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Industrial Designers


Although industrial design as a separate and unique profession did not develop in the United States until the 1920s, it has its origins in colonial America and the Industrial Revolution. When colonists were faced with having to make their own products rather than relying on imported goods, they learned to modify existing objects and create new ones. As the advent of the Industrial Revolution drew near, interest in machinery and industry increased.

One of the earliest examples of industrial design is found in Eli Whitney's production of muskets. In 1800, he promised to manufacture several thousand muskets for the government using the principles of standardization and interchangeable parts. Designs and manufacturing processes for each musket part had to be created. This early example of industrial design involved not only designing an individual product but also the manufacturing processes and the production equipment.

The Industrial Revolution brought about the mass production of objects and increased machine manufacturing. As production capabilities grew, a group of entrepreneurs, inventors, and designers emerged. Together, these individuals identified products that could be mass-produced and figured out ways to manufacture them.

In the early 1900s, the number of products available to the public grew, as did the purchasing power of individuals. Manufacturers realized that in order to compete with imported goods and skilled craftspersons, they needed to offer a wide variety of products that were well designed and affordable. At that time, manufactured products were designed to be functional, utilitarian, and easily produced by machines. Little attention was paid to aesthetics. Product designs were copied from imported items, and there was little original design.

Consumers were growing increasingly dissatisfied with the products they were offered. They felt that machine-made goods were, in many cases, ugly and unattractive. Manufacturers did not initially respond to these complaints. For example, Henry Ford continued to manufacture only one style of car, the Model T, despite criticism that it looked like a tin can. Ford was unconcerned because he sold more cars than anyone else. When General Motors started selling its attractive Chevrolet in 1926, and it outsold the Ford, he finally recognized the importance of styling and design.

Advertising convincingly demonstrated the importance of design. Those products with artistic features sold better, and manufacturers realized that design did play an important role both in marketing and manufacturing. By 1927, manufacturers were hiring people solely to advise them on design features. Industrial design came to represent a new profession: the practice of using aesthetic design features to create manufactured goods that were economical, served a specific purpose, and satisfied the psychological needs of consumers. Most of the early industrial designers came from Europe until design schools were established in America.

Industrial design as a profession grew rapidly in the years from 1927 until World War II. Many of the early industrial designers established their own firms rather than working directly for a manufacturer. After the war, consumer goods proliferated, which helped the field continue to grow. Manufacturers paid more attention to style and design in an effort to make their products stand out in the marketplace. They began to hire in-house designers. Today, industrial designers play a significant role in both designing new products and determining which products may be successful in the marketplace.

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