Design language development help/resources?

My company has asked me to refresh the design language for our products (test, measurement, automation products). I’m a mechanical engineer with a strong interest, but not a whole lot of experience with industrial design.

I think I have a fairly good high level idea of what I’d like to accomplish with this language refresh, but have no experience in developing one. So I am looking for anything that could help with this challenge. Are there any good resources out there for this sort of thing? I have tried getting my hands on some existing design language documents from some local companies to use as examples on content, structure, and a point of comparison, but these are very classified obviously and I have had no such luck.

Any help would be much appreciated!


honestly, best thing you could do in a situation like this i would recommend would be to find an ID consultancy experienced in this sort of project. revamping an entire brand/product line is no small endeavor with issues of branding, marketing, positioning, and product design involved.

Not that you may not be capable in your position, but if you can recommend a consultancy, and get the work done up to spec, you could come out much farther ahead than trying to tackle it yourself and be blamed for any fallout.

in all of my experiences whenever I’ve had a project that is outside my realm of experience and I’ve brought in an expert it always has worked in my favor.

I’ve done quite a few design language /branding/ design DNA projects, if you want, feel free to shoot me a PM.


hire a design firm. There are tons of firms and individual designers who do this type of work with a wide range of pricepoints.

Richard being one of them.

Also check out:

I suppose I should have mentioned that hiring a consultancy was my recommendation when presenting the need to revamp the design language to our directors for this very reason. After quoting with various ID firms in the area and presenting the cost, the directors agreed with the need to do something, but not at the check they would have to write to do so.

What I did get them to agree to, however, was that once I have my attempt done at what I think we need, we would hire a consultant to go over what I have done, question my assumptions and suggestions, and re-tool it. You guys echo my worries about this process, seeing as I have no actual experience with this. But it looks like it is either this way or we go on with no real unified design language.

I am sort of the design evangelist in my company, so I think they just suspect I can do a “good enough” job. I think part of the directors’ fears is that they did not want to open this up too much to an outside firm as far as how flexible they can be. We tend to be pretty limited with what we will actually take to production, so they’d rather have someone inside be more intimately involved.

I don’t expect to get it perfectly right. I just hope to provide a framework, list my assumptions, and a few suggestions for how things might look so that when we do hire a consultant to review it, I have not wasted too much time spinning my wheels. That being said, however, I’d like to make sure I take an intelligent and informed shot at getting this framework, goals, and assumptions organized so that it is actually useful.

Wow. I get the problem you’re facing, but wow. You really need to convince them to hire someone. Go for a 1 - 3 mos contract with a freelancer as opposed to hiring a firm if they’re really being that tight about it.

Reverse the tables. Figure out what the budget is and figure out a way to get some professional assistance without breaking the bank. All the companies Yo mentioned above are going to be on the “pricey” side.

For the same reasons you wouldn’t ask an Electrical Engineer to do your job, you shouldn’t be doing the job of an Industrial Designer.

The risk of your time being spent on creating the design language and it being wrong is huge. Not to mention the amount of day to day billable activity you’re losing to take on this job.

Don’t open Pandora’s box.

Hmm- perhaps hire a freelancer with requisite experience. My friends at and have done some great work with brand language.

In my experience I would suggest the following:
1)Pick two to three products with varied morphology and dense feature sets. Bias the samples towards product lines with similar forms.This will typically allow you to create rules that could be applied to different forms as well as lines of similar form factors. Create form directions for these “exemplars”

2)Simultaneously have the team apply the form language to 2-3 simpler products in the line to see whether the aesthetic makes sense across the board.

  1. Create a few different directions for the form language that you can evaluate internally or externally

4)Document the form language in a booklet or pdf format that can be sent to internal designers and external vendors. Naming design features can help to succintly describe complex forms. I have found that ratios can be helpful for scalable design elements.

When creating design languages in the past I have tried to be flexible to give designers freedom, but inevitably you will have designers who are not as confident requesting harder definitions.

