Basic Approach to Product Design

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By Philip MortonMore from this author

Design is a perennial issue for all who produce objects meant for a specific use, utilitarian, in contrast to objects which have an exclusively expressive function. In America the postwar period dating from the 40's was characterized by a concern for functional design in architecture, industry and the crafts. In relation to jewelry, that period might be labeled contemporary design. Architecture was designated the International Style. The concern for functional form found its most important expression in the Bauhaus tradition which fully established what we came to know as industrial design.

The Bauhaus program was founded upon two premises: first, that the scientific, rational approach to design must consider the nature of tools, materials and function; and second, that the esthetics of Modern Art were appropriate to express the character of the industrial age. It was realized that design based upon copying old period styles was decadent for industry, architecture and crafts.

Basic Approach to Product Design

Thus, design of the postwar period assumed the characteristics of scientific, rational, functional form combined with the esthetics of abstraction. As with all period styles, the period of contemporary design came to an end. In the face of two world wars and continuing turmoil worldwide, it was perceived that reason had failed. In Europe the Dadaist Movement was an esthetic reaction to the horrors of World War I. And it is interesting that Dadaism, with its ironic inversion of values, has been a pervasive current in the art of the 50s, 60s and 70s. But when reason fails, fantasy is the only alternative; all ideas, even rational ones, begin in fantasy.

And so, in the mid-60s there was a gradual turning in the crafts from functional design to fantasy forms. This turning toward fantasy was both an escape from inhibiting limitations and an effort to find forms through fantasy that were more genuine, more expressive of the inner spirit. For craftsmen, a part of the exploration of inner fantasy has been the exploration of both popular and technological forms. And there has been a certain difference about utility in design.

Nevertheless, when a craftsman sets out to design a teapot, utilitarian factors must be considered. Most craftsmen know there is a difference between creative design and stylization. Stylization lends itself to fantasy, and vice versa because there are no limitations to fantasy forms other than those of the material and tools. But creative design must also consider factors of function. This is why product design cannot abandon rational principles of design. It is the purpose of this paper to briefly analyze these principles, the seven steps in the process of product design.

Functional Analysis

Product design must first carefully consider how the product meets human need. This may involve a thorough study of human relationships, taking into account broad socio-psychological factors. On the other hand, it may involve the detailed study of a specific environment, such as an operating room of a modern hospital. In either case, the complete circumstances of the need and use of the product must be known, as well as the nature and characteristics of the user. The specific function performed by the product must be analyzed in relation to human need.

Most products can be classified into two main groups: first, those that are an extension of the senses or faculties of the human being; and second, those that are an extension or modification of the environment of the human being. And human need may arise in relation to one or more factors. For example, the need for eyeglasses may reflect the biological limitation of aging or the cultural force of the desire for conformity in the case of adolescents; or it may induce a psychological sense of inferiority, which is why some people prefer contact lenses.

The following check list will indicate the extent and nature of factors which must be considered in product analysis:

Environment of Product - Time of need and Use of Product
  • Continuous
  • Intermittent
  • Periodic
  • Daily
  • Weekly
  • Monthly
  • Seasonally
Place of Use
  • General
  • Temperate zone
  • Frigid zone
  • Torrid zone
  • Domestic
  • Industrial
  • Office
  • School
  • Recreational
  • Laboratory
Conditions of Use
  • Private
  • Public
  • Interior
  • Exterior
  • Wet
  • Dry
  • Cold
  • Hot
  • Variable
Operational Characteristics of Use
  • Normal
  • Unskilled
  • Skilled
  • Age group
  • Male
  • Female
  • Physical size
Basis of Need of Product
  • Biological
  • Social
  • Psychological
  • Cultural
  • Economic
  • Custom
  • Tradition
Description of Need and Function
Evaluation of Function in Relation to Need

Product Research

Before we can contribute to any field of knowledge, it is obvious that we must be thoroughly acquainted with that field. This ought to be clear, yet many designers do not hesitate to offer a new solution to the design of a product without investigating the history of the characteristics of that product.

It is crucial that we examine the origins and forms of the product that we contemplate designing. This immediately demands research, both historical and contemporary. We must look into all the historical solutions that have responded to a given need, and we must carefully study solutions on the market today.

