Product Design as Approached

І he artist’s interest in machines has laid the foundation for a new depart­ment in industry, in which the relations of product manufacturers and of consumers reach a new level of understanding and congeniality. The artist’s contribution touches upon that most important of all phases entering into selling — the psychological. He appeals to the consumer’s vanity and plays upon his imagination, and gives him something he does not tire of.

The designer of industrial products can only be successful if he is imbued with the conviction that machines, such as typewriters, automobiles, weighing scales, railway trains, electric fans, radiators, ships, stoves, radios are good to look at when the problems involved are properly solved. An original creative aptitude for materializing this conviction in steel, wood, glass, aluminum, plastic substances and other materials old and new is the sine qua non of the profession.

A good illustration of the proper relation between use and appearance is the suspension bridge. A properly designed suspension bridge, regardless of its size, has the utmost simplicity.17* Its main supporting elements, the cables, hang between their supports as naturally and as gracefully as loose rope. The roadway is suspended from the cables by regularly spaced hangers. The loca­tion and direction of the cables and hangers conform to the natural lines of the action of the stresses within them, permitting the most economical use of material in their structional design. There are no superfluous or inefficient members. Inevitably, when all the elements of which the bridge is composed are organically assembled, the structure assumes a pleasing form.

There is an old saying that when a thing is designed right, it looks right. In this connection there arises at once the difficulty that is usually involved in establishing a definition. The terms used may mean entirely different things to different persons. Picasso, for instance, could well make the same state­ment with regard to one of his compositions;’ and although Picasso might agree with the work of the engineer,*0 the engineer is not likely to agree with the work of Picasso. An object is well designed when it has been reduced to its utmost simplification in terms of function and form.

While function once arrived at, is fixed, its expression in form may vary endlessly under individual inflection. Form, referring to exterior appearance, always implies a high degree of quality, distinctiveness, and unity with its function. The public generally is unaware that a designer or engineer has enormous latitude in solving a particular problem in the right way. In this respect, engineering, architecture, painting, sculpture, poetry, music and all other media of design resemble one another. This semblance is the starting point of the trouble and it is this that makes the problems interesting. The correct solution of a problem depends on whether the designer is an artist or just a craftsman.

The first scale of the Toledo Scale Company, designed in 1897 by Allen De Vilbiss, functioned satisfactorily.17* In engineering terms, it was designed right and it looked right. Through years of use and experimentation the

original scale was made to function better and also to look better."0 Its suc­cess made it the most popular and most widely used and imitated counter scale on the market. The problem of improving the design of this scale was given to me. My recommendations were slight and yet somewhat radical. There are two outstanding faults in the design of the existing scale, — one its weight, since it is made almost entirely of cast iron, and the other its large bulk. I redesigned the body to be made out of thin pressed metal, recommend­ing aluminum. So that the purchaser may see simultaneously what is being weighed and its correct weight, the pendulum mechanism is located at one side and the cylinder mechanism cantilevered."1 The form of the enclosing body is simplified as much as possible and the only further recommendation I made was to set the scale into the counter, so that the weighing platform would be flush with the wrapping surface.

Mr. Bennett had an idea for a new type of scale which he called the Island Scale."2 This is a mobile unit combining the weighing scale with weighing platform set flush with the wrapping counter, and facilities for holding rolls of paper, string, tape, and paper bags. This unit can be moved to any posi­tion in the store, where there is no counter, or even out on to the sidewalk where the fresh vegetables might be displayed. The unit is a good illustration of an executive applying creative thought to his own products. Not alone in new problems, but in old products to be brought up to date it is essential to discard traditions and ideas of a hampering kind and take advantage of new ideas, new materials and new methods of production.

Much might be said of the necessary routine procedure in the creation of a new design before the designer so much as attempts a sketch. For the sake of concreteness, I will describe the routine that is observed in my own office.

When a new problem comes up for design, all my associates, those who will be connected with the problem in any responsible way, gather in my office

and discuss the problem in all its phases. Depending upon the nature of the subject, different types of designers, engineers, merchandisers and research specialists are present. To insure clarity of purpose and thoroughness, we pro­ceed in accordance with a check list which has become more and more standardized with each new job. We determine the specific objectives and lay out the various means of achieving those objectives. A working schedule is laid out in weekly units. Later on, a detailed, day-to-day schedule covering all details of the work is made. These schedules are agreed to whole-heartedly by every one in any way connected with them, and each person assumes re – sponsibility for his or her part of the schedule. The discipline of maintaining a prearranged plan, schedule and set of restrictions is of great value. Con­tinual analysis imposes integrity and directness in the mental processes and eliminates guessing and whimsies.