Hope this helps

Three ideas if you can’t hire:

  1. Contract a CMF (color/material/finish) design specialist for a few weeks to a few months. CMF will give you the most bang-for-your buck. It’s also the one thing you’re probably the least comfortable doing as an engineer. Also ask this designer to help frame the opportunity with regards to your users, context, competitiors and brand equity.

  2. If you’re willing to open up, use the Core77 community to critique your work as you go along… Just like the students do.

  3. Sponsor a student project at a local Industrial Design school in concert with your own efforts.

Thanks for all your responses guys. I can’t believe how active all of you are in trying to help me. I really appreciate it.

I think what I may try to do is almost insist that to get the actual language defined, we hire a consultant. Since they already agreed to hiring someone to look over my work and improve upon it, I don’t think it is THAT far of a stretch. As long as I have something to begin with.

I never did think I’d get it right defining a whole new language from scratch, but I might limit my deliverables are even more. What I’ll do is ONLY focus on the nuts and bots of the thing. What I’m trying to accomplish, why, and only slightly touch on elements I suggest to include. (Really, mostly just a color scheme that integrates with our existing products is the only thing I insist on.)

Then phase two is work with a consultant in actually defining what all those things actually are.

That might be the best of both worlds. It really focuses in the requirements so that the giving-too-much-freedom fears of the boss man are alleviated, it allows me to do something like they are asking in actually creating the framework for the language, but then sets the project up to use a designer when one is really needed.

Ding! We have a winner!

Don’t feel shy about holding whoever you hire’s feet to the fire. They should be (must be) confortable working in conjunction with You (Engineering), Marketing, and the Boss man.

That said…YOU are the main point of contact. You should drive the discussion and create the vision to what your team is looking for. Take ownership of the process. It will not only ensure you drive the consultant to get you the best for what your needs are, but it will help prevent the gong show that is a Design-by-Committee gong show.

A short list of things NOT to do:

  1. Don’t accept everything the designer tells you at face value. Make sure they validate their thoughts with back-up process/research discussion
  2. Don’t ignore the concepts that look at your products from a sideways angle.
  3. Don’t play Mr. Potato Head with the Designer’s concepts. What I mean by this is don’t say, “I like the button from this concept, but I like the body from that concept, let’s blend them together”. Speak to what you like and dislike about BOTH concepts and push the designer to massage each one so it carries the visual appeal as a holistic product you are looking for.
  4. Always look at the product as a whole. Not a bunch of little pieces that can be interchanged.
  5. Define constraints as tightly as possible, even if they seem unrealistic at first. The more freedom you give, the more problems you are likely to have. Spend a good chunk of time writing a design brief and then reviewing and editing it with the designer. Get managemet’s input AND sign-off. REFER to this document constantly…especially when talking to management.

holy cow…this list is already longer than I expected :wink:

Good to hear that you might be able to convince your company to hire a consultant upfront as opposed to after the fact. This is a much better proposition that will ensure you don’t waste your time coming up with something that isn’t useful and allow a consultant to do much better work than merely reviewing what you develop.

From my perspective, I see this as much more of a branding issue than a design one, base on what you have said about your company and products. Before any “design language” is developed I think it would most important to first have a clear position analysis and development of the brand. That is;

-how is the brand currently perceived?
-how would you like the brand to be perceived?
-what should the brand stand for?
-who is the brand targeted towards?
-how is this achieved?
-how is the brand differentiated amongst competitors?

This then becomes the foundation for any design language be it in graphics, product, marketing, etc.

IMHO, hiring a traditional ID company focused on product will not get you the right results. I have seen this many times. A company thinks they need a design language (often referencing Apple or other such design leader), an ID company comes in, sets out a guideline of making everything X color, X shape, X style, etc. and leaves. The product is executed following this direction, but there is no link to the greater brand, position in the market, etc. and the design language dies when results are not achieved.

If you can bring in a branding consultant rather than a design consultant (or ideally a firm who does both), I think you will achieve a much more thorough and in-depth result.

