What Every Engineer Should Know About Ugly Product Design




I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but products are getting better looking—even in places where you wouldn’t expect it.

Let’s look at two examples. The first is the humble forklift truck (which incidentally is my favorite word in German). These gas- or electric-powered beasts aren’t the sexiest of products – after all, they’re typically used to death in a warehouse environment and haven’t, historically speaking, been the focus of much in the way of styling. They were always about loading capability, maneuverability and fuel consumption. Cover all of that up with a roll-cage and a bit of sheet metal and we’re golden, right?

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Not anymore. Take a look at a company like Still. They’ve been around since 1920, but their products now bear little more than a passing resemblance to what you’d typically think of. They’re styled nicely and they look slick.

Another example is something that I came across recently – an electrical generator. Again, these have typically been functionality and power-led products.

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But take a look around any outdoor leisure sales outlet or browse of a web-site, and you’ll see slick products that look dramatically different from the diesel engine in a rudimentary roll cage. Honda does some rather fancy ones.

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Plain and Boxy Products Aren’t a Sensible Choice Anymore

I’d like to tell you that all this came as a result of manufacturing bosses suddenly realizing that the industrial designers were right from the start, and so they began dumping significant portions of their budgets into aesthetic betterment. But the truth is, a number of changes occurred over the past few years that simply made good design more sensible than ugly design.

We have better taste today. The general public is more design conscious than ever before. Folks won’t settle for functionality-rich, but aesthetically ugly products anymore. This feeds into all areas of purchasing behavior – way beyond pure consumer-focused industries.

If you run a warehouse and you’ve got a range of forklifts to choose from, similar in terms of functionality, you’ll pick the more attractive one – even if it will be battered into a completely different shape in two years’ time.

We have more flexible materials. There are also considerations in terms of materials. Metals are dramatically more expensive than ever before. We’ve already seen a shift from sheet metals into plastics in almost every industry, from industrial goods to medical and beyond. With the greater freedom of shape afforded by plastics, you’ll always end up with more interesting form than if it needs to be fabricated from sheet metal stock.

Engineering teams harbor hidden industrial design skills (maybe). What’s interesting is that we’re finding that most companies realized this shift some time ago. Did they rush out and hire a swath of industrial designers to improve and rework their products? Some did. The majority looked to their own staff and existing product experts to do the work. That’s something that’s still working its way out now.

3D CAD software is enabling more flexible design. What’s also interesting is that this shift is the development of greater tools in our workhorse software to assist with developing these forms. PTC Creo, for instance, has had, for a long time, the PTC Creo Interactive Surface Design extension for class A surfacing that was typically used in the consumer product design space. More recently, it has gained sub divisional surface modelling with Freeform design. Both give you the same tools in the familiar interface to do this type of work.

So does this mean that your boss will be demanding an Aston Martin rather than a sheet metal box? Probably not, but the drive for aesthetics is gaining, and comparable standing performance and functionality is now prevalent across many industries – the good news is that we’ve got the tools at hand to bring that on board and gain competitive advantage with it already.

Right. I’m off to browse through the gabelstapler brochure again. Rock and roll, eh?