Our ground work is founded wholly on facts. All records in my office are kept in writing. Verbal understandings do not count. All decisions arrived at in every meeting of consequence among ourselves or between clients and our­selves are covered by a stenographic record in the form of minutes. A copy of the minutes is sent to every one present at the meeting, within twenty – four hours after the meeting, for approval or correction. This practice pre­vents misunderstandings and in several instances has prevented losses of thousands of dollars.

Design problems vary not only with each industry and with each product, but with each manufacturer. The first step after determining the specific ob­jective is to become familiar with the object to be designed: the thing it does or should do, the way it is made, sold, serviced; its good qualities and its unsatisfactory features. In short, all possible information must be gathered about every matter that can in any way influence the design. Specifically, these are recognized as the fundamental preliminaries to the actual creation

of a design: The client’s factory is visited, to study the methods and equip­ment for the production of the product in its present form. This visit is im­perative if the designer is to produce designs that can be executed with exist­ing facilities. Also, at this time, the designer gets from the client cost details which enable him to keep the new design within a certain price range, and all other available information concerning the product. Simultaneously, the designer consults recognized authorities on materials, construction, produc­tion and finish. He acquaints himself with the methods of merchandising and servicing used by not only the client but his competitors. He searches past and present books, periodicals and reports from various firms, associations and libraries. He makes a comparative study of the lines of outstanding com­petitors. As occasion requires, he conducts a survey among users of the exist­ing product, seeking comment, criticism and suggestions; and, in addition, a survey of dealers for the same data. The client or his advertising agency has usually made a survey that can supply much valuable data. Nevertheless the designer’s point of view is sufficiently different to find little of concrete value in surveys made by others. This research and study is done entirely from the standpoint of design.

The experience of my own organization convinces me that the survey to acquire impressions and interpretation of users is of considerable value in certain instances. Approaching problems involved in the design of weighing scales, radios, gas stoves, I assigned various individuals with proper qualifica­tions to go into carefully selected parts of the country to make numerous specific inquiries. Among these investigators were designers, merchandising specialists, salesmen, engineers; men to get the men’s point of view, women to get the reaction of women. The various areas covered were selected for one specific reason or another. They represented every phase of normal con­temporary living conditions, varying from the metropolis to the scantily

populated rural commu­nity.

For this type of work I used very few professional canvassers. Experiment has convinced me that they fail to get the best results. It is my practice to send out personable men and women who are not in a hurry, who can be depended upon to


ject thoroughly. These investigators call on individuals in their homes, where they sit and chat for perhaps fifteen minutes. Sometimes two or three of the neighbors are invited to participate. It may prove to be an animated session and of real value for our purpose. Always, these investigators have a dozen fundamental questions for each person to answer. We have found that no topic is as easy to use as an opening wedge for door-to-door conversation as how to improve the attractiveness of the home. Questions are not asked directly and answers are not written down in the presence of the person inter­rogated. The written report is made out immediately after the termination of the interview. All reports are mailed in daily. This data is sorted and compiled in statistical form as it arrives at the office.

As an indication of the type of information these surveys produce, I list a few questions from past solicitations regarding radios: Is there anything you do not like about your radio: Tone quality? Clarity of reception? Style or design of cabinet? Size? Hard to dust? Operating cost? Maintenance cost? Would you prefer to have your radio concealed in a piece of furniture such

as: Table? Desk? Bookcase? Chest? Clock? Drawers? Would you prefer a radio that could be installed in a closet, basement or other concealed location, providing it functioned just as well? Would you prefer your radio cabinet to have: Legs with stretchers? Legs without stretchers? No legs? Would you like your radio cabinet to have doors? What type of covering would you pre­fer over the speaker? Would you like incorporated in your radio: Clock?

Reading lamp? Ash tray? Other feature?

Here are a few questions from past solicitations regarding gas stoves: What finish would you like if you were buying a new stove: Enamel? Lacquer?

Natural metal such as stainless steel? What criticism have you of your pres­ent stove: Heats kitchen excessively? Hard to clean? Finish unsatisfactory?

How? Broiler unsatisfactory?

How? Oven not large enough? Would you prefer i the cooking surface of your stove to be: Solid? Grilled?

Why? Would you like to have your stove combined with other kitchen furniture:

Cabinet? Refrigerator? What color combinations do you prefer? Solid Colors — Black?

