Product design: an overview

Humans are tactile, visual creatures. Given the choice, we’d rather touch and hold physical objects to find out how they work than look at representations of them on a flat screen. And in the world of product design, a real, tangible manifestation of what’s on the drawing board can be an essential tool to convince the client their product is developing in the way they want it to. Material objects give us information that’s hard to discern in two dimensions, such as scale and finish, or a sense of aesthetics and ergonomics.

Working prototypes or models not only allow designers to test and refine their blueprints, but they can also wow and excite clients and consumers ahead of a final launch to market. To whet the appetite in just this way, Nissan Design Europe used UK company Ogle Models and Prototypes to create a Nissan Micra convertible car that would showcase its Colour & Concept designs to the International Motor Show 2007 in Frankfurt. The result was the creation, in ten weeks, of a kind of composite car, half fully manufactured frame, half prototype re-trim. Machine tooling was used to produce bumpers from a model board and prototype headlamps from solid acrylic, while grills were created using selective laser sintering, an ‘additive’ process of rapid prototyping that builds models from thin layers of powder.

Dyson designers and engineers also use SLS prototypes to assess the form of a final product. The DC24 vacuum cleaner, released in March, needed to be smaller than a full-sized Dyson, but with the same capabilities. So designers used SLS models to make sure the scaling was right, parts fitted together correctly and that the machine was durable.

Colour is a powerful element in any design and adding colour to a prototype or model can make a huge difference to a client’s perception of how the final design is going to look. Clothing company Timberland uses a 3D colour printer from Z Corp, which produces prototypes direct from CAD files. This enables them to turn out ‘innumerable iterations and variations so the designers and marketing managers can really be sure the product is what Timberland is expecting’, says Timberland CAD manager for footwear, Toby Ringdahl. Reebok’s DMX Shear trainer was also developed using 3D colour printing, achieving a realistic prototype remarkably similar to the finished product.

More technical design and engineering challenges can also be overcome through prototype testing. In creating a first-to-market fully enclosed ‘petal actuator’ aerosol for cosmetics brand Dove, Seymour Powell had to develop a single working piece which combined soft rubber with more solid polypropylene plastic, while also ensuring the aerosol button would be easy to use. ‘This needed a lot of difficult prototyping to get it to work,’ says Seymour Powell design director Adrian Caroen.

Another way of exploring how products might look and function is through conceptual visualisation. Though it is not strictly prototyping, companies such as Intel and Nokia are using models, animations and computer-generated imagery to explore visions of futuristic products emerging from new technologies. Nokia’s ‘organic’ Morph concepts, for example, are visualisations stemming from its ongoing research into nanotechnology. Intel, meanwhile, has worked with Ideo to explore how mobile technologies might influence and tap into changing lifestyles, presenting the ideas and mock-up products in a series of short videos.

The selection of projects here shows how prototyping is instrumental in exploring, testing and reviewing designers’ ideas. Whether aesthetic, mechanical or conceptual, prototypes are a vital aspect of product design.

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