A check list of important facts would run something like the following:

Summary of history of product with description of each significant solution, dealing with the following factors:

  • Function: note functional variations of changes
  • Materials: quality, visual, tactile, and color, etc.
  • Technology: what scientific principles utilized
  • Size-weight characteristics
  • Functional efficiency
  • Nonfunctional variations, style and forms
  • Functional improvements or advances

Market Survey

There was a time when a man with a new or improved product went right into production. Bankruptcy, however, taught the intrepid entrepreneur that there was insufficient demand for his product. In these enlightened days few products are placed on the market in advance of a market survey. Such a survey studies the time and place of use of the product, the conditions of use and the characteristics of the user. The demand for the product must be classified by size - both existing and potential - location, economic class and age group, and the characteristics of the consumer must be studied, including his attitudes and preferences. Existing products must be analyzed and sales volumes ascertained in relation to both demand and price. The limitations and weaknesses as well as the satisfactory qualities of the product must be studied. This survey should also consider untapped markets, new uses or adaptations to which the product might be directed.

Evaluation of Form in Relation to Function

Only now have you reached the point of determining form. This form will be dictated by the functional characteristics of the product in relation to the need. It will also be dictated by available materials and technological processes. Ultimately, it will be dictated by your own knowledge and understanding of all the fac. tors involved. This may require special research. For example, if you are to design an improved photographic enlarger, you must have an adequate knowledge of the physics of light and the processes of photography. You will note the phrase "improved" photographic enlarger. It stands to reason the only basis for developing a new design for an existing product is an "improved" design. Unless your design makes the product better in some way, there is no justification for its existence. Here, product research and market survey provide the criteria. Satisfaction or dissatisfaction with existing products serves as the basis for departure. Can the product be lighter, more flexible, more durable, more convenient to use? Can it be made better and more economically in another material or by other manufacturing processes? These are the questions which precede the process of sketching out new ideas.

Experimental Forms

By now you have crystallized a number of specific ideas about your "case product." These ideas must be illustrated by sketches and descriptive material indicating the particular problems which you address. It goes without saying that it requires consistent thought and study to devise creative solutions to the problems which your researches and studies have outlined. This is the test of the product designer, for experts and technicians may be hired to solve marketing, statistical, research and technical problems. It is the job of the product designer, whether he works for industry or for himself, to syn. The size all these factors in a functional, tactile and visual form.

Evaluation of Function in Relation to Market

Whereas an earlier step in product design occasioned an analysis of the function of the product in relation to human need, it now becomes necessary to analyze the market-factors such as volume, price, quality, consumer preference and sectional (or national) differences.

This is the point at which advanced design must confront social inertia, cultural lag, resistance to new and unfamiliar forms. This is the point at which the product designer must be able to sell himself and his ideas to his client, his boss, and the public without sacrificing integrity. Although today we see many advanced designs in a wide range of products, the majority of products on the market still reflect l9thcentury design. The classic argument rests upon the question as to who is responsible-the manufacturer, the sales manager or the public. The product designer's job cannot be said to end with design. He must reconcile that design with the market conditions in such a way that he wins rather than loses the battle for advancing the level of good design. To do so, the designer may have to solve the problem of selling his design to the public.

Final Solutions

It is common knowledge that life is full of compromises. This is true of design. Generalization i gained at the sacrifice of specialization and vice versa. Any given product may compromise functional necessity and esthetics. It may sacrifice efficiency t convenience or universality to specialty. There are no perfect solutions, nor is there a single solution to a problem. There are multitudes of solutions to each type of design problem. The pro duct designer reveals his genius to the extent that he can choose select and compromise the factors involved. For example, any product designed for general us is usually foolproof. That is, its operation is simplified to a maximum as is its maintenance, variability and range. The commercial radio or television set is an example. The final solution can only be made after considering all the factors we have reviewed: market demand, consumer, price and cost. Usually the designer will reach this stage in the product development with several equally good solutions. All other conditions being equal, the factors of cost, ease of manufacture will be the deciding factors.


All that we have reviewed would seem to address the designer working for industry. And it may seem to many craftsmen to be needlessly complex and exhaustive in its perspective. Yet craftsmen also are confronted with the many factors which we have covered. The working craftsman who makes living through production is perhaps more deeply concerned with the principles of product design than the individual craftsman who is producing individual pieces for his own audience. Yet it cannot be a disadvantage to be aware of the process of developing craft products, even if stylization is a primary focus of the individual craftsman. Therefore this discussion is offered to all those who may benefit, directly or indirectly, from an exploration of product design.

A founding member of the Society of North American Goldsmiths, Philip Morton is presently working as a psychotherapist in Montana and is also a water colorist. While not actively pursuing jewelry, he maintains an interest in the study of craft and design.

By Phillip Morton
Metalsmith Magazine – 1983 Fall
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Philip Morton

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