Industrial Design: Strategic Context Is Everything—Part One

by Ty Hagler and Patrick Murphy

Recently, we had an engaging conversation while ramping up a new client, and they posed an interesting question: “Where does industrial design fit into the product development or innovation management picture?”

A short answer to this question, that’s quite illustrative of ID’s raison d’être, is that industrial design is the bridge between marketing and engineering in product development. Living in this intersection, industrial design provides the touch points in a product’s development that influence both brand elements and the product’s mechanics.  And, according to its place within an overall strategy, ID can be both a fulcrum to drive the strategy or a support block for a strategic foundation alongside other main drivers.

A more complex answer to the “where does it fit” question is that ID is both scaled and scoped for levels of influence according to the strategic focus of a given company.  A company’s strategic focus should be the determining factor for the degree of influence that industrial design has a component in corporate function.  A couple of years ago, the leadership of Trig Innovation came up with a way to express this framework visually (it’s what we do for a living, after all).

Our Strategy Matrix highlights where industrial design can play a key role in manifesting a company’s strategic vision through product development. Here are a few key examples of how industrial design morphs itself to support form, function, and brand for different visions.

Design Leader

Some companies, like Apple, have found success and even built an empire on a philosophy of design leadership.  In companies like Apple, the influence of industrial design permeates almost everything the company does. In these companies, where design leadership is of paramount importance, an industrial designer, such as Jonathan Ives at Apple, should lead the attack during product development.

Feature Leader

Other companies, like John Deere, have an entirely different strategic focus. In their world, engineering prowess wins (in) the marketplace, and they want an industrial design emphasis that plays to a strategy of feature leadership. In this framework, ID supports and amplifies engineering, using design language to communicate the technical attributes that differentiate the products in the marketplace, and ultimately, showcase why their products are superior. John Deere occupies the premium function leadership position within the agriculture, construction, and forestry equipment markets.  While industrial design and branding are essential to the company's continued growth globally, customers primarily buy Deere because they get the best functional benefits and quality-retained value for strong resale values over competitors.

Niche Player

While the first two examples highlight the ability of industrial design to drive and support broadly-focused strategies, this example shows how ID can fit into a highly-concentrated, narrowly-focused customer niche.  In a niche strategy, industrial designers have to become something entirely different yet again, developing a deep understanding of a very specific customer segment. Through this understanding, the details of design emerge to create an intense loyalty to captivate the imagination and capture wallet share of a small market.

An exemplary sector of the niche player strategy is the medical device space. Medical devices place engineering and programming functions at the forefront; and, while industrial design often takes a back seat, it’s quite critical in this context for a higher concentration of ergonomics, versus form or aesthetics.

Patrick Murphy