Industrial Design—Strategic Context Is Everything, Part Two

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. In last week’s installment, we reviewed some examples, such as design leaders, feature leaders, and niche players. Here are two more examples of how industrial design morphs itself to support form, function, and brand for different visions.

Market Challenger

Sometimes industrial design takes on a singular focus—whether it’s imaginative design, or hardcore technical amplification, or a captivating visual brand language. And at other times, ID leaders are asked to be somewhat of a hybrid, almost Transformer-like creature within a single product development framework. So it is with the market challenger philosophy that designers take on more of a support role to both marketers and engineers. In this framework, marketers pay attention to the brand hallmarks of emerging trends in a product category, while engineers pay attention to cutting-edge technical capabilities that they can replicate. Industrial designers, in this framework, must ensure that the fast-followers that they are helping to create must stand on their own in the marketplace while borrowing brand and functional elements from the existing market leader.

We see the market challenger strategy most commonly in the world of electronics, a fast-paced industry in terms of product development with lots of imitation. Mobile phones and device manufactures are especially eager to adopt this strategy in order to compete with design leaders like Apple—you might have noticed that ever since the iPhone came out, most of Apple’s competitors have rushed to develop their own Apple-fied versions these devices, with the design element quite restrained in comparison.

Cost Leader

In our final example, we see industrial designers must really know their boundaries. In a cost leadership framework, pricing trumps brand spending, technical investment, and design purity. Because of the tight cost restraints that drive this strategic vision, ID becomes the equivalent of graphic designers’ use of negative space.  The industrial designer must suppress his natural desire to reach his own creative limits, while playing a key support role to leaders in supply chain management, marketing, and engineering. This four-way collaboration, with the designer in the support role to the other three, ensures that development results in products that are low-cost leaders in the marketplace while showcasing satisfactory technical quality and aesthetics.

Many examples of cost leadership strategies lie in the packaging design industry. Many companies buy stock containers, as opposed to custom packaging, placing limits on industrial designers. We must then use our creativity through graphics and other embellishments to make the most of design within an inexpensive framework.