White? Natural metal such as stainless steel? Other col – * ors? What special features would you like built into your stove: Clock? Heat con­trol? Time control? Insula-

tion? Electric toaster? Electric percolator? Electric waffle iron? Automatic instant lighter? Safety valve?

One of the most valuable places for getting information of this general character is aboard different classes of railway trains. If the research person is a good conversationalist with pleasing personality, has consideration for others, together with something resembling a sense of humor, he or she can accomplish a good deal in a short space of time. It is a simple matter to turn a dining or club-car conversation from one subject to another. The impor­tant factor in conducting a survey of this kind is to pick the right individuals from whom to get information. The survey should represent the average mass viewpoint, the viewpoint of the greatest buying power.

As an instance of the value of in­formation attained by the survey method, I may cite one example. When I undertook the design of radios for one of the large companies in this field, I asked a member of the client’s engineering department what the public’s preference was regarding stretchers. As you probably know, a stretcher is the horizontal member of the frame near the floor that connects the legs of cabinet or table to give it greater rigidity. The answer to my question was that it made no differ­ence from any standpoint other than the strength of the cabinet. In our radio survey this same question was

asked of hundreds and hundreds of users. The result showed that sixty-four per cent of the persons interviewed objected to stretchers because they made cleaning under the cabinet difficult.

Once having acquired all the information he can about the product, and having established clearly in his own mind and that of his client what pur­poses and conditions the product must meet, then the designer applies him­self to the problem of redesign. The first step in this work is one of organiz­ing it. For this, I use a card-index system, consisting of several hundred printed forms-covering every phase of every type of work, a system that makes it utterly impossible to overlook any development or phase of any type of problem. I am in no hurry to start preliminary sketches201 until these ideas are clearly visualized in my івг • Toledo island scale designed by norman bel geddes 1929 mind and the minds of my assistants. A drawing in­volves comparatively little work on the part of a draftsman after he once has his facts and objective clearly in mind. There is no use putting hand to paper until you can close your eyes and see with complete clarity all details of what it is you wish to draw.

One great misconception is prevalent regarding de­sign. Design is not pri-

marily a matter of drawing but a matter of thinking. Personally, I do com­paratively little drawing. The bulk of this is in the nature of preliminary sketches201 and in criticising designs in course of development. This is a mat­ter of daily procedure. Every drawing, at every stage of the work, from the preliminary sketches up to the final shop drawings, passes across my desk for approval or criticism before it advances to the next stage. While drawings are being worked on, I go over them daily in the drafting room.

After a design has been approved by the client in finished sketch form,202 it is developed into the working drawing stage.203’204 By this I mean that it is restudied at larger scale which requires greater accuracy and a thorough con­sideration of details. Full-sized models are then made of wood or metal, de­pending on circumstances.,,4′,,7 They are completely finished, so that the client can get an accurate impression of the appearance of his product in its final form.

The aims and approach of the industrial designer may appear in a more re­vealing light if we consider them from a somewhat different angle. For pur­poses of illustration, suppose we discuss the various problems suggested by metal furniture. Wood for a long time has been looked on as the natural 183 • BRASS BED DESIGNER UNKNOWN 1890 material for furniture.

Tradition and custom favor it, so much so that, until recently, manufacturers of metal furniture could not hope to compete for popu­lar preference with the manufacturer of wood furniture.103 But metal is now a promising and pro-

gressive rival, and its use in making furniture, is, I believe, destined presently to be far more extensive than now. In the home of the future, metal furni­ture will neither be odd nor distasteful, but a commonplace.

Any competent designer who, after working in wood, turns to the prob­lems involved in the creation of metal furniture, must inevitably be re­freshed and stimulated by the infinitely interesting variety of new forms that suggest themselves. He sees some old conventions vanish, finds new liberties permitted and likewise new restrictions imposed. He confronts an inviting problem in craftsmanship — the use of machines to stamp out of metal a product that shall be aesthetically expressive, graceful, comfortable, and at the same time characteristic of the material used. In addition, he has to solve new problems with regard to surface and finish. The adaptability of-corru­gated steel and steel tubing is in itself a fascination.