At the root of it, any design language should be firmly connected to the brand, and it sounds as though this is not the case. The simple fact that they asked you to create the design language yourself and not initially hire a consultant (and that you are designing product from an engineering experience rather than an ID one), makes me think the company doesn’t really see the value in design and branding. This is very common (though unfortunate) in engineering-focused companies, but it sounds like perhaps you have a good opportunity to change it.

On the $$ side, see if you can layout the potential from a bottom line view to your boss. Hiring a consultant may cost $20-$30K (or more or less depending who they are and what they do), but this is likely a very small drop in the bucket to the company revenue. If a design/branding exercise can increase sales even 3%, you’ve paid for the consultant in 1 yr if you are a 1M company (which is pretty small).

At the very least, an initial analysis of where you are now, not even touching on where you want to be can be very educational for the company and point you in the right direction.

just my perspective on the issue. best of luck.


Luckily we do have a guy on staff that I am working closely with who is somewhat of a branding expert. He has helped me define what I have already in order to make my presentation for this movement. And I will continue to use him no matter what I do because he has vast knowledge about what our brand is and what we want it to be. He is a great resource for me in helping me determine if whatever I come up with aligns with the brand. But that being said, he works in the graphics and marketing area and I work in engineering and the two departments don’t usually work together all the time, so what our message to people is vs. what our products are aren’t always aligned.

And Richard, you are 100% right. My company does not see the same value in good design or a consistent design language as I do. The traditional argument is that our customers buy our products because of the specs, not how “pretty” they are. Our competition is rather low, so differentiating by design doesn’t have the same strength as it does for consumer products. But that being said, we have seen significant sales increases with some of the products I have designed with the extra sales being attributed to the mechanical design. So I know it matters somewhat despite what they say and I am trying to prove it to them.

I just want things to be more consistent so it emphasizes our company brand as a whole and portrays the qualities we’re trying to reinforce to our customers, which many of our existing designs do not.

Step 1 is to take a detailed look at where we are, what is missing and needs to be fixed, and the goals for what I need. I’m hoping just doing that will be enough to get the consultant in. Luckily I have most of this already figured out, I just need to put it in a more organized document that clearly lays everything out.

And this is where I was hoping to use you guys as a resource. If I can make sure I am tackling all the items that are traditionally included in a good design language, I can make a more intelligent effort at building this framework. I’m not saying I’m going to come up with all the new designs, but I want to make sure I’ve got the outline for what we need explained very well so when we do have a consultant come in, there is a clear path and purpose.

not sure if you want to open it up, but im sure if you dropped a link to your brand here, the comments re: branding and design would flood in and you would effectively get many $$ worth of free advice.

I know traditionally, most companies like to keep this stuff internal, but just look at how many pages of comments have been given to the previous Gm and Braun threads. What you do in the end is still up to you, but gather some open opinions might be a good start and not cost you a thing!


Suppose that couldn’t hurt. Not sure how much info is too much info, but here’s a brief intro to us. I work for National Instruments (

A good representation of our products can be seen here:

The NI CompactRIO platform as seen above has been our most highly applauded mechanical design to date and is something we do not want to change. Therefore, one of my requirements for future designs is that they leverage some of the design elements used here.

But as you can see in the above web page, there really is not that much coherence in our designs.

One thing I’d like to address is the discrepancy between the cost of some of our products and their perceived quality. One such product costs $1200, but shares the same enclosure design as a product costing $150.

So some goals of the new language:

  1. Integrate visual identity of all future products so the look defined by Compact RIO is maintained consistently across all products. The hard part here, is all the released products will not change, so color scheme should coordinate with existing white and blue products.
  2. Reinforce sense of value. Customers should feel like they are getting a lot for their money in terms of design as well as electronics specs. This is not seen in the plastic boxes like these and is one of the biggest things I hope to fix. USB-6216
  3. Design language should emphasize: durability/ruggedness, dependability, high quality and value. (All these are some of our brand goals). All this while still being cognizant of cost tradeoffs in design so we know what design elements can be included/eliminated for higher cost products vs. lower cost products.

