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A DELICATE BALANCE:

AESTHETICS AND FUNCTION IN INDUSTRIAL DESIGN

Written by Rain Stites Photography by Stan Olszewski

I

t’s the middle of a hot summer day and your car has been baking in the sun for hours. With a few easy clicks and twists of the buttons and knobs on your vehicle’s climate control system, your car transforms from an Easy Bake Oven on wheels to the perfectly tempered oasis you so desperately sought. “What architects do for buildings, industrial designers do for products,” says Joshua Nelson, assistant industrial design professor at San Jose State University. “This includes a wide variety of ‘products’—from toothbrushes to furniture, to cars, to Bluetooth speakers, to digital applications.” The Industrial Designers Society of America defines the field of industrial design as “the professional service of creating products and systems that optimize the function, value, and appearance” of a product. The goal, according to IDSA, is to create mutual benefit and, as a consequence, a better experience for both user and manufacturer. Every day, people use products to assist them in every aspect of their lives. Seemingly mundane objects, objects most of us take for granted, have been carefully crafted by an industrial designer to help people interact with the world with ease. “Industrial designers are primarily concerned with forms and how people experience those forms,” Nelson explains. In the hands of designers, various raw materials—metal, wood, plastics—are transformed into products as wide ranging as the humble clip on a laptop bag or the controls

in the air conditioning system of a car. The industrial design department at San Jose State University is flooded with ideas, from the wackiest to the most innovative, all stemming from the imagination of the industrial design students who occupy its classrooms. “There’s no bad idea because ideas are cheap, right? You can just keep turning ideas, you can keep throwing stuff around,” says Steffany Tran, an industrial design junior. Nelson commends the diverse interests of the students of the program. A balance exists, he says, between those who want to learn how to improve the aesthetics of products and those whose focus is improving functionality. “This reflects one of the great current attributes of the design profession,” he says, “in that design is best done by interdisciplinary teams that bring a variety of people together, with a variety of interests, skills, and expertise.” But the designer is only one-half of the equation. Product design is driven by the user. Understanding the user, Tran says, is necessary for creating a meaningful product. There are two ways, she explains, that this information can be sought out: user research and market research. In user research, it’s important for a designer to learn the age, occupation, income, and personal interest of the target audience for a product. And that’s just for starters. These details, and more, factor into the design. “Every minute detail that you wouldn’t think matters, matters,” she says. Understanding

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the person for whom the product is meant is crucial. “That’s who they are and that’s kind of what shapes them.” And that, in turn, shapes how they’ll use the product. In market research, the designer investigates the products already out there and the opportunity that might exist for this new product to fill a need. It’s important to start talking to experts or people more “well versed,” as Tran describes them, before becoming too involved in the design process. This marketplace feedback is crucial for creating a better overall product. “Industrial design is actually really interesting because you’re expected to know a little bit of everything,” Tran says. “You’re worrying about how people will interact with the product, how people will think about the product, how it can make their life easier… There’s so much that goes into the product that it’s kind of overwhelming.” Synchronicity between designer and user can help designers develop designs well matched to that population. Tran points out that designing for someone who is blind requires a completely different approach than designing for a sighted person, just as designing for the very young or the elderly differs from designing for mid-range adults, and designing should take into account culture as well. “To me,” says Nelson, describing this field, “it is all about creatively solving problems and trying to make everyday things be better for the people who use them.”

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FEATURING: Day Trip to Santa Cruz, Ca | Illuminating Change | Artist, Emo Gonzales | HillStack Studio, Ron Hemphill & Tricia Stackle | SJSU...

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