Contemporary Manufacturing

What effect has the assembly line had on modern design practices, techniques, and concepts? What about robotics and other aspects of mass production? As a designer, the process of production is often a primary concern. You need to know what machines can make, how expensive it is to use certain materials, and what advantages/disadvantages each of these materials has in different design formats.

In the 1980s, we tended to believe that robots would eventually come to completely replace human labor, especially regarding mass-produced goods; however, experts now believe that this quantum version of the future will never come to pass. As it turns out, humans are far more adept at certain tasks than robots will ever become and scientists estimate that human labor will remain cheaper and largely responsible for significant chunks of the construction process. Does that mean we are back to the square one assembly line?

Not exactly. To brush up on history a bit, the Ford Motors assembly line encountered a significant hurdle: workers complained of being bored by their mundane tasks and they demanded increased wages. Of course, this defeated the purpose of the assembly line, which was to mass-produce goods for extremely cheap cost of labor.

As a result, the assembly line has been outdated by a modular system. Now, rather than seeing lines of workers in manufacturing plants, we see teams working on the various stages of production. This setup has proven better for morale, which in turn has decreased labor prices.
Typically, industrial design schools taught students to draft and think about ideas. But in a contemporary manufacturing class, the focus turns to materials. What benefits do wood, paper, metal, plastics, and rubber have on production? How does the designer choose one material over another? In the selection process, what is the primary concern: product function, form, safety, or manufacturability? When in the design process does the designer choose the material?

Also covered in these courses are various finishes and joining methods, as well as what effect they have on the finished product. These courses can be accelerated to fit into a single course or take place over two semesters, depending on the school. They are commonly seen though, as materials and production concerns are central to many potential careers of industrial design students.

Practice in Industrial Design

A practice in industrial design course teaches students about the application of principles, theories, and skills to design projects. In application, design is chiefly about communication of ideas, frameworks, and decision-making. In courses like these, students learn how to listen and respond accordingly, how to integrate objectives with creative thought, and how to communicate and present initial plans.

Expect to develop interpersonal skills, as there is an emphasis on interaction in the design studio. Classes often focus on communication from two perspectives: that of the employer and that of the designer. Employer representatives will be expected to synthesize company characteristics, design methods, and brand into a framework for designers. Designers are then expected to operate within that framework, utilizing creativity to promote employer objectives.

Each of these perspectives incorporates design to facilitate progress. From the perspective of the designer, this fact comes to mean brainstorming with particular objectives or demands in mind. This comes close, in practice, to responding to project guidelines. However, the guidelines will become less stable and regimented. Instead of a particular outcome, projects will be guided by style and brand, which requires conceptual understanding and an ability to work creatively within a given framework.

From the viewpoint of the manager, design is one step removed. Not only is the focus on communication of abstract concepts, as well as providing feedback to uphold abstract boundaries, the emphasis shifts from product to people. Design becomes about the process of idea production rather than the product itself. Suddenly, the studio becomes the manager’s blueprint, and the lines of communication and the systems of reward and control are the nuts and bolts of the product. The project manager designs the process that suits the organization’s demands most effectively, as well as the staff he/she supervises.

This often starts with learning what specific objectives can be derived from abstract concepts, such as style, brand, and process. For instance, design attempts to a) recreate or improve upon previous style; b) create products that implement new technology; c) create activities that influence markets; and d) create activities to change or support brand. Specific objectives like this give the designer a starting point for creating ideas within a framework. They are the seeds of brainstorming sessions.

One of the greatest aspects of many industrial design schools becomes obvious in these courses, which is gaining confidence in knowing you are learning a trade skill. Every one of these lessons becomes integral in the workplace.

Human-Centered Design

In the past, industrial design projects were guided by the producing entity, but more recently the focus has shifted to the consumer. A course in human-centered design will teach its students a set of processes and methods that are different from anything else they have been taught. In other classes, students are given assignments that look to past products for inspiration; they are asked to build on old styles, improvise new solutions to the same problem, or synthesize a new style. In contrast, a human-centered design class will look for new problems.

This wholly different design process is relatively recent, beginning in 1986 with Donald Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things. The book describes a radical shift from aesthetic thinking (Will the product look good? Does it fit within or improve upon the company brand?) to a use-oriented framework. Since then, this new way of thinking has inspired products, such as the Apple operating system, and even the more recent iPad.

