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Aesthetics in Engineering Design: Aesthetics and the Design Activity

The aim of this section is briefly to introduce aesthetic considerations for each of the six core phases in the Design Activity Model described in 'SEED Curriculum for Design -Engineering Undergraduate Courses'. [1]

This provides a context for the aesthetic techniques explained in (5.0) 'Developing Aesthetic Skills'.

Market Phase


Before developing aesthetic content for any product, it is important to understand:

Consumer Culture

The interaction between consumer and market leads to a cultural technology (techne + logos: art + reason) of shifting values. Trends and megatrends in lifestyle, technological development and social issues have to be anticipated by major manufacturers to remain competitive. One should ask what customers prefer in terms of e.g. form/shape, colour, texture, graphics, material qualities, weight, and sound.

Each age has its own ephemeral values. American product streamlining in ships, locomotives, cars and even objects with no aerodynamic requirements such as refrigerators and staplers, was perceived as a desirable quality reflecting the modern aspirations and values of a forward looking society concerned with speed and progress, and typified by Raymond Loewy's 6000hp Sl, designed for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in the 1930's. [4] The Nissan 'Figaro' is mechanically identical to the mass produced 'March' but it is distinguished by its cosmetic details which allude to areas of fantasy and back to a nostalgia for the Sixties. The demand for its limited expensive edition was so great that purchases had to be decided by lottery. [5]

Niche Markets & Perceived Qualities

Distinctive features, such as car trim or car interior colour, pattern and material options are tailored for different market segments, and flexible modern production techniques make such options financially competitive.

One automotive manufacturer taped recordings of sounds emitted from the exhausts of successful and desirable classic sports cars as a basis for engineering the sound quality in a new model. It is recognised that sound affects consumer choice and the sound of a car door closing can say much about the quality associated with a car.

Qualities such as ambience, comfort, pleasure, delight, precision and beauty constitute cultural values augmented by reassurance about e.g. environmental issues, such as air pollution, noise levels and acid rain. This will affect the perceived attractiveness of a product. Whiter-than-white now implies bleaching (environmentally undesirable) and natural shades reflect a more humane treatment of the planet.

Predicting Trends

Predicting the forms and colours for products due to appear in another two, or perhaps four years is increasingly an exact science. The company Scantest specialises in evaluating the market potential and forecasting the future performance of new designs and colours through a standardised technique which reduces the subjectivity in decision-making. [6] The Chartered Society of Designers Colour Group work with manufacturers to predict colour ranges for a number of years in advance. This allows manufacturers to produce paint and dyes for whole ranges of raw materials used in the manufacture of products. [6]

Identity, Function & Context

People need products in their daily lives for utilitarian, social and emotional reasons. A Rolex watch not only tells its owner the time, but informs others of his/her aspirations and status. [7] It may also commemorate achievement or a legacy.

Before the revamp of its identity, Intercity's typeface was indistinguishable from other parts of British Rail's information system: it was the same as for the toilet signs and had no emotional appeal. Its subsequent redesign, together with a swallow image, proved a successful exercise which caught the imagination of the public. [6]

Specification Phase


When the specification is being compiled, it is important that:

The Specification

Compiling an aesthetic specification requires qualitative rather than quantitative skills, careful judgement and definition. Targets for aesthetic qualities are established through profiles of purchasers and users, competitive products and trends. Examples of how profiles of users and products can be defined are found in (5.2) 'Understanding the Market'. The PDS (Product Design Specification) should include visual reference to qualities found in existing products or even natural objects. Descriptions using analogy and allusion help convey subtleties and complexities effectively.

Examples of Analogy used in Specification

The designer of the elegant and minimal WM-109 Sony Walkman found his inspiration for its surface finish in a white ceramic chopstick holder which had just the correct depth and hard coolness. [8]

The Need Pain Xenos, designed as an electronic pain relief device using electrical nerve stimulation, refers visually to an existing product in its size and appearance - the personal stereo - now a socially acceptable product worn outwardly on the body. This has been made possible by using miniaturised electronic technology and touch controls which remove it from the alienating visual vocabulary associated with traditional medical equipment. [9]

Brand Differentiation & Corporate Identity

Existing 'house styles' or corporate design policies for products should be acknowledged, to visually relate families of products with an established vocabulary of forms, colours, detailing and graphics. [10]

Black & Decker and Bosch are distinguished from one another by the body casing colours and detailing in their DIY powered handtools, Since the design of its 1400 Light Breaker, Kango has endeavoured to retain a corporate consistency in colour, textures, materials and common parts over its product range where possible. The smart and tough modern appearance of the 1400 matches the functional efficiency in this re-engineered and redesigned product. [11] [12]

Design Development Team

At this stage, as in all others, it is essential that those involved in the various area of product genesis - design, production design, human factors, purchasing, marketing and sales meet throughout the gestation period and work as a multidisciplinary group to ensure clarity of objectives and rapid development.

Concept Phase


To optimise the generation and evaluation of concepts it is important to:

A Creative Environment

It is important that a suitable environment surrounds the designer, one which offers the opportunity to produce and evaluate ideas, to view examples of products or other visual reference material, and space to produce, present and discuss the ideas with others in the product development team.

