09 April 2021

Good design requires balance. It must be new, but not too deviant, while at the same time satisfying considerations of economy, function and market needs. It must also be easy to use a design for new products and easy to adapt it to future needs. These are the conclusions of a new thesis in industrial design presented at Linköping University.

Torbjörn Andersson
Torbjörn Andersson.

More or less good

In his thesis Aesthetic Flexibility In Industrial Design Practice, Torbjörn Andersson describes how industrial designers and design engineers work on a scale from “Wow” to “Shame”. Wow is the longed-for goal of perfect design: shame is the opposite, something that even the designer will not admit to having produced. The result is usually somewhere in between.

“The design may be limited by economy, function or other factors. Or it may be customer expectations: some may not want the absolutely most advanced design”, says Torbjörn Andersson.

Manufacturing companies

The thesis is based on literature studies and interviews with design managers and senior designers in five large Swedish manufacturing companies. Torbjörn Andersson launches the concept of aesthetic flexibility to describe how design departments not only consider previous designs but also incorporate the possibility of future change while retaining the artistic idiom.

Two Volvo cars.You can easily recognize a drilling machine.

The way of working is built on a common technique in industry – the use of modular designs, which means that parts with a unified appearance can be used in several products. Examples of design components are the rear-view mirror and bonnet of a car, or the fuel tank and user protection on a chainsaw. Trucks from Scania are an example of extensive use of modularity, allowing components to be combined in different ways to suit the customer.

This way of working brings both advantages and disadvantages when working with design. It is positive to be able to reduce the number of design components while retaining a visual identity across different products.

“It’s also positive from a sustainability point of view. Using common modules means that moulds and other parts in the production chain can be reused and don’t need to be changed.”

“The disadvantage is that the design can become too uniform, no matter which product is being manufactured. Everything looks about the same. This is why the more expensive premium models, the ones that most clearly identify the brand, are often slightly more distinctive”, says Torbjörn Andersson.

And the designers – what do they think about this way of working?

“It varies. Some of them like it, others don’t. But it’s clear from the interviews that this is something they discuss and are aware of.”

Strong caracteristics

Torbjörn Andersson also describes in the thesis an analysis method that can be used to investigate the typical design elements of a certain category of products. For example – what is it that enables us to immediately identify an electric drill as an electric drill? He calls the model Product Gist, since it can extract the gist of a product, and uses a very similar method as that used by ornithologists to rapidly identify a bird species from just a few features.

The thesis is based on six scientific articles, and contains theoretical models for three aspects of design: how companies organise their design operations, what influences decision-making in industrial design, and strategies for expanding or revising a product portfolio. The latter model is known as IDPPM, and is described in more detail below.

Facts: IDPPM

IDPPM is an abbreviation for “Industrial design product portfolio management” and is a model that identifies design strategies to increase or renew a product portfolio.

Category extension – a product family is extended with products from a new area, such as when a car manufacturer starts to produce motorcycles

Product-line extension – the product portfolio is extended with products within an existing area, such as when car models are equipped with electric motors

Vertical extension – existing models are supplemented with cheaper or more expensive variants, such as “professional” models of various tools

“New to the world”– completely new products that are not similar to anything already on the market

Minor design update and facelift – existing models are modified to appear new

Redesign – major design changes

Revitalisation – fundamental design changes that alter the perception of the brand


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