AI Online


Design Inspiration

They inspire automakers but what inspires them? An inside look at how cutting-edge consumer products are designed.

Raymond Lowey, known as “the father of industrial design”, wasn’t just influenced by what was around him, he also designed it.  His creative genius brought us the Studebaker Avanti, S-1 locomotive, Coldspot refrigerator and red and yellow Shell logo.  He understood the importance of design as a selling tool.  He was quoted as saying “between two products equal in price, function and quality, the better looking will outsell the other.”

But what is the secret to making something “better looking”?  That’s the question that plagues automotive designers every day.  Constantly pressured to bring new and creative vision to the market, they often turn to the things around them for influence.

Before pencil ever meets paper, the designer will pick our brain — take a tour through our psyche, in the hopes that knowing what kind of chair we sit in as we drink our favorite coffee will uncover clues to what kind of car we will want to drive.

“Designers are natually inquisitve,” says Trevor Creed, senior vice president of Design for Daimler Chrysler.

Their designs can be influenced by just about anything from architecture to furniture design, bicycles to clothing to graphic arts.  They subscribe to many magazines and attend such events as the color marketing seminar (held each year in California) and the High Point furniture show.

All of these inspirations go into designing automobiles that will appeal to a certain customer segment, build some kind of emotional attachment that makes them desire that particular vehicle.

But what inspires those who design the things that inspire auto designers?  We asked a few of them and found that, in many ways, they mirror their auto designing counterparts.

Drawing Water

Spend an afternoon with Judd Law and  Howard Montgomery and you might see your  kitchen and bathroom faucets in a different  light. Law manages the faucet design department  for the Delta Faucet Co; Montgomery is  the lead for faucets in Kohler’s industrial  design department.

Designer Judd Law takes us through the design stages for creating a Delta faucet: an initial idea sketch, a basic CAD model, a compreshensive 3-D computer rendering, and the finished piece.

Law says that the exciting aspect about  being a designer in this industry is that you’re  designing a product that people interact with  on a daily basis. “We’re concerned with even  the emotional side of it,” Law says, “striving  more and more to appeal to the senses —  how these products are going to feel and  work and sound. Tactile is extremely important,  whether you’re physically touching a  handle or moving a spout, or how the water  feels as it’s coming out of the spout.”

Relying heavily on Delta’s marketing  department to find niches in the marketplace,  Law also partners with research  groups and tracks trends independently  through things like furniture shows and international  gift fairs.

“There’s a product manager that I work  with here,” Law says, “and he and I make a  trip to a lot of the exotic car dealerships. We’ll  sit in the Audi TTs when they first come out  and take a look at what the auto industry has  that’s really making a buzz. The automotive  industry always offers a lot of passion.”

Montgomery says process drives much of  the final product at Kohler. 
“Take the silhouette of a Christmas tree  on its side,” he says, “with the wide end on  your left. You start wide and move it in, then  there are discussions and debates, the  scope slightly changes and it goes out a bit.  You come back in again as you start to make  some decisions and you’re honing down on  the process and design. All those concurrent  issues with manufacturing, price points, etc.  come into play and sometimes there’s some  vacillation and it steps out again. Then  you’ve got to pull it back in and eventually  you’re going to get to the tip.” 
Montgomery says that at Kohler his group  will often define certain design influences by  looking within their own product portfolio, as  well as industry trade shows.

“We attend the two major plumbing  shows, the Kitchen and Bath International  Show in Chicago, Ill., and the ISH in Frankfurt,  Germany.” Montgomery says. “Those two are  very key in the industry design field. 
“There are a lot of traditional elements  that we look to, but we’re not going to do a  Thunderbird,” he laughs. “That’s a little different  — pure retro. But we would definitely  take certain ingenious elements, whether it  be water delivery or plumbing vernacular, and  hark back to that kind of period. We would  definitely do that.”

Not unlike the automakers, Kohler also  does a fairly good amount of consumer  research to really understand what the consumers  want from their products.  Montgomery says that a bathroom faucet is  an integral part of the overall design of the  bathroom and designers need to look at the  entire bathroom as a whole. Designers also  need to realize that in markets where the  consumers are directly choosing the products,  there’s a need to have an emotional  connectivity.

The initial design phase at both companies  starts with brainstorming sessions and  thumbnail sketches.