Metal furniture that does not seek to meet the problem sincerely is by no means new. Made to look like wood, with telltale imitation finish in oak or mahogany, it has long been made after designs originally conceived for wooden furniture.1’4 But if the metal is treated as metal, exploiting rather than concealing the nature of the material, then not only is the taint of a fake avoided but the problem is approached in a manner that allows it to capital­ize on its own values and make possible an interesting solution. Imagine an armchair made of steel tubing modeled and painted as – a convincing imitation of a wooden Colonial chair. Sit in it, touch it. The sound and touch of the deception remind you that you are duped by a pretentious substitute. Imag­ine another chair, also of steel tubing. There is nothing wrong with tubing. It provides flexibility, a pleasant springy easte. Lacquered or chromium-plated and finished with an upholstered seat, it is a practical chair, adaptable to many informal uses. It is obviously metal but neither substitute nor fake, and it solves in its own honest way the problem as to what kind of chair this chair

should be, and defies imitation in wood. It can be fabricated and sold at con­siderably less than the imitation Windsor chair.

The designer who has in hand the problem of a metal bed, for instance, is well advised if he does not ponder too long the beds of history and still less contemporary beds. His object should be-to analyze the bed in its fundamental terms. The main elements of a bed are the mattress and spring. The con­struction is nothing more than something to hold the mattress and springs.1*’ As for headboard, footboard, legs; they are matters of individual taste.1*4 The bed should be off the floor, not only to give the mattress more spring, which means comfort, but to let air circulate under it and to facilitate keeping the space under it clean.

In connection with metal furniture as with other products, the problems of color and finish open a large field to the designer. Lacquer, which is at present the usual finish for steel furniture, can be obtained in a large range of colors. In the last few years, the colors themselves have been greatly improved. Muddy and chalky colors have been replaced by good clear colors. An ever increasing range of trims is being perfected. Chromium, aluminum and brass are among the more obvious. In general, the designer is faced by three major considerations in specifying color for his product: color that is appropriate to the product itself, color that is appropriate to the environment and ultimate setting of the product, and color that will arouse a buying interest in the prospective customer.

Aside from color, there are at least two cardinal principles by which the designer should always be guided: simplicity and the use of interesting mate­rials. Simplicity means, of course, the avoidance of excess decoration and the elimination of every unnecessary detail. The designer who works in industrial fields is using, instead of pigment on canvas, or marble, a combination of materials that are the development of this age. They are as different from

the materials of the painter as the materials of the painter are from the mate­rials of the sculptor. In addition, of course, he has aesthetic problems to solve — proportion, for instance. There is a great difference between merely satis­fying proportion and the proportioning of a form that gives it added inter­est, vitality, conviction and distinction.

Whether the utility of the product involves one unit or the combination of a number of units, the same reasoning is applied to each. If it involves more than one unit, the designer first applies his principles to the group in terms of function, organism, and proportion, reducing the several required masses to one mass, placing all the forms in their proper sequence and combination. He brings the component parts into a unified whole, with no unnecessary embel­lishments or foibles.

A radio receiving set for the home consists of three major groups of parts:


the receiving and amplifying mechanism, called the chassis; the speaker, and the baffle. In early radios there was no baffle and no attempt was made to organize the chassis mechanism and the speaker into a piece of furniture.1’7

The chassis is the assembly of tubes, condensers and other electrical appara­tus arranged on a base and connected in such a manner as to receive, select and amplify the radio waves to an intensity that will actuate the speaker magnet. The speaker is a diaphragm of lightweight material, usually conical in shape, vibrating with the fluctuations of current delivered to an electro­magnet from the receiver. It operates in much the same manner as a tele­phone receiver. The baffle is a plate of any material to which the speaker is attached. Its function is to separate the sound waves that emanate from the front of the speaker from those that emanate from the back, so that they reach the auditor’s ear without interference which causes imperfect recep­tion. The effect of the baffle is to bring out the low bass and high treble notes in proper relation to the intermediate notes, giving a full, rounded

tone. Without the baffle, the speaker gives a hollow, harsh tone. Experiments show that the ideal baffle to date is of wood having a period of vibration be­low that of the lowest bass notes, so that no audible sympathetic vibrations are created and of such dimensions that the sound travels at least a distance of about four feet from the front to the back of the speaker cone. A wooden disc forty-eight inches in diameter meets these requirements.

There is no fixed size for the chassis or for the speaker, as they vary with the type of set, its capacity, and arrangement of elements. Any combination of the above variables will again vary with the manufacturer. Only wire connection is necessary between the chassis mecha­nism and the cone. In other words, the chassis can be in another part of the house or elsewhere, provided there are additional wires for remote control, since its location depends only on the accessibility of the controls for changing station and volume. The cone, with the baffle board, can stand free or it may be assembled with the chassis in one unit. The cone would work as satisfactorily if the baffle were set flush into a ceiling or wall, and there is no reason why the cone should be any less attractive in design than any object in the room. For that matter, the cone can be built, as is the common practice, in a cabinet.