Communication and Presentation of Concepts

At this stage, the powerful tools of concept drawing and 3D modelling are indispensable. These are discussed in more detail in (5.3). Sketch drawings are a very economical way of conveying information about a product, and sketch block models will quickly help give a feeling for Œpresenceš, massing, volumes and proportions. Alternative proposals can be developed quickly using a combination of sketch-drawings, sketch-models, sample boards of materials, and aesthetic references and analogies from other products and objects. Drawings and models allow a dialogue to develop between the designer and his/her own ideas, and with others in the team, including engineers concerned with the functional aspects of the product. [13] [14]

When the main elements of the product are decided then alternative configurations of those elements can be set out as conceptual sketches for a concept to go forward for detail design. Solutions can be chosen through an evaluation matrix which allows comparison of aesthetic elements against targets set in the PDS.

Using Analogy to Generate Concepts

New concepts for products can be generated by reference to other types of product or object. The form and presentation of the Novopen 'Insulin Delivery Device', using nine different types of plastic, alludes more to a technical pen set rather than to a conventional plastic syringe, allowing it to be technically sophisticated, accurate and socially acceptable in use. [15]

The Interdependence of Appearance, Performance and Manufacture

Old style ski boots were originally made from cut and stitched leather and at a time when there were 350 manufacturers in the field. Now highly-tooled mouldings are used to make ski boots, which have a different appearance and tactile quality from the previous generation. Seventy five percent of the market is now supplied by only three manufactures due to the high tooling costs for this new generation and style of boot. Appearance, performance and manufacture are obviously highly interdependent in this example. Karrimor is dedicated to a similar conceptual leap in the manufacture of its rucksacs. [16]

Detail Phase


It is the attention to detail which affects one's perception of the quality of a product or service. Detailing should consider the following:

Total Quality

The current Japanese concept of 'total quality' embraces not only 'zero defects' but attention to qualities which fascinate, delight in fittings and details. [5]

Careful detailing at all levels in the PTT, the Dutch postal and telecommunications system, establishes the quality of the service through the design of all aspects of the system, - the sorting machinery, products such as telephone kiosks and vans, graphics and signage. [17]

Cultural Differences in Detailing

The concept of putting men into space was a common goal for the Americans and Russians, both using similar technology. The difference in detailing of the design of the Apollo and Soyoz spacecraft speaks volumes about the cultures from which each came. Functionally they performed as well as one other and could function together, but the aesthetic reference points for each were very different.

Detailing to Delight and Reassure

King and Miranda's designs for controls for photocopying machines permit not only ergonomic acceptability, but reassurance in use through the careful design of graphics and touch membranes. These allow the control buttons to be pressed with a definite tactile and auditory feedback without obscuring the graphics, and involve the three sensory areas of touch, sound and sight. [18]

Karrimor's Condor Rucsac side release buckle has a positive handle which closes with a 'click' to secure it, so that it looks, feels and sounds good and ensures a reliable and reassuring fastening. [9]

Meeting Aesthetic Expectations

The weight of a telephone handset may suggest 'too light', being associated with inferior quality, although production processes and new material qualities allow cheap, functional, and light objects to be made. The relationship between appropriate weight and quality underpins much aesthetic judgement in Western culture.

Detailing of Material & Manufacturing

Many modern materials do not age elegantly in the same way as craft materials, and consideration should be given to how a product will appear after manufacturing and in use after sale. Injection moulding can often leave sags on a smooth reflective surface, and suggest a cheap product. Spark erosion of the surface of the mould can disguise any slight sagging, introduce a pleasant tactile quality, and improve the overall quality of appearance of the product.

Manufacturing Phase


In the phase it is important:

Quality Control

In checking, for example, colour specification, the type of lighting under which a sample is being viewed in the factory may be different from that at the designer's desk, from the board-room where the decision was agreed, from the sales environment and again from the environment of use, all of which may affect the perceived quality of the colour.

Matching Different Materials

The Citroen BX was amongst the first production cars to use plastic body parts. An ultimate goal is to have an all-plastic car body, but at present it is very difficult to ensure a colour and quality match between metal and plastic body panels. Through-coloured plastic parts cannot be relied upon for an exact colour match and must be painted. It is important that production samples are obtained and checked before the full production run commences.

Manufacturing for Niche Markets

Computerised, robotised processes now allow batch production within major assembly lines, and just-in-time developments allow the opportunity to manufacture different models on the same production line to satisfy demands within increasingly discriminating and specialised markets, whilst maintaining high quality and low cost. Variations in car interior colours, fabrics and trims are an example.

Sales Phase


Before a new product is launched, it is important to consider:


The schedule for the launch could coincide with the opportunity of a major trade show, or special issue of a magazine, when customer expectations are highest for improved or innovative products to appear.

Image & Environment

A customer's first encounter with a product is usually visual, when a strong impression of the perceived qualities of the product will be formed. The name of a product is important too. This can impart clear information about the product, or evoke associations. A classic example is the launch of the Citroen DS, the initials DS being a play on the French deesse (goddess). [19]

The launch of a capital-intensive product such as the British Aerospace Jetstream 41 became an event in its own right with a full performance of dancers, commissioned music and the appearance of all levels of the workforce to convey the impression of a caring company.

Corporate Image

Where such a house style does not exist, and a company produces or is to produce a number of products, then it is worth considering the structuring of a product policy and strategy to rationalise the range of products and associated literature, and to give greater coherence and presence on the market. This corporate image, delivered through product language and advertising is a powerful tool for stating who you are, what your values are and how much you care about the customer.[10]

Formalised Feedback

It is essential for a continuous dialogue between the design, production and marketing teams and for continuous feedback loops to be established between customers and companies. Designers are anxious to have input into the Sales Phase, and to have formalised feed-back from customers which will, in turn, influence future product development. They should help formulate for the sales team the right questions (link back to Market Phase): e.g.-

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