“Guys bring stuff in on cocktail napkins or  toilet paper,” Law says, “wherever an idea  strikes you. You’ll just throw down a few lines  that nobody else will be able to interpret but  it’ll be enough to jog your memory.”

Montgomery also believes in paper and  pencil.

“Inevitably,” he says, “we as individuals  need to draw things to understand what they  are — that’s the most fundamental manor in  which we design. We try and not bring the  CAD tool in too fast. I’m really not for putting  designers in front of tubes and then cranking  out designs,” he adds. “We don’t want the  tool to drive the design, we want the designer  to drive the actual design of the object.”

The finalized sketches are transferred to  Pro/Engineer, which Law says has been  “pushed” to do non-geometric forms. He  notes that while it has been used for years to  do gears and engine blocks, faucets involve  more biomorphic forms and challenging  shapes. Finally, the CAD data is used to make  models, which is a critical part of the process  for both companies.

Montgomery notes that once a surface is  chrome plated, the proportions and the elements of the surface changing drastically.  And it’s only after looking at it and appreciating  that aspect that it can be ascertained how  the design is developing.

Manufacturing techniques have also  changed the way faucets look.  “Things as simple as hydro-forming have  changed our industry,” Law says. “There’s a  large portion of product now, spouts in particular,  that are hydro-formed. And a lot of  interesting materials are starting to show up  in faucets that haven’t been seen before.”

Even electronics drive faucet design. Law  says that we are now seeing the first really  decent home/residential hands-free faucet.  And that it is one of the major product plan  focuses in the future, to integrate electronics  into the home environment.

Tools of the Trade

Guys who drive pickup  trucks are more than likely the  same guys who use chain  saws. So those who design  trucks will more than likely take  a look at the design of the saws they use.  “Unfortunately, we can’t bring a truck in for  inspiration,” laughs Wolfgang Zahn, senior  vice president, product research and development  at Stihl, “because our design studios  are a little bit smaller than truck studios.”

Coincidentally, Zahn understands both  trucks and chain saws. Before coming to Stihl  he spent 16 years with DaimlerChrysler Corp.  and also worked for a Tier One supplier to  General Motors and Ford Motor Co.

Zahn says Stihl is customer driven and  doesn’t use consulting firms. It goes right to  the customer and when there is a special  need it tries to fulfill it. Stihl’s designers are  often challenged by the marketplace to create  new and unusual tools, like an unusual  looking power tool designed for picking coffee,  tea and olives.

Every Stihl chain saw is a completely different design, because all of the components bolt on to the engine. All designs are done in Pro/Engineer and the CAD drawings are used for testing as well as design development.

 Zahn says that the process for designing a new chain saw starts with some idea of what worked well with the preceding design. They  also look at what the competition is doing  and what may be the state of the art in a particular  category.

The most important thing to remember  when designing a chain saw, according to  Zahn, is integration.  A chain saw is looked at as one part and  designed as one integrated unit. He offers  that a 40cc powered saw and a 60cc powered  saw are really completely different  because all of the parts are linked directly to  the engine, which in turn is determined by the  saw’s intended use. Saws used in trees need  to be light but powerful, whereas a logger can  have a heavier saw.
The final designs are signed-off by the five  board members together with Hans Peter  Stihl, chairman of the supervisory board, who  is an expert in all of the company’s products.

“He’s out with the customers every other  week,” Zahn says. “He really knows the market  well and is helpful with the design process.”

Because Stihl manufactures all of their products  in-house, they have the flexibility to make  rapid changes as the design process progresses.  They work closely with their manufacturing  people because, as Zahn says, “in the end we  have to be able to manufacture the product.”

When the first prototype is done, endurance  testing begins. A typical program takes several  years with testing taking up more than half of  that time. Prototypes in the first design stage  are also given to elite customers along with  competitor’s products for evaluation.

Sometimes the market demand unique designs like the coffee picker.

Redefining Focus Groups

 Christian Landry has looked at design  from past, present and future. Landry,  Hewlett Packard’s design center manager for  strategic design and innovation, started his  career designing exhibits for the Smithsonian  Institute. As the head of the personal systems  group he focuses on the design of desk top  computers. Anyone who’s visited a Best Buy store lately has noticed that the gray or beige  boxes have given way to some unusually  designed home systems.

