How to talk about design (unofficial glossary)

So you have a great new idea, eager buyers, keen investors and a wonderful team. All that’s left is bringing the product into the physical world. What will it look like? How will users interact with it? How will it be made? That’s when you call an industrial designer.

The following glossary is for people new to the world of physical products, who are just starting the process of launching something new. The industrial design process can feel opaque and overwhelming, and I hope to make things a bit clearer. And, like most industrial designers, I have very strong opinions.


3D Printing: A process by which material is extruded (FDM) or sintered (SLS/SLA) to create a 3D object. This is extremely useful for quick prototyping to check fit and feel and for producing one-off products. Although this method can achieve some shapes that cannot be injection molded, it is not a cost effective means of mass production. 3D printing is actually quite a simple process that gets overhyped sometimes. Watching an FDM printer in action will demystify the process a good deal.

American Made: A good, hard-to-attain goal for American-based companies. If local manufacture is key to your brand it’s not a bad idea to select the facility first and design your product around their capabilities. Bear in mind that ‘American Made’ often means ‘American Headquartered’ with the actual manufacturing taking place overseas.

Bicycle: One, if not the most elegant piece of technology ever developed.

Blow Molding: A manufacturing technique where a bubble of molten material is forced into a cavity, creating a thin walled product. Commonly used to make plastic bottles and other hollow things.

Blue Sky: An idea that is plausible but not feasible with current technology.

BOM/Bill of Materials: Complete list of everything that goes into a product, from the chassis to the bolts to the charging cable. Usually part of the tech pack.

CAD/Computer Aided Design: The process of building a 3D model of a product for prototype and manufacture. In the olden days designers made prototypes out of clay and plaster and drew them out on paper, and some still do- but most designs wind up in a CAD program eventually.

Commonly used programs are Solidworks, Rhino, Fusion, Autocad, Maya, Pro-E and Blender.

Carbon Fiber: Usually refers to ‘Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer’, a cloth of woven carbon threads combined with a polymer resin and cured. Very strong and light. Used to make everything from fedoras to boats. Adding carbon fiber to a product immediately doubles the cost.

Client: The necessary bane of every designer’s existence. Love you, clients!

CNC/Computer Numerical Control: Blanket term for automated tools, such as mills, lathes and benders. While 3D printers are technically also
CNC machines, the term is usually used to refer to reductive manufacturing methods.

Concept Art: The deeply enjoyable process of creating 2D images of what something could look like. Great for explaining ideas to clients and impressing investors. Quite impractical from a production perspective, but indispensable all the same.

Design Thinking: From Wikipedia: “a set of cognitive, strategic and practical processes by which design concepts (proposals for products, buildings, machines, communications, etc.) are developed.” Some designers find this useful and some find it overcomplicated and tiresome.

DFM/Design for Manufacture: The process of optimizing a design for production Often takes place after the initial form and function is agreed upon, but before the CAD is finalized. Can include adding draft angles for demolding, simplifying assembly processes and finalizing material choices. Good designers keep manufacturing in mind starting on day 1, so while there are always changes they should be minimal.

Dieline: The flattened-out outline of the package, so called because they are die-cut before assembly. Factories will provide their own dielines for standard shapes and sizes, but studios will create dielines for anything complex.

Eco-: An overused prefix. All products should be designed with their entire lifecycle in mind, and not nearly enough are. When selecting products to buy, materials and suppliers to work with and disposal methods, it is worth looking past the ‘eco’ label and making sure that everything is, in fact, as sustainable as it can be.

Electrical Engineer: Someone you hire after your studio prototype explodes.

Fabrication: The process of taking material and making it into something. For example, a bicycle is fabricated out of metal tubes and a vacuum cleaner is fabricated out of injection molded parts and electronic elements. A fabricated product might not require parts made from scratch, and might have less of an up-front cost compared to an injection molded part.

Hardware: Anything tangible. A wrench is hardware. So is a train. So are all the little bits of things that make a train a train.

Hoodad: Also doohicky, thingummy, gadget, whazzit. Most of what industrial designers design.

Hubs: The center bit of most wheels. Designers love removing them in concept art. No one knows why.

Ideation: The process by which a designer gets an idea out of the aether into reality. Usually 2D sketches, but can be paper mockups, clay forms or even rough CADs. Some designers like to share their ideation process, others prefer to show something more polished. My personal notebooks are full of amorphous scrawls that make sense to me; I tidy them up later for public consumption.

Imperial: The wrong way to convey size, distance, volume, etc.

Industrial Designer: Combination of artist, engineer, salesperson and therapist. The best job in the world.

