Thursday, February 9, 2017

Design as a Process: Why Designing a Chair is the Same Thing as Designing a Website


Back in the summer of 2016, when I was a naïve internship-hunting industrial design student, I realized something important: if I want a job I first need to figure out what kind of job I want. There were so many kinds of job titles (industrial designer, interaction designer, UX/UI designer, product designer, etc.). Although I thought I was an industrial designer, I suddenly wasn’t so sure. 

I also discovered that labels could differ significantly in meaning across cultures or even across the country.  At my school, “Industrial Designer” was sort of this all-encompassing term. In the US, it seemed to more specifically mean “someone really good at AutoCAD”, and in Silicon Valley a product designer was apparently a front-end developer (!?!?). I struggled to understand the labels used by employers and especially, to find a label for myself. Since I was neither an expert in development, nor in AutoCAD, I got discouraged. I thought perhaps that good at a lot of things meant, well, good at nothing.

Fast forward a couple of months and I’m at Rightpoint, doing a hybrid internship between UX Design and Visual Design. When I explain to coworkers at Rightpoint that I study Industrial Design, most people say: “Wow! That’s so different.” Turns out, it’s actually not. 

In this article, I want to compare Industrial design (a chair) and digital design (a website) to argue that the two are less like distant cousins and more like close siblings.   

The Design Process

First off let’s take a look at the overall process of industrial design and digital design. I have simplified the processes in the graphic below.  Looking from a process standpoint, It’s easy to spot that there are many areas of overlap. In fact, the first five steps in the process are exactly the same.  Not surprisingly, the roads seem to diverge when it comes to the execution phase, which requires the most technical expertise. 

The graph shows that at a high level the two fields overlap quite a bit, but let’s also look at what’s happening specifically within some of these phases. To do this I’ll show how a chair designer and a website designer employ the same principles to their designs. Although there are many areas of overlap, I’ve picked out three important ones below.

Principle One: Design is User Centric

There are three levels of user-centric design that both the chair- and the website designer consider when designing a product that is truly relevant to its users:

1. Physically meeting the user’s needs
A chair designer might ask: How large should the sitting surface be so that 95% of users can comfortably use this chair?
Website designer: Is this text legible to at least 95% of the user base?

2. Intellectually meeting the user’s needs
Chair designer: What is the first place a user would look to adjust the chair height?
Website designer: What is the first place a user would look to change language settings?        

3. Emotionally meeting the user’s needs
Chair designer: How can I make a user feel “empowered” in this chair? How can I design a chair that enhances a conversation at the dinner table?
Website designer: Does this form experience make a user feel “secure” and “respected” when filling out personal information?

Because user-centric design means gathering all this knowledge about a user, the tools that industrial designers and digital designers use to gather this information are very similar. Some tools are conducting user research, creating personas and customer journeys, gathering data about accessibility and ergonomics, and conducting user testing.

Which brings me to my next point…

My favorite chair, the “Revolt chair” designed by Dutch designer Friso Kramer in 1953, is a perfect example of an ergonomic chair. The seat is slightly angled upwards to counter the forward sliding tension of the legs and the back plate is positioned perfectly to provide lower-back support, but still allow freedom of movement for the shoulder blades. In addition to being comfortable and great for your posture, this chair has a childlike personality and wants to be your best friend. 

Principle Two: Prototyping (and Testing!) is Essential

For both the chair designer and the website designer prototyping is essential. Prototyping is a great way to answer questions about your design, especially questions related to your user. Although the tools industrial designers and digital designers use to prototype differ, the principle is the same: quick low-cost prototypes are the best way to iterate efficiently and get feedback from users before the product launch.

Both digital and industrial designers prototype for two reasons: 

  1. To present work to a client or team in a way that more closely resembles the final product’s interactions
  2. To test work – often with real users – in order to validate the work and/or find out more about the work’s shortcomings

For example, the chair designer might 3D print a 1:1 model of the chair armrests, and then test those armrests for size and comfort with actual users. The website designer, in a similar vain, might make an Axure prototype of the home page and then analyze a user’s ability to use the main navigation.

Herman miller built over 30 functional prototypes before launching the “Setu” Office chair.

Principle Three: Technology is often a Limiting Factor but can also Inspire Innovative Concepts

Once both designers are happy with their respective work, the struggle begins, i.e. the execution phase. During this phase both the chair- and website designer must work with engineers to realize their concepts, and this often leads to pain points. The chair designer may have to make design concessions to make production cheaper and more environmentally friendly, whereas the website designer may have to make concessions because certain components are inconsistent across browsers or create performance issues.

Engineers (digital and industrial) speak their own languages…

However, as much as Designers feel like they always need to push engineers, technology can also push design to new frontiers.

A good designer knows how to think like an engineer. That’s why it’s as important for the web designer to know a basic level of code as it is for an industrial designer to understand material properties and the basics of physics. Being able to collaborate with engineers, especially earlier in the process, enables innovative work.  

Left: In 1948, Charles and Ray Eames designed the first mass-produced plastic chair. This chair, originally produced by Herman Miller, remains an icon to this day. Right: Today, new technologies like shape-shifting materials and 3D printing lead the way in innovation. Here Carl de Smet designed a chair that is Self-assembling; due to a smart plastic, the chair expands and takes it full shape when it is exposed to higher temperatures.


My experience at Rightpoint has shown me that much of my Industrial design education can be applied to digital design, or any design form for that matter.  And vice versa!

Design is a process. The labels “industrial”, “digital”, “product”, “interaction” etc. simply indicate a medium. Much like artists, designers can have a favorite medium, but are apt to create work in any discipline they choose. To me this poses exciting possibilities. 

Knowing that experience in any design field will overall make me a better designer, makes me unafraid to pursue projects or career opportunities that stray from what I was taught in school or what I assumed to be the best field for me.

I am confident that being a multidisciplinary designer helps me in my work today and will continue to do so in the future. My message to other interns trying to figure out what job title is right for them: don’t worry about it too much and follow your gut. Your talents are a lot more versatile than you think.