“I think it’s a natural evolution,” Landry  says. “I think the aesthetic change is due to  the fact that people have a higher sense of  design awareness. Who would have ever  thought that Wal-Mart and Target would be  selling designer label products? I think that’s  had an impact, and people are looking for  that whether they’re buying PCs or cars.”  Landry notes that people are putting computers in places that are more of a focal point  today than they were a few years ago. Often  they’re on the kitchen counter, part of the  central nervous system in many homes.

Landry says that the first step in designing  a new computer product is to put together an  image story board that defines the customer.  Designers will reference the kinds of eyeglasses  people wear, watches they buy, cameras  they use, the kinds of computers that  they may already have and the cars they  drive. Landry says that furniture is always a  good inspiration for the computer designer.

“We probably spend more time looking  outside the computer industry for where  trends are than we do in our own industry,”  Landry says.

Sears hardware is a favorite haunt for HP’s  design team.

“Looking at the ways things are made in  other areas sometimes inspires you,” he says.  “You may be trying to solve a problem for a  hinge design and you may see inspiration in a  hinge design on something completely different  than what you’re working on.”

The designer works with a team of engineers  who bring their specific disciplines to  address things like componentry, packaging  and the overall goals of the project in relation  to cost and scheduling.

The designer provides the visual tools, taking  the information gathered from the team and  crafting it into sketches — the traditional method  of generating ideas with pencil and paper.

The next step is to make a low-level mockup  out of high-density foam. This gives the  team an idea of the physical size of something.

“If it’s necessary,” says Landry, “we might  even embed some weights into the unit to  suggest how much it might weigh.”

“A lot of people today, with the schedules  being compressed on programs, will try and  evaluate a form on a screen,” Landry adds.  “Basically what they’re looking at is a synthetic  representation in cyberspace of what  this form looks like but they really don’t know  until they hold it or they sit near it or feel it  what the form is like.”

Alias, Pro/Engineer and Rhino are the  tools used to generate CAD models. As the  design is finalized and the data base is  turned over to the mechanical engineers, the  design intent is locked in to the CAD database.  “We can transfer that database anywhere  in the world,” Landry says.

The models are not only used to finalize  the design but are also valuable for testing.

“If we’re putting a real hot chip set into a  notebook,” Landry says, “we may run some  early thermal analysis so we can see how hot  or how cool an area is and whether or not we  need a fan. If we don’t need a fan, does it  need three louvers? Will three screw up the  appearance? If it does can you work with the  thermal engineers to come up with an alternative  to maintain the integrity of the design.”

A few years ago, Hewlett Packard also started  doing something that was unusual for their  industry — they allowed visitors inside the  design studio. Quite a few of the company’s  bigger customers were visiting the HP campus  almost daily. And when Landry found out about  it, the design team thought it should take  advantage of it. The visit to the design studio  soon became the hottest thing. So hot, in fact,  that visits had to be limited to three a week.

Visitors must sign a non-disclosure agreement,  the only requirement for visiting the  design studio.

Landry says that what amazes visitors most  is that they get a chance to have a kind of cause  and effect, they participate in the activity.

“When you think that designers are actually  sitting down face-to-face with these people  and there’s no intermediary, just us and  them, having casual conversation about how  technology was impeding or helping their performance,”  he says.  Landry says that designers transfer that  information into design ideas.

The thought comes to mind of General  Motors or Honda allowing visitors into their  design studios. They just wouldn’t do it.  “We thought the same way,” Landry says,  “but things change. There’s tremendous  value in it for us. I’m disappointed that we  didn’t do it earlier.”

Building Momentum

Phyllis Lambert is an internationally known  architect and founder of the International  Confederation of Architectural Museums,  Heritage Montreal and the Temple Hoyne  Buell Center for the study of American  Architecture among others. She has also  curated and organized many architectural  exhibitions and is currently the Consultant  Architect for the Canadian Centre for  Architecture (CCA), an independent museum  archive and study center devoted to the architecture  of the past, present and future. She  was drawn to architecture by the need to  improve the aesthetic that she saw lacking in  the fabric of the North American city.

She feels that the design and creation of architecture involves much more than pencil  lines on paper or pixels in a computer.

“You have to find out what the problem is  and then walk around it,” she says. “It’s not  all of a sudden, Eureka, you get an idea. You  have to get to know what the essence of the  problem is.”