I have been speaking in terms of a Class A radio. For smaller and cheaper sets, the same conditions govern. Obviously, in cheaper sets, with chassis con­

taining fewer tubes and a smaller-sized cone with a reduced baffle, the qual­ity is not so good, but that is the only essential difference.

There is no doubt in my mind that radio cabinets will soon be manufac­tured of a composition material instead of wood. When the cost of molded plastics comes into the competitive price range of other less satisfactory mate­rials and under the price of wood, there is no doubt that they wjll be used far

more extensively than now for radios. The best-look­ing radio I have ever seen was an experimental one which consisted of nothing but the essential knobs, switches, and indicating devices mounted on a black bakelite panel without frills or ornament. Bakelite has been used for many years in electrical laboratories for panel boards, instrument boards and the like, but its cost of manufacture except

DESIGNED BY FREED-EISEMAN 1924 i – • • i • i

in large quantities is nigh. So far, plastic materials in other than flat sheets have only been extensively used for small items such as powder containers, cigarette boxes, knobs. Meth­ods of fabrication are such that the initial investment in equipment is very great and the materials have not been sufficiently developed to warrant larger articles.

The material and the manufacturing process of plastics make it possible to

get every variety of molded form with great detail and sharpness. Bakelite, Plaskon, Lumarith and Beetleware are all essentially synthetic resins, the chemical compositions of which are generally kept secret. However, the vari­ations between the various formulas are not great and the technique of manufacture is essentially the same. So far as appearance is concerned, there is only a slight difference. Some of these materials are more adaptable to light colors than others. Plas­kon has a very complete color range without the chalky appearance of other resins.

Limitations in the use of these materials will presently be overcome. It will be practicable to use molds of larger size. A decrease in the time required for the materials to set will make them available for large cabinets at a much lower cost than at present for wood. An all-metal radio with its appearance depending on exquisite proportions rather than em­bellishments, should be interesting, attractive, and easy to manufacture.

The ultimate solution of the radio problem will undoubtedly be met by permanent installation.

However, this solution will hardly be practicable until radios are improved to the point where they may be relied upon as we rely upon electric light or plumbing. While we may anticipate that remote control will be in general use ultimately, it still is comparatively expensive.

The present radio cabinet has had a similar history to the automobile, in’ that it grew out of something else. The first company of any size to manu­facture quality radios was one that had manufactured phonographs for many

years. The phonograph was an outgrowth of the music cabinet.1"1 The bulk of the cabinet was used for the storage of records. Approximately one eighth of it was required for the mechanism. In order to get the record platform up to a convenient height for a person to operate while standing, the cabinet was built high. The Victor Company had successfully made Victrola cabi­nets for many years. After being forced to enter the radio field, it was ab­sorbed by the Radio Corporation of America, which utilized in the making of radios the facilities formerly used in making Victrola cabinets. As a result,

there was little difference in appearance between a radio and a Victrola. Moreover, the better machines were combinations of radio and phonograph. Other radio companies followed the lead of the Victor people. Though this practice is no longer common, radio cabi­nets still are designed and built in the same general form. Radios are still in their horseless carriage days.

But the basic form is not the worst feature of the present radio cabinet. It is the lack of taste in propor­tion and detail. With rea­son, one might hold that a

radio cabinet should be designed as of a definite period, that is, Tudor, or Louis XIV, or Jacobean. It is hardly reasonable, however, to assume that a respectable piece of furniture can be a combination of all three. On the other hand, it might be assumed that a radio need reflect none of these periods, but have a form that would be appropriate anywhere, due to its simplicity and dignity."0 Instead of accepting this point of view, some manufacturers reason that if a radio were designed as simply as a grand piano, for instance, it would not appeal to popular taste. Hence, a style of a purely mongrel nature which few persons of taste can tolerate.1” There is a still stranger point of view in the industry at the moment — to disguise the fact that a radio is a radio.

Many manufacturers are designing clocks and put­ting radio chassis and speaker inside them. They are doing the same thing with desks and tables. It is contrary to all principles of good design to represent an object on the outside as something other than it really is. Essentially the radio is one of the most representative products of the modern era, an era in which the mechanistic and the aesthetic are related. Its future design will proceed upon this basis.

Updated: October 7, 2015 — 7:20 am