Expert on the ball

Industrial designers can sometimes get a bad press - too much style with not enough substance. On the whole this is ill-deserved according to Alistair Williamson, managing director of Lucid Innovation, but that is not to say there isn’t room for progress.

Throwing designs over the wall, from industrial designer to a waiting engineer who will turn those concepts into working solutions, is very much a thing of the past. “It would have been great, but in my 28 years experience there is very little throwing over the wall,” said Williamson. “It might be passing the ball on occasion, but most of the time it's actually a case of if you’ve got the ball, you've got to keep it, and you've got to sort it out.”

This is at the crux of where Williamson believes progress needs to be made - if that hypothetical ball is going to be kept, there needs to be a multi-skilled and empathetic design team to do the necessary juggling.

This empathy must exist between the engineers and the end users, whose needs, claims Williamson, should be catered for upfront rather than being left behind as the engineers ‘dash for the technical solution.’ What a good industrial designer can do is identify what people want and need and then seek out the best technical solution, of which there might be many. “So I think a very broad approach at the start of projects is important,” commented Williamson, “because otherwise you box yourself into a solution that perhaps is inappropriate for the market or for the need. Sometimes the solution might even be in software rather than hardware.”

Good industrial designers are not ten a penny however and that is why Williamson believes there needs to be a change of approach from the industrial design community.

Firstly, there is an issue with the quality of further education. Engineering courses at British universities tends, he argues, to be reasonably uniform and so the graduates they produce will be of a reliable standard from a wide range of institutions. This is not the case for industrial design. In a survey Williamson is conducting for the British Industrial Design Association (BIDA) asking respondents to name the top courses, two institutions completely dominated the choices. “This suggests that there's quite a lot left to be desired,” admitted Williamson, “and some of the comments about the inconsistency in the level of graduates were very revealing.”

Further training to create the multi-skilled engineer is also not straight-forward. Williamson said: “The Royal College of Art and the Imperial College run postgrad qualifications primarily targeted at engineers to introduce them into more what you might call design thinking.But there's very few examples that are successful the other way round for industrial designers.”

So how has this situation come about and what can the industry itself do about it? Williamson believes progress is being made: “Perhaps it is because of the lack of involvement of effective trade associations or professional bodies in the past - it's the fault of industrial designers that that's happened.But I do think it is changing. About two years ago the IED started to do Chartered technological problem design status.That's starting to define what a product designer with a technological leaning should be, and it might guide institutions to reflect this in their course content. On the other hand, BIDA a couple of years ago got involved with a body called Creative Skills and we started to do the same thing for more ethereal parts of industrial design practice. I think that's part of a profession growing up, to go through that process.”

One product of this is the National Occupational Standard, which is not a professional qualification but defines a set of skills, experiences and performance indicators.

Williamson added: “What our [BIDA’s] view is that we have to set out what good industrial design practice involves. Once you've done that you can then start to talk to other bodies. And we are talking to the Institute of Engineering Designers about joint initiatives. The overall goal is to continually improve practice. But that of course affects higher education, because if people are not learning the things that are necessary when they're coming in, then improving practice is more difficult.It's a twin-pronged approach.”

“Both engineers and industrial designers in the future just need to be more brainy,” concluded Williamson. “We need to find ways of enabling each other to learn more about each other's skills so that we can work together better. I can see the challenges in the future - this ever increasing pace of convergence means that we’ve got to work even better, otherwise we going to get left behind.”


Alistair Williamson has 27 years practical experience as an industrial designer in roles spanning engineering, marketing. After graduating in 3D design, Williamson designed toys, games and packaging. Joining Bass Leisure he worked in a multi-disciplinary team developing video games, gambling machines and some of the first touch-screen interactive consoles. He gained a part-time MBA and Chartered Engineer status before becoming a voluntary Director of the British Industrial Design Association, the membership body for industrial design in the UK. He frequently presents seminars on innovation and additive manufacturing.