Though Lambert is not designing these  days, she is advancing a lot of contemporary  architecture through the CCA.

It seems that technology has also affected  architectural design.

“Through the use of computers, things  can be done now in architecture that couldn’t  have been done several years ago,” Lambert  says. “With the computer you don’t have to be  concerned with geometry to be able to build  these things.”

Lambert recalls that when the opera house  in Sydney, Australia, was built back in the ‘60s  it was impossible to build it the way it was originally  designed, so the architect had to take it  back to a regular geometrical form. Now you  don’t have to do that. Now you can go straight  from the drawing to cutting steel.

Lambert says that a lot of contemporary  architects are using computers to unlock the  mathematical mysteries of Renaissance  architecture.

Though many automotive designers may  look at architecture for inspiration, there are  few correlations between the two disciplines. 

“You certainly have the ergonomic problems  in designing a car, how one sits in a car  is an extremely huge issue,” Lambert says. “I  can’t understand why most American cars  never cut off the outside air. You keep on  breathing in air and exhaust fumes from the  other cars. Now you might say that’s not  going to actually show on the outside or the  inside as a design but I think there are really  non-obvious visual essences that are a part  of design and have to be thought of. I don’t  think you can take design down to ‘you like  red and I like blue.’” 

A Champion of Design

Murray Moss is the ‘curator’ of Moss, a  unique retail space that he opened in 1994  in the Soho district of New York city. A former  actor and clothing manufacturer, Moss is  considered by many to be a champion of  design and innovation, searching the world  for new and interesting designs and ideas  and presenting them to the public.

“From my perspective I’m less interested in  the objects themselves than I am in the ideas  behind these particular objects,” Moss says.

Moss reflects that in the area of fine arts a  person can make a work and it’s done. In industrial  design there has to be a dialog between  designer, manufacturer, retailer and customer.

“I’m looking at the ideas or proposals that  are put forward in the form of these particular  tangible objects. A person is proposing  that this particular object would make a more  perfect world. Once this proposal is put on  the table it leads to new proposals because  there’s a new given — a new starting point.”

Moss says that he will identify products that  he believes in and has some connection to.  “If I look at objects as sort of ideas,” he  says. “If I ask people to buy those objects,  what I’m asking them to do is support a certain  way of thinking or to support a particular  group of proposals. I think things become  good or bad design based on us. On how we  perceive it based on a certain criteria based  on our own lives.”

Moss spends quite a bit of time traveling  the world in search of the best in design.

“I look at a lot,” he says, “I go to many markets  from Frankfurt to Cologne to Paris to  London to Milan. There is a market in  Frankfurt that sells everything from toasters  to coat hangers to flashlights to coffee pots.  It has existed on the Rhine since 1250.”

Moss finds it very interesting that automotive  designers reach out to so many other areas  for inspiration and to know what the world is  thinking and what the ideas are out there.

“That’s not necessarily prevalent in all  other areas of design,” he says. “People can  be very insular. Industrial design is more of a  vertical dialog.”

The auto industry understands that a car  is much more than just getting four people  from one place to another, Moss opines. In  the same way that a chair is much more than  just giving someone a horizontal surface that  somebody can plop down on.

“In the auto industry there’s no fear of  showing what I understand they call concept  cars,” Moss says. “What it does in a very confident  way is to tell people that there are ideas  being worked on that we haven’t resolved yet.  We know something can be done we don’t  necessarily know how to do it yet but we’re still  willing to share that with you. People don’t  necessarily do that in other fields.”

Moss says that it’s not just the results, but  the process of industrial design that he finds  personally interesting.

“Designers apply their thoughts to giving  form, shape and concept to tangible objects,”  Moss says. “A manufacturer will usually give  them a brief, which will basically tell them, ‘I  need you to design a car and it has to have  four doors, etc.’ The manufacturer will hire  this particular designer because they know  they’ll address, in a capable way, that set of  criteria. But then what?

“But then that is where the designer gets  to shine. It’s their passion for design that  gives us unique faucets, unique chain saws,  unique computers, unique buildings and  unique cars,” he says. “And when the designer  finds that special emotional connection  with us, we both win.”

Previous posts

Next posts

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

Sat. August 8th, 2020

AI Library


Founded in 1895, the world's first trade magazine covering the automotive industry.
Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On Linkedin