Improving Design Skills: Where to Find Inspiration

A couple months ago, we looked at how the types of forms typically associated with the industrial design community are now becoming the responsibility of mechanical engineers. This time, I’m going to give those that are tasked with creating more complex shapes and forms some things to think about, tips on how to learn more, and where to find inspiration.

Build Your Technical Chops & Geometry Theory

When it comes to learning the design of high-quality surfaces, you need to get a handle on the theory – as the old saying goes: Learn the rules, break the rules. When it comes to the industrial design process, you’re looking at curvature control – to blend those key surfaces together seamlessly. That means form the base level of curves, then construct surfaces from those curves. There are a number of books to have a read of, but a good starter is Gray Holland’s “The periodic table of form” on the indomitable Core77.

Build a Library of Inspiration

Today, we’re pretty much all walking around with a high-resolution digital camera and computer in our pockets. As designers, we’re used to grabbing inspiration where it’s found – what these devices give is the ability to capture those moments. That can be a shape or pattern, a color, or a more holistic image of a device.

The question is how do you save and share these things? One method I’ve heard mentioned a few times is using private boards on Pinterest, setup by team members in a design studio. With the app, you can grab a photo, add a few notes, add it to a shared board, and away you go. I’d show you mine, but admitting to your collection of 100s of photographs of patterns used in car grills is a little too much overshare (FYI hexagonal patterns seem to be this year’s popular configuration).


Image: 1952 Rolls Royce grill from Contando Estrellas (not Al’s Pinterest).

Study the Hidden Secrets on a Map

Good design is all about providing a product that serves its purpose and is a joy to use, whether that’s consumer electronics or industrial equipment. What’s interesting, every time I speak to a designer or engineer, something new comes up that gets added to the “Geography-specific design requirements” list (yup. I do actually keep them).

Examples? Let’s take India.

Did you know that all motorcycles launched in India are required to be fitted with a metal cage over the rear wheel. It’s a sari guard. Another was told to me by a yellow goods manufacturer (that’s honking great big construction and earth moving equipment to me and you).

According to the caste-based system, workers operating a piece of earth moving equipment aren’t allowed to use the same door as the owner. So they need to fit a rear door for this reason alone.


Image: Motorbikes in India by Andrew Thomas from Shrewsbury, UK . Grills at left of rear tire protect passengers riding wearing dress-like saris.

When you consider design, there are the key elements of form and function – often simplified to the shape of the object and the action that it performs. What’s often not discussed, particularly in terms of digital tools, is color.

After all, you can have the best performing product, with a task appropriate and beautiful shape, but if the color is off, you can get it wrong. Color is often seen as a specialized art, often geographically diversified. Here’s a good read by Shutterstock on the subject. If you want a heavier read, I’d recommend Colour by Victoria Finlay.

Also on the subject, ensure that your monitor(s) is(are) calibrated. A range of devices are available that can make sure that your monitors displays images correctly. As a bonus, the same data can often be used to calibrate printers. These devices are $50 bucks upwards, so a worthwhile investment (in fact, stick one on your wish list today). I wrote a brief guide to the process awhile back that’s still pretty current.

Can a Mechanical Engineer Ever Master Industrial Design?

I think I’m about at the word limit for this post, so I’ll leave you with a single thought. Some of the best industrial designers didn’t train in the subject – they learned it on the job.


Image: Dieter Rams, the renowned designer who influenced many Apple products, trained as an architect. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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