Injection molding: The process of shooting molten material into a prepared mold. Once the mold is cool the product is removed and finished-- the little dimple you see in the center of a plastic lid, for example, shows the location of the spout where the plastic went in. Most solid plastic parts are made this way.

Mechanical Engineer: Someone trained to make physical things work. They know about tolerances, milling machines and numbers. You can tell if a mechanical engineer has designed something because it is a rectangle. Surprisingly fun at parties.

MOQ/Minimum Order Quantity: The smallest number of individual products a manufacturer is willing to make. The cheaper the object the higher the MOQ-- a plastic bottle might have an MOQ of 20,000 while a piece of furniture might be under 500. Arguing MOQs down is a delicate art, and worth learning.

Metric: The correct way to convey size, distance, volume, etc.

Millennial Pink: A color that Spitfire Industry doesn’t use.

OEM/Original Equipment Manufacturer: Usually, something that can be sourced and does not need to be made custom. For example, if a consumer electronic comes with a travel case, that case is very often OEM: sourced from a manufacturer as-is with the company colors and logo added on. Using OEM parts is a necessary component of getting product costs down, but can create a generic look if overdone.

Pantone: A color matching system that is the international standard. Designed for printed graphic work, it is nevertheless used for everything from anodized aluminum to tinted glass. This can cause issues, as not every color system uses CMYK as printing does. Pantone releases the hugely influential Color of the Year after a secretive meeting in a European capital.

Prototype: A physical representation of a product showing how it will look and work. A looks like prototype may use non-target materials (plastic instead of metal for example) but can be finished to look indistinguishable from a production model. A works like prototype performs its target function while looking under construction-- perhaps an external battery or visible hardware. A looks like-works like prototype is just what it sounds like. It will appeal to investors and clear out your wallet.

Production Run: A quantity of products ordered to sell. When the client makes their first production run order, the industrial designer’s work is done.

RP/Rapid Prototyping: A blanket term for manufacturing techniques that can create one-off prototypes for testing and review. Includes 3D printing, laser cutting, vacuum-forming and sometimes metal sheet and wire bending.

Renderings: 2D images of a 3D model with lighting and materials assigned. A great way to gauge interest and raise money before spending time and capital on prototypes. Renderings can look like convincing photographs or artistic depictions or (sometimes) deeply implausible. A great renderer can make a product or scene look indistinguishable from the real thing. Some ‘tells’ are flat shadows, impossibly unmarred surfaces and dodgy woodgrain.

Roto molding: Another way of molding plastic, usually used for larger pieces. Molten plastic is shot into the mold which is then rotated in all directions creating an even layer of material throughout. The inner void is often filled with expanding foam for rigidity. Municipal bins, coolers, kayaks and rain barrels are often rotomolded.

Scope Creep: What happens when a project is a lot more complex than initially communicated. A good client understands this and is willing to accept an adjusted quote or pull in additional help; a smart designer will explain when they have exceeded the original scope before the resentment builds up.

Screen Calibration: Something everyone should do before reviewing any kind of color digital image. It is entirely possible that the blue the designer chose is showing up as purple for you. In fact, stop reading this and calibrate your screen right now.

Soft Good: A product that is largely fabric-- a backpack, a hammock, a space suit. The manufacturing process of these requires less upfront cost --no tooling necessary. Factories will often work off 2D drawings and studio prototypes to create patterns of their own, which hardware factories rarely do.

Sourcing: The long and difficult process of finding someone to make your product. The goal is to partner with a manufacturer who has great quality standards, sustainable production methods, treats their workers well, and is a good communicator. Once you find one, cling on for dear life. They’re rare.

Sourcing Agent: Someone who will do sourcing for you. Can make your life much easier or much harder. Often has a mechanical engineering degree. Once you find a good one, pay them well and treat them well. They’re worth it.

Stainless Steel: A beautiful, strong, expensive steel alloy that doesn’t rust. A pain in the neck to work with, but worth it.

Tech Pack: A document containing everything needed to produce a product: CAD drawings, BOM, assembly instructions, color codes, etc. Also called a Spec Pack.

Titanium: A greenish-grey metal that is trendy for some reason. Perfect for a narrow range of applications, but often used unnecessarily. Stainless steel looks better and performs the same in most cases.

Tool/Tooling: The molds that injection-molded products are made in. These are usually milled steel or aluminum. Tool is often the biggest upfront cost for launching a product. A good designer can often help bring costing down by making sure the design requires as few pieces of tool as possible. However, the more optimized a product is for tool the more generic it looks. Once you buy a tool suite it can be used for (usually) tens of thousands of individual pieces.

Welding: The process of melting two materials together to form a permanent bond, either chemically or with heat. Also, my back-up career.

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