I really could write a lot here, but maybe this will be good enough to spur some conversation. Please let me know if you’ve got any more detailed questions you’d like answered.

Thanks again for all your help!

Ok, that’s not nearly as bad as I imagined. The branding of the company at least looks pretty solid (i don’t know how many engineering component companies i’ve seen with logos that look like they were drawn in MS Word!).

The product line is pretty huge it seems. I’ll have to take a look in more depth to give further comments, but given the range and scope of products and dealing with so many existing molds and legacy bits, it looks like a tough thing to do…

BTW, what started all this conversation in house about design language?

Overall, given the range, this looks like a huge project for anyone, in-house or consultant. Reminds me of the major rebranding and design changes Nortel Networks did 10-15 years ago that I remember hearing were multi-million dollar projects. I imagined a much smaller company and product range when i said that $20-30K would get you somwehere…


National Instruments?!?

OK, I totally get why your fighting the “it doesn’t need to be designed” battle.

This just became irritating, though. A company of NI’s stature can afford any company on the planet to redesign their brand image and they should be paying good money to do so. Not figuring out how to get it for pennies on the nickel.

I don’t know why, but I figured you were with a small company that was bootstrapping their way to a more cohesive product portfolio. This is most definitely NOT the case.

agreed. you’ve said it much better than what I was trying to say. Big company, big bucks. At that level you gotta pay to play. 2007 Revenue = $740 M.

if it’s just you pushing for this in a company this large, you’ve got one hell of a battle. Personally, I don’t think it’s do-able from your position, unless you can kidnap the SVP and get him drunk, convincing him to give you a few million to hire the right people.


It’s not really just me. I’ve got people on board in marketing, our corporate design group (marketing/advertisement/web design), and much of engineering. It was somewhat of a grass roots movement I started about a year ago. Now many people see the need. Last week was my presentation to the VP of marketing and Engineering. They liked my thoughts, but not at what it would take to get there. NI is a proud company. We like to think we can do everything internally. We’ve hired consultants in the past, and we will for this as well. But I think they want to see how far we can get by me doing most of the up front work.

We do have a huge portfolio of products with many form factors and looks. And our products typically have a lifespan of 10+ years. So I have already given up on trying to re-design things that are released. What my focus on is going forward, our enclosures have a more streamlined and unified design that doesn’t compromise on perceived value. That being said, whatever happens needs to be more of an evolution on our existing products rather than a revolution. This, I believe, is the primary scare of our directors. They see all the crazy things designers come up with and that just won’t fit in with or existing products.

Otherwise it will fragment our product offering even more. It’s quite a slippery slope we’re on as is. Engineers have some guidelines from an old design language we did with HLB about 9 years ago. But our newer products aren’t even considered in that language. We never had a plastic mold back then for instance, it was all sheet metal, so forms weren’t even really considered! So when we started doing plastic and die cast parts, it was basically up to the engineer to make it look how he wanted. So I just want to pull in the reins a bit and give some guidelines so that going forward we don’t get any worse and actually have some sort of purposeful direction to our product design.

How interesting!

I’m gonna watch this thread - even as a student, i find it fascinating.

See my previous post of what to do and/or not to do. You control the blue sky syndrom your directors are concerned about. Find a company that has and follows a holistic design approach and doesn’t dabble in the art side of design as much as they do in the technical side. You can tell pretty quickly from company messaging on their website, etc. what their primary product focus is.

Don’t be afraid to put constraints. Start small. Most likely the companies you talked to came in and saw the same thing we did…big company, big $$ and pitched accordingly. Negotiate. Come back with counter offers…maybe a quick 2 phase process to show what can be done to ease your way into the minds of the Directors. If you are building the backing you claim, don’t go all Yosemite Sam on them telling them they need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. You won’t need to to get good, incremental results.

Who decided to hire HLB before? Do you know what the budget was for that project?

Also, I agree with IP. Everybody pitched high for this project. I know I would with NI on the front door.