What is your ID?

Industrial design eludes definition


Industrial design (ID) has always struck me as an unfortunate term. Not that the activity is unfortunate, but its descriptor confuses as much as it describes. What is it? Is it designing factories?

Design is comparatively easy to understand. As a verb, it is an activity of making decisions, in a particular way, to a particular end. Industrial

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

is also a word that is fairly easy to grasp, or at least imagine: factory buildings and smokestacks, as a caricature. Historically, it has been a sector of the economy devoted to the making of things: lots of things, all at once. So there is a connection. It is just not quite as direct as it might seem.

ID is about that specific type of design that utilizes industry to achieve its ends. And the ends are the production of a great number of identical artifacts: mass production. For this to work, there must also be mass consumption, often achieved through mass marketing, but more about that later. There must also be a concentration of capital because neither mass production nor mass marketing is cheap. And there must be vision, incentive, management, labour and inexpensive energy.

When artifacts are designed, there are many influencing factors: material choice, technology choice, form choice and structure choice. There are also considerations of utility and considerations of price. We call these the parameters and they vary. What doesn’t vary is that there are usually many of them and their management is the essence of what designers do.

When artifacts are designed for mass production, the parameters are skewed to allow for this. Efficiency becomes very important and there is a whole new set of considerations. So industrial design is essentially a very specific subset of design.

If we are flexible about the image of the factories belching smoke — that is, if we examine the term industrial with more latitude, we can arrive at an understanding of this activity that is even more helpful. If people are industrious, they are hard working, diligent, conscientious, persistent, habitually active and so on. These are the characteristics out of which industry is formed, but they precede it.

I imagine that clever people, way back in the mists of history, thought it to their advantage to gain efficiency in the production of artifacts. The advantage might be financial or social, but it would have existed. Perhaps the earliest examples were the printing of textiles. Using a tool, maybe a carved bit of wood, or a potato or something else that was impressionable, an industrious person (probably a woman) transferred a pigment to a lighter-coloured surface, for decorative purposes.

Earlier, this graphic treatment of the surface may have been only achieved by more laborious painting or drawing. But by printing, a decorative result could be obtained much more expeditiously. Of course, this would only be advantageous if the results were desirable enough, to enough people, for efficiency to matter. To ensure this, the results would have to be pleasing. Someone made the stylistic decision, and industrial design was born: design in the service of ambitious industriousness.

Money, especially in the form of minted coins, facilitated the commercial transactions that supported this type of industrial activity. And coins are a very good example of artifacts that needed to be efficiently produced, in large quantities, for a mass market. Specialized labour was committed to the production of a die, and with this tool, identical coins could be produced almost endlessly. But if so many were going to be produced, it was prudent to enhance their value through non-utilitarian characteristics as a well-rendered profile of the person in charge. Pre-industrial industrial design.

So the activity of industrial design isn’t so hard to understand, once you break it down. But what hasn’t helped the general understanding is that the term is now used much more broadly. It has been discovered that the skills that industrial designers developed are applicable to situations other than the design of mass produce-able artifacts: situations such as the design of services and experiences. And with the computerization of goods, where the users’ interactions with artifacts are less obvious and even where the artifacts themselves are less tangible, there is even a blurring of goods and services and new requirements for the designers arise: interaction design, interface design, experience design and so on.

So asking what industrial design is, is actually an invitation to a discussion, rather than merely a request for a definition.


Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.


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