Machine Design

Visual cues speak volumes

Visual cues such as shape provide customers a way to form quick subjective opinions of products.

By Mike Hudspeth

Edited by Leslie Gordon

That's because shape speaks a language that is understood on an instinctual level. Shape can thus be an ace in the hole to ensuring a product will sell. What is a design's shape saying? Here are some things to think about.

Visual heft. A large and heavily built device might be designed that way to seem more substantial. But to some, it's only going to look chunky. Be sure to design for the device's function and the environment in which it will be used.

Finesse. A thin product will seem high tech to some and flimsy to others. Sometimes going micro can help keep things on the high-tech side, but not always. A small and lightweight calculator or computer might look good. But a piece of safety equipment will only seem unsafe. Tools made of thin materials won't look suitable for heavy-duty work, no matter how well built they are. Ask your self what people are accustomed to seeing. When you've designed a tool that doesn't look heavy duty but really is, consider making it look just a tad thinner than a competitor's item. Pushing the envelope is always a safer bet than going for broke.

Style. Large, rounded edges and corners might look soft, or merely antiquated. Trends come and go. Big, rounded fenders remind people of the 1940s and 50s. But thin, hard-edged boxes smack of the late 70s. There is probably nothing wrong with either, but the product should say what the designer intended. Make sure it won't seem outdated.

Personality. Have you looked at the front of a jumbo jet and noticed it seems to be smiling back? How about a sports car? They just look so aggressive. Guess what — both are on purpose. But when was the last time you saw a high-powered politician or banker drive away in an undignified vehicle? Clever or funny might not be the best design in cases like these. A product's shape should to fit its function and the customers' image. Know your customers.

Color. Obviously, a product that is fuzzy and pink won't shout "manly man." It may scream many things, but not that. When designing exercise equipment, it might not be a good idea to use primary colors, which are usually associated with toys.

Design in the right look, and the product will sell itself. But select the wrong one, and the product will sit undisturbed on store shelves and clearance racks. Remember, there are always competitors watching what you do. Ensure your products say the right things, and they will speak all the way to the bank.

Mike Hudspeth, ISDA, is an industrial designer with more than two decades of experience. Got a question about industrial design? You can reach Mike at [email protected]

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