It is, by now, a familiar story: Apple's miraculous turnaround from near-oblivion to one of the hottest names in consumer technology (and not just computing). First staging a comeback with the iMac desktop computer, the company went on to create and redefine entire industries with its iPod digital music player, the iPhone mobile phone and perhaps, most recently, the iPad digital tablet.

All around the world, fans and competitors alike have made a hobby out of scrutinising every function and capability of Apple devices, even as they try to look beyond the sophisticated marketing blitz that has helped shape and build the company to what it is today. Yet one element that often drops below the public radar is industrial design - a skill known to many, mastered by some, but appreciated by few.

Jonathan Ive, the industrial designer largely credited for the iMac, iPod and iPhone, might be a rare exception. The 43-year-old senior vice-president of industrial design at Apple is Steve Jobs' go-to guy, and they share a working relationship that perhaps best embodies how organisations ought to integrate industrial design with brand and strategy.

In the words of Peer M Sathikh, assistant professor of Nanyang Technological University's School of Art, Design and Media, If you know how to use such talents where their strengths lie, you will reap lots of profits. He spoke at a conference organised by SMU's Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship with the Product Development & Management Association (Singapore).

Makes dollars and sense

While today's global economy has a growing service industry component, manufacturing remains an integral sector to most economies, regardless of whether they are developed or emerging markets. There are plenty of instantly recognisable global names in manufacturing, and the stakes are high - for as long as there are manufacturing activities, there is room, and need for industrial design expertise.

Just to illustrate the size and scope of work involved in this area: Boeing devoted millions, almost five years and a 16,800-member design team to design its 777 airliner; Volkswagen, Europe's largest car maker, spends an average of $400 million and nearly four years to develop a new car with an 800-member team. For a printer that would fetch perhaps S$300, HP can invest one-and-a-half years, mobilise a 200-member team, and spend $25 million. What value does industrial design bring to the table I ask you, when failure is not an option? asks Sathikh.

Before the most brilliant branding strategists can execute a campaign, their colleagues in industrial design need to play their part. In a sense, industrial design can engineer balance sheets, revolutionise the buyer's market, predict product marketing and shape an entire industry. Take a BMW for instance, cites Sathikh. The design details, performance and high that the car effects on each person are all successes of industrial design. The consumer's emotional reaction to this product is controlled by industrial designers.

But even after all that money, effort and resources, it is the harsh reality that many professionals still ask, 'What is industrial design?' If products ranging from a drill to an airplane are all examples, what sets this genre apart from product design? What defines industrial design?

Design footprints

As Sathikh puts it, industrial design plays a key role in a company's fortunes: a company's entire investment in any product begins right here. Excellent industrial design has the power to become a compeller in the product development process much like clients and marketers. This is clear in the case of Apple as it continues to drive desires and markets, said Sathikh.

Besides their core skills, industrial designers need to adopt a certain psyche at work. Rather than designing a product to fill a product niche, the best bring together market compellers and impellers, said Sathikh. They include, for example, quality control testers and assembly testing officers; they pool together triggers and feedback, then shape changes that improve the ways people perceive computers, airplanes, drills, and so on. We are in charge of creating something that never was, he added.

Before Ive, Apple's products also bore the fingerprints of another industrial designer, Hartmut Esslinger, who came up with the so-called Snow White design language (with its signature series of vertical or horizontal lines), which was used to great effect in the line of Macintosh computers that first pushed Apple to the forefront of electronics back in the early 1980s.

Ive and Esslinger might have done their work in different eras, designing different products, but they share something in common: their designs helped redefine the way products in the respective categories should look like. With their obsession over the minute touches, like weight and type of materials used, it is not too farfetched to say that their works have also redefined consumer lifestyles.

Indeed, industrial design is a craft, where the craftsmen need to: (a) work and create user preferences versus desires; (b) visualise and bring to life what the corporation is looking for; (c) sensing, responding and creating important trends; and (d) bring together technology, art, communication and industry.

Pair any two of these four factors together and you'll see how industrial design paves the way for product design, marketing, visual communications, advertising and other major departments. We're talking about a web of relations that becomes a cornerstone in a company's survival, said Sathikh.  

Designers out there

For sure, industrial designers cannot just hone their craft hiding in their laboratories. To turn ideas and data into objects of quality, they have to be out there a lot, watching and hearing to get in touch with tangibles of user behaviour.

Industrial designers have to use current information to predict the future. We treat as real what is an imagined feature, Sathikh explained. We find solutions that haven't presented themselves and tell clueless executives the ways in which the invention can be made to exist.

Excellent industrial design offers such strong product definition that consumer expectations on product architecture, safety, convenience, functionality, to name but a few, are transformed, shifting the industry's entire product range. Industrial design has its name because every design is nothing short of a master plan for the industry.

Industrial designers are very good storytellers and 'visualisers'. They can see a point that no one else does which often turns into winning creations. They are constantly taking note of multi-sensory information all around them, sketching every detail in their visualisations, giving product managers and businessmen more ideas and strategies for thought, he added.

An open corporate culture is hence crucial to facilitate the risk-taking and out-of-the-box thinking that might then give rise to transformational designs. Freedom, autonomy and trust are important factors too.

They have good reasons why they are almost never on time for meetings, seem to be in their own orbit, and seldom adhere to corporate dress codes, Sathikh quipped.