Invention Class

Introduction: What Is Product Design?

At its most basic, product design (also known as industrial design) is all the work that comes between the initial idea for a new product, through to the point where the design is ready to be handed off to a manufacturer.

NOTE: In the case of an entrepreneurial product designer, the work continues until the customer is holding the product in their hands.

It is the practice of creating and executing design solutions for manufactured products using research, concept development, sketching, prototyping, and 3D modeling, that solve problems of form, function, usability, physical ergonomics, sustainability and consider marketing, brand development, and sales.

A few examples of things that are designed by product designers are:

  • Medical Equipment*
  • Dinnerware (plates, bowls, mugs, etc.)
  • Kitchen tools & appliances (stoves*, toasters*, kettles, cutlery, etc.)
  • Consumer electronics* (computers, smart phones, VR headsets, etc.)
  • Residential & commercial lighting
  • Toys
  • Bicycles
  • Camping Equipment
  • Furniture
  • Systems and services
  • And so much more!

*These would be designed in collaboration with engineers.

On a deeper level, through rigorous implementation of research, analysis, iteration, and empathy (human-centered design), along with sustainable material and manufacturing choices, product designers look for opportunities to improve not only a user's interaction with a product, but how that product fits into the users' lives, communities and environmental systems (i.e.: recycling and resource availability).

The Process

This is a basic look at the order of things when designing a product. Following this path should lead you to an informed, thoroughly explored, refined, and responsible finished product. I'll go over each step in greater detail over the course of the lesson.

Design Brief + Timeline

"Practice safe design, use a concept."

– Petrula Vrontikis

Using words to clarify a project's intent and goals, and creating a realistic timeline, is imperative for the success of a project by keeping it on track.

A design brief is a short write up that outlines the product concept, its main problems to solve, and goals. This will change (maybe entirely) as you go through the design process, but it's important to have a starting off point.

To do: Write up your idea in two paragraphs or less, outlining what you want to make, the problem(s) you want your design to solve, and how you see it fitting into the user's world.

An easy way to make a workable project timeline is to draw a line on a piece of paper and put the start date on the left end of the line and the due date on the right end. Work from the due date backwards.

The amount of time you give yourself to complete each part of this process will depend on the scope of the project, so it's impossible for me to say, "Prototyping = 1 week". Look at how much time you have overall, and divide the time into reasonable sounding sections. A good rule of thumb is write down how long you think each step will take and then double it. Things always take approximately twice as long as we think they will (and cost twice as much). :)

Universal Design

Universal design is a design philosophy that when implemented, creates products (as well as systems, services, and environments) that can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. As an example, for product design, this could mean using components and actions that do not require tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all potential users, you meet maximum needs, which is simply put, good design.

Keep in mind when you're designing your product, that even within a narrow target group of users, there will be a wide variety of abilities and sizes. Try to make decisions accordingly. This book will help with that! :D

A great resource for anyone making anything that humans will interact with, is this book:

The Measure of Man and Woman: Human Factors in Design by Alvin R. Tilley, Henry Dreyfuss Associates

It's filled with exhaustive measurements of optimum angles, heights, etc, for many situations that humans of all heights and abilities find themselves in: sitting, standing and working at a console, reclining, and so much more. I highly recommend this book for any maker's library.

Human-Centered Design

When Product Design (Industrial Design) started to emerge as a profession at the turn of the 20th century, it took sole custody of the everyday object away from the historically multi-directional architect (engineers also get a shout out). The emphasis back then was put on improved function and aesthetics alone. The product designers job was to make products more innovative and desirable to customers – and beat out the competition.

While this is still very much an occupational reality, a growing part of the industry is facing the realization that the products we create have a real impact on the people who use them and that the products will be ultimately more successful if we ask people what they want instead of telling them. Enter human-centered design.

It's Great Uncle, universal design, was a step in the right direction focusing on the ergonomics and accessibility of products for a larger demographic of users. Human-centered design looks to go even further by finding ways to improve the design process again – with the intention of ending up with products that do a better job of catering not only to people's physical needs, but to their emotional needs as well.

I'll talk a bit more about how to apply this school of thought in Lesson 5.

Circular Design

This is where we talk about the responsibility of designing products.

NOTE: Every manmade object in the image above is a product that was designed by someone.

With decreasing resources and increasing waste/pollution, adding more and more 'things' to the world is in most cases more apt to hurt than help, regardless of how much easier they make our lives. Does the world really need another _______ (insert your product here)?

Product Designers of today are faced with a dilemma: How do I do what I love, and not just make a thing for the sake of making a thing?

The answer is a shift to the previously mentioned human-centered design and CIRCULAR DESIGN.

Whatever your belief regarding Climate Change and our humanoid impact on this ball of dirt and rock we live on, an undeniable fact is that there is a finite amount of natural resources and space to put waste. Designers are in a uniquely powerful position to help or harm. The materials and manufacturing processes you choose, the packaging you choose or design, the intended lifecycle of the product – these decisions will all have an impact.

Up until the last few decades, the above image was the defacto design model: Take, Make, Dispose – without any consideration (or responsibility) for what happens to the product once it's 'use cycle' was over. This is especially true for packaging and consumable products.

Some products even have planned obsolescence designed right into them.

In 1924, major international light bulb manufacturing companies got together and agreed on an industry standard length of a bulb's life. They intentionally engineered their products to die after 1,000 hours of use even though the bulbs were capable of working for 2 - 2.5 times longer. They reversed decades of lightbulb innovation progress in the interest of making more sales. Without a doubt there are many other products on the market that are also designed to fail.

Truth be told, there is always a trade off between what's right and what's financially gainful in the world of product design (and all business). The job of today's product designers is to find a way to make financially successful products that are also globally responsible. Future generations are relying on our ingenuity and consideration.

How can we as designers do better?

By applying circular design. Circular design is the concept of designing with a closed loop mentality.

It encompasses:

  • Choosing materials that are either sustainable or recycled (and cleanly recyclable)
  • Awareness of how the materials you choose are created/extracted = their environmental impact
  • Accepting responsibility for what happens to your products after they are no longer useful
  • Planning for your products' afterlife: Recyclable? Re-usable? Can they be broken down into re-usable parts that you incorporate back into the next generation of products?

Imagine if product companies had to accept back all their deceased products and packaging – and store that all themselves. Necessity would have them making changes pronto!

Irresponsible innovation may have helped cause the problems, but innovation + responsibility + you, can absolutely help solve them!

How Smart Are Your Pants?

    "id": "quiz-1",
    "question": "What from the below list do product designers NOT design?",
    "answers": [
            "title": "To-go coffee cups",
            "correct": false
            "title": "Air duct systems",
            "correct": true
            "title": "Dog wash stations",
            "correct": false
            "title": "Silicone spatulas",
            "correct": false
    "correctNotice": "You wore your smart pants today!Complex architectural related systems are designed by engineers.",
    "incorrectNotice": "Sorry friend, that's incorrect. Almost all consumer products are designed by product designers!"
    "id": "quiz-2",
    "question": "What does circular design focus on?",
    "answers": [
            "title": "Round products",
            "correct": false
            "title": "Emotional needs of users",
            "correct": false
            "title": "The lifecycle of a product",
            "correct": true
    "correctNotice": "You wore your smart pants today!",
    "incorrectNotice": "Sorry friend, that's incorrect."

What's Next?

In the next lesson, I'll teach you some simple steps that can lead to design inspiration!

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