I strongly believe in the foundations of design: the traditional visual and conceptual skills that are the building blocks of all design disciplines. Historically, the classical elements of design foundations are the abstract components that structure a visual language — color, texture, shape, volume, space and line — and these elements are still valid and of critical importance for novices to study in great detail.

Sketch by Frances Tung

However, industrial designers are increasingly being asked to design products and systems that incorporate interactivity. This means that the traditional design foundations must enlarge to also include a related exploration of behavior. That is, students must learn, early in their development, to consider the users of their designs and to understand products as a bridge that enables dialogue between users and a service or function.

As an instructor, I seek to address this important issue through the adaptation of a classic industrial design exercise entitled “Design Semantics”—semantics being the “study of meaning,” and the goal of the project being to create forms that embody meaning for a user. During this short exercise (lasting only three to four weeks), students are asked to create a family of three control elements—forms that communicate either “push, pull or twist” to a user. It is a deceptively simple project, as students soon discover that it is not an easy task to create forms that can suggest their function through shape alone, bare of typography.

Student project by Eric Brunt featured in ARCADE

Project by Eric Brunt

Student project by Frances Tung featured in ARCADE

Project by Frances Tung

We begin by examining control elements that have existed in both the past and the present. I often demonstrate key issues by discussing typical automobile seat adjustment levers— control elements that are hidden from view and whose forms offer no cue for neither the initial engagement nor the subsequent need for user self-propulsion. I also draw attention to the natural signs in the world around us.

Using photography, the students start by creating a large visual inventory of controls. Their taxonomy typically includes switches that are commonplace — light cords, elevator buttons, doorbells, home appliances, etc. — but also more unique derivations that are spotted in car interiors or electronic devices. The students consider which forms might be multifunctional— there are forms with affordances that can suggest two kinds of interaction (for example, pushing and sliding simultaneously).

Student project by Flyn O’Brien featured in ARCADE

Project by Flyn O’Brien

Student project by Chet Sangnil featured in ARCADE

Project by Chet Sangnil

Once this visual research has been completed, students move to the process of abstraction—they need to find the quintessential shapes that “tell the user what to do.” They use drawings and computer renderings to begin to define their own forms, exploring the articulation of both 2D and 3D space. They move between the drawings/renderings and physical modeling, often using Play-Doh or clay to test their forms. Like much of design, it is a kind of serious play activity—it can be very amusing to see the students enter the critique with their Tupperware containers filled with control elements.

Certain issues are common with the project. Students often find that creating the “family” is more difficult than anticipated; two of the control elements will be related, while the third is an outlier. Additionally, the refinement of the form presents new challenges. Students suddenly realize that details are more important than they initially thought—in fact, that details are critical to both avoiding ambiguity with the user and to achieving a high level of visual sophistication. Finally, as they move to the final wooden display form, they learn how to use a mechanical lathe and how to sand, paint and finish the wood model. (Note: all students agree on a single color of white paint for the entire class; one additional color may be used if it aids in the communication of meaning).

Student project by Nathanael Martinfeatured in ARCADE

Project by Nathanael Martin

Student project by Kay Kim featured in ARCADE

Project by Kay Kim

Given the short time period for the project, it’s not always possible to conduct formal user testing on the final control devices. However, students do, of course, show their friends and look for their responses (sadly, some final models have been broken in the user’s enthusiasm to perform a push, pull or twist, as not all models are fully functional. This occasional accidental damage can be seen as a complement to the achieved realism of the model).

I assign this project because it balances formal and conceptual issues while emphasizing research, the design process and the skillful execution of ideas. Like all good design foundations projects, it teaches students how to see, think and develop an idea, and it encourages them to refine their understanding of what a design problem can be. Most importantly, the students experience, in a compact unit, the combination of rational, intuitive and critical thinking, and they learn to construct meaning using visual form.