Industrial Design: Strategic Context Is Everything

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February 16, 2012
Thoughts by
Patrick Murphy
Thoughts by
Tyler Hagler

Industrial Design is the bridge between marketing and engineering

Recently, we had an engaging conversation while ramping up a new client, and they posed an interesting question: “Where does industrial design fit into the product development or innovation management picture?”

A short answer to this question, that’s quite illustrative of ID’s raison d’être, is that industrial design is the bridge between marketing and engineering in product development. Living in this intersection, industrial design provides the touch points in a product’s development that influence both brand elements and the product’s mechanics.  And, according to its place within an overall strategy, ID can be both a fulcrum to drive the strategy or a support block for a strategic foundation alongside other main drivers.

A more complex answer to the “where does it fit” question is that ID is both scaled and scoped for levels of influence according to the strategic focus of a given company.  A company’s strategic focus should be the determining factor for the degree of influence that industrial design has a component in corporate function.  A couple of years ago, the leadership of Trig Innovation came up with a way to express this framework visually (it’s what we do for a living, after all).

Our Strategy Matrix highlights where industrial design can play a key role in manifesting a company’s strategic vision through product development. Here are a few key examples of how industrial design morphs itself to support form, function, and brand for different visions.

Design Leader

Some companies, like Apple, have found success and even built an empire on a philosophy of design leadership.  In companies like Apple, the influence of industrial design permeates almost everything the company does. In these companies, where design leadership is of paramount importance, an industrial designer, such as Jonathan Ives at Apple, should lead the attack during product development.

Feature Leader

Other companies, like John Deere, have an entirely different strategic focus. In their world, engineering prowess wins (in) the marketplace, and they want an industrial design emphasis that plays to a strategy of feature leadership. In this framework, ID supports and amplifies engineering, using design language to communicate the technical attributes that differentiate the products in the marketplace, and ultimately, showcase why their products are superior. John Deere occupies the premium function leadership position within the agriculture, construction, and forestry equipment markets.  While industrial design and branding are essential to the company's continued growth globally, customers primarily buy Deere because they get the best functional benefits and quality-retained value for strong resale values over competitors.

Niche Player

While the first two examples highlight the ability of industrial design to drive and support broadly-focused strategies, this example shows how ID can fit into a highly-concentrated, narrowly-focused customer niche.  In a niche strategy, industrial designers have to become something entirely different yet again, developing a deep understanding of a very specific customer segment. Through this understanding, the details of design emerge to create an intense loyalty to captivate the imagination and capture wallet share of a small market.

An exemplary sector of the niche player strategy is the medical device space. Medical devices place engineering and programming functions at the forefront; and, while industrial design often takes a back seat, it’s quite critical in this context for a higher concentration of ergonomics, versus form or aesthetics.

Market Challenger

Sometimes industrial design takes on a singular focus—whether it’s imaginative design, or hardcore technical amplification, or a captivating visual brand language. And at other times, ID leaders are asked to be somewhat of a hybrid, almost Transformer-like creature within a single product development framework. So it is with the market challenger philosophy that designers take on more of a support role to both marketers and engineers. In this framework, marketers pay attention to the brand hallmarks of emerging trends in a product category, while engineers pay attention to cutting-edge technical capabilities that they can replicate. Industrial designers, in this framework, must ensure that the fast-followers that they are helping to create must stand on their own in the marketplace while borrowing brand and functional elements from the existing market leader.

We see the market challenger strategy most commonly in the world of electronics, a fast-paced industry in terms of product development with lots of imitation. Mobile phones and device manufactures are especially eager to adopt this strategy in order to compete with design leaders like Apple—you might have noticed that ever since the iPhone came out, most of Apple’s competitors have rushed to develop their own Apple-fied versions these devices, with the design element quite restrained in comparison.

Cost Leader

In our final example, we see industrial designers must really know their boundaries. In a cost leadership framework, pricing trumps brand spending, technical investment, and design purity. Because of the tight cost restraints that drive this strategic vision, ID becomes the equivalent of graphic designers’ use of negative space.  The industrial designer must suppress his natural desire to reach his own creative limits, while playing a key support role to leaders in supply chain management, marketing, and engineering. This four-way collaboration, with the designer in the support role to the other three, ensures that development results in products that are low-cost leaders in the marketplace while showcasing satisfactory technical quality and aesthetics.

Many examples of cost leadership strategies lie in the packaging design industry. Many companies buy stock containers, as opposed to custom packaging, placing limits on industrial designers. We must then use our creativity through graphics and other embellishments to make the most of design within an inexpensive framework.

Patrick Murphy
Senior Industrial Designer

Today, despite having numerous success stories in his portfolio, Patrick believes his education is far from over as he searches for new ways to bridge the gap between problem and solution, solution and product, product and user.

Tyler Hagler

As a career industrial designer and innovation practitioner, Ty Hagler has managed hundreds of new product development programs through the process of opportunity identification guided to commercialization.


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