustable office chair using an $80 wireless optical mouse, a $75 split keyboard mounted to a $100 adjustable keyboard tray and I am comfortable, happy and productive largely because these designs enhance my ability to be so. (And because my two cats are snoozing in the sunshine in the office with me.) Ergonomic studies done primarily by industrial designers or engineers with similar design insight have produced these and many other daily use products (and laws, like the Americans Disability Act) that have made life better for us.
Industrial design is not Utopia. Carpal tunnel syndrome, some serious sporting accidents and lamps that tip over, result from varying degrees of unsuccessful design. There will always be design problems to be addressed or improved as technology and imagination inexorably advance. Let’s be grateful we have eleventeenjillion cup holders in the family van and that we don’t cut ourselves when buttoning our shirts. Yes indeed, the humble button is just a button to most of us, but it is the universe to the button manufacturer, or designer, or salesperson. (I have a good friend who makes her living selling buttons in New York City’s garment district.) All those little injection molding cavities spewing forth buttons of all shapes, sizes and colors…and those are just the plastic ones!
It need not be a Ferrari to be fully appreciated. My industrial designer friend/mentor and I regularly get together for lunch and “show and tell”, discussing various projects we’re working on or neato designs we just happen to notice. Like the package design marvel I recently found in a retail display of juice glasses…a simple, single piece of corrugated paper (cardboard is the stuff found in shirt packages) that folds up with just the proper complexity to hold, protect, display, describe and sell the four little glasses inside. This beautiful industrial design costs only $2.95, and you get the glasses for free!
What does a good industrial designer need to know? I generally winnow it down to three skills… know your materials, know your processes and be clever. Knowing materials and the manufacturing processes available to manipulate those materials are critical. Should I use plastic, steel or aluminum for that bicycle seat suspension? Steel? Okay…which one? There are probably more than 10,000 steel alloys to choose from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. And the number of plastics out there makes the steel choice seem easy. What processing options does the client have available to her or him to make this design come to fruition in a timely and cost effective way? Can they stamp, forge, cast, injection mold, or extrude? Powder coat, plate, die cut, paint or weld? The good designer must marry the client’s capabilities to the job at hand while keeping costs from becoming prohibitive.
Which leads to the clever part. It’s fine (and necessary) to know the objective skills just described, but now use them in creative and synergistic ways to solve existing problems or create new products. This is the sort of thinking behind many inventions.
I opened a bottle of cabernet sauvignon for dinner last night with an awesome widget that pulls the cork out of the bottle and then ejects the cork from itself all with only one lever being moved… up once then down once. The wine was great! My thumb still hurts.
Ernest Valtri is an industrial and graphic designer in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and owns Object Design, Inc. (ev@ObjDesign.com). Ernie has been in the new product design and development industry for twenty years and has been an artist all his life.