As 3D visualisation and advanced concept design take hold, product design is shifting up a gear, says Mark Penfold. But in this increasingly technical field, is the pen still mightier than the mouse? Only just!
Product design requires an interesting mix of traditional skill and futuristic technology and as such it demands more from the designer than perhaps any other discipline. To succeed, not only must he or she be a competent draftsman, but also a skilled technician with a deep understanding of manufacturing processes and, increasingly, an affinity with essential 3D software.
Then there's the concept itself, the crucial requirement to be "on the money". The products you design must find a market. As Dick Powell, one half of the inimitable Seymour Powell partnership, explains: "You need a sympathy with modern consumers, a wide social radar".
This is a rapidly developing field - one that rewards those with the flexibility to take up its challenges. Currently in the process of developing an entirely new approach, one more focused on the early stages of a product's lifecycle, firms such as Seymour Powell and IDEO are bringing product design into the 21st century.
According to Ingelise Nielsen of leading design firm IDEO, for her the ideal product designer is T-shaped:
"People who have a deep expertise particular to them, and a broad understanding and willingness to collaborate." This obviously takes a while to perfect: "We think of a graduate as embryonic," says Powell.
It may not be traumatic enough to induce a foetal reaction from new arrivals, but this is a very technically demanding line of work. A three-year BA, a two-year MA, and then you arrive at work and, says Powell, "Spend the first couple of years learning the ropes."
Though there is an increasingly concerted move towards the use of 3D design packages such as Alias Studio, the traditional skill of drawing retains its premium. "If I had to pick one skill it would be drawing," says Powell. "The people who can draw are the originators of the concept."
This highlights an increasingly clear trend for the profession to split into distinct disciplines. The increasing sophistication of visualisation software used by product designers means that this side of the job is becoming a specialised discipline in its own right. It has to. After all, mastering a package such as Alias Studio takes 100 per cent effort, and if you do that, says Powell, "We can't afford to have you diddling around doing anything else."
Kerry Kingston worked for Alias before leaving to set up the Bluesmith consultancy with her partner Lee Irvine. The firm's design services centre on in-house expertise with Alias' industry standard suite of design tools. "Usually," says Kingston, "our clients have done the early concept work, creating a set of options to choose from." Bluesmith realises the visuals: "We build the 3D, then produce realistic renderings."
Recent Bluesmith projects have included the development of a 74-metre motor yacht that would not look out of place on the quayside in Monte Carlo, "The only way to communicate the kind of subtle swooping surfaces that project involved was with reliable CAD data," says Kingston. The machine world has rapidly made itself indispensable.
Another upshot is that designers have been freed of the constraints imposed by less precise means of communication, "In the past, people were less ambitious," says Kingston. "Designers used to do sketches, throw them to the engineer and then six months later some abomination would roll off the production line".
The arrival of 3D packages that are capable of exporting manufacturing specifications has forced designers to have a much deeper role in the product's life cycle: "It's forced them to become what they always should have been," says Kingston. It also brings imagination and reality much closer together.
Powell zeros-in on the skill sitting at the centre of the whole project: "Concept design hasn't really changed," he says, and drawing is essential to this process - a way to filter information. The simple but rare ability to capture intent with a pen is still the most efficient way to design. "It gives you the chance to fix the envelope without having to detail everything," says Powell.
"The fastest way to explore possibilities is still drawing, and the emphasis on this in education has been greatly reduced," he continues. This is a cause for concern at Seymour Powell: "People try to compensate for this with complex software skills."
While packages such as Alias Studio give you the ability to quickly produce realistic visualisations that fit directly into the production pipeline, the attraction of rapid prototyping on paper is as strong as ever: "[On paper] you can communicate 95 per cent of your intent even if you only know about five per cent of the actual product". This, says Powell, provides you with the kind of flexibility you need when trying new concepts.
Carlos Peralta heads up the Product Design course at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA). "Product design is about responding to people's needs, problems and desires using products," he says. For him, product designers must be closely integrated with the world they seek to create for: "The most appealing thing about product design is that it relates to almost every single human activity and area of knowledge." ."
"The type of product designers we are educating at GSA should be creative, culturally and socially aware and responsible, curious and open minded," says Peralta. And the list doesn't end there: "They must be able to work across different disciplines and contexts, and have the ability to deal with complexity." How you teach this is an evolving process: "There are as many ways to teach design as there are schools or designers," he says.
But one trend is very clear. "The emphasis of our course has shifted towards equipping our students with new working and intellectual skills," says Peralta. There is a marked tendency for product designers to be more involved with the underlying development process, to be the ideas generators rather than the ideas developers.
Following a BA in Product Design at the Glasgow School of Art, Craig Bunyan is currently completing a Masters degree in Advanced 3D Visualisation. Coincidentally, this is a vehicle design project for Seymour Powell, and you can park those images of dull family saloons because, "It's an airship." And not just any old airship. "It's a 200m-high airship based around single membrane Hydrogen fuel cells," Bunyan explains.
Product design is changing, and Bunyan wants to be part of an emerging school of designers, "I like the Philips Futures and Tactics group or Seymour Powell's own Foresight team. It's not that one is better than the other," says Bunyan, "but the new school gets involved earlier than the old school." The new school wants to work from a blank canvas.
Though the tools are improving, producing a winning visualisation is much tougher. In an attempt to win the affections of these practiced assayers the work must be ever more polished, pushing designers and students to extend their skill set. "Increasingly, it's marketing people that you have to deal with," says Bunyan.
These are challenging times for the product designer. On one hand, the frame of reference is narrowing as production switches its base to Asia, and on the other it's deepening as firms develop ideas in advance of a solid brief aided by the kind of visualisation software comparable to that used in Hollywood.
The product designer must be plugged into his culture at ground level, an ideas man able to give you a photorealistic picture of what's on his mind. "In the end," Bunyan concludes, "it's a simple question of bandwidth." The firms that can deliver an end-to-end service will be the ones that get the work.