Although the results of human-centered design, also called user-centered design (UCD) may seem more intuitive, the design process is considered more scientific. At each step of creation, human-centered design or UCD considers how the end result will be the most accessible, easy to use, and useful product to the target consumer. Rather than imagining how people will use a given product, UCD professionals rely on hard data and research to inspire innovation. UCD experts conduct studies, tests, behavioral observations, and interviews to gain a realistic picture of the current processes people use to accomplish specific objectives. Common sources of product improvement, according to UCD, include, simplification of tasks, designing for error, improving visibility, etc.

Industrial design schools offering a course in human-centered design will teach students the processes and methods professionals spend roughly half the semester focused on research and analysis before the product concept is even discussed. Behavior segmentation, clustering, modes, and experience mapping are a few of the skills learned in this period, during which the student learns how to break apart everyday actions and home in on inefficiencies that could be simplified.

The second half typically entails participatory design and presentation techniques. Additionally, some courses provide a component on communicating human- centered design, which provides rhetoric for explaining some of UCD’s basic methods and processes. By the end of this class, you will know how to conduct field research, generate new research from findings, and present innovative design to supervisors.


Where do truly revolutionary solutions come from? How are they recognized and written down? How are they communicated and developed? How do industrial designers ideate?

Students of many industrial design schools may recognize some of the fundamental concepts in this course that were introduced in drawing for industrial design 101. However, courses that are devoted to ideation will explore a number of different avenues the designer can take to come up with something new.

Human-centered design is one new way industry professionals solve current problems and also ask questions no one has thought of before. User-centered design picks apart the everyday lives of a target client/consumer and conducts scientific and imaginative studies to discover ways to simplify or improve human processes with products.

The more traditional approach to ideation is to look at previous solutions to a problem and attempt to improve upon them. The design team at Nissan will undoubtedly look at previous models of engines, body molds, frames, etc. before taking a stab at designing a new model. Previous aesthetic standards must be transitioned and upheld in order to maintain brand cohesion.

After looking at the course description, conceptual and creative thinkers may react like a kid in a candy store, but this initial reaction may be hasty. The more creatively inclined can have a negative gut reaction to being taught how to do something that is normally intuitive for them, whereas the more technically gifted may breathe easier in knowing they have a number of different tricks to try in order to start projects.

Professionals in industrial design need to be able to brainstorm, develop, and revise ideas from abstract concepts to finished products. Ideation focuses on the initial portion of the process. Courses will teach students how to brainstorm and “think out loud” by drawing and supplementing images with verbal communication.

Revolutionary approaches are rarely generated in isolation and professionals benefit from mutual exchange and communication. As such, projects tend to focus on group activities. As far as a reading list goes, professors tend to use an incredibly wide variety of sources, meaning that while there are some definitive methods of ideation, teaching a course on the subject is an entirely different matter. Be prepared for anything!

Advanced Digital Design Processes

A course in advanced digital design processes is exactly what it sounds like. Students will learn how to render planes, models, and surfaces in a digital format. Often, the basics will be covered in drafting courses; however, this course focuses on the computer – learning how to manipulate software and really get the most out of the medium. Those more technically inclined students will find themselves at home here.

This course in industrial design school could be one of the most important components of your education. Computer-aided industrial design (CAID) is allowing for new types of communication between teams and specialists around the world. Consequently, knowing how to use a computer effectively to communicate ideas opens up new opportunities to join global design teams, such as Ford Motor Company, which has linked product development teams across the world. Their European team, with more experience in four-cylinder engines, designed the Mondeo’s engine, while the team based in the U.S. designed the V6 to be placed in the Contour and Mercury Mystique.

To teach their students advanced skills in CAID, industrial design schools can focus on two main elements of designing digitally – technical and conceptual aspects. In other words, these two components can be described as a) theory and application; or b) context and content. The conceptual component involves communication via the digital medium. Courses will explore questions such as, how does computer technology affect group dynamics? What are currently the most effective practices for CAID? What possibilities does CAID open up, which are closed to other mediums? What possibilities close off?

The technical side of these courses comes into play in the workroom. Projects will take place in a digital medium, often from the first day, and assignments will be evaluated on a digital format. In order to give students exposure to the context of digital design, at least one group project will be assigned during the semester.

Many schools use two types of programs in conjunction: a hardware description language, often VHDL, with a piece of hardware called a field programmable gate array (FPGA). The FPGA translates movement into the hardware description language, which, in turn, communicates the artist’s renderings to the digital format. The University of Pittsburgh, for example, uses software and hardware, such as HDL Designer, ModelSim, and the Quartus series. Schools often differ as to the particular programs and setups they use, so keep in mind that this is just a common example.