Form Development

I would love to hear ideas on how other designers develop form for products. When sketching what do you use for reference and where does the inspiration come from. Do you look at pictures of products with forms you like and then sketch from those or do you design without looking at references? What sorts of techniques have you developed over time to assist in this part of the process?

Just wondering if there will be any replies to this question…

There’s been a topic on this before. I tried to find it, any other people remember it?

Referencing other products can be good to build a library of best practices, but if that is all you look at, you are limiting the gene pool of your design language. You will start to get iterative work that only looks inward… There need to be a balance of inside the industry an outside inspiration.

Like every other part of the process, form development is not something that starts and stops with a phase of work. It is something that should be happening at all times for a designer. Look at the world around, travel, see nature, go to every kind of museum, go to art galleries, hunt through junk shops, go to concerts, go to everything from furniture to car shows, see old movies, get tours of historic architecture, go on real estate open houses… In short, live a full life as a designer, and the forms will take care of themselves. Just be sure to be aware so you can understand how things, moments, and people inspire your work and how it is relevant to the market, industry, and user you are designing for.

Once you get past sphere, cube, cone, pyramid, cylinder, and at least a basic understanding of light and shadow, and a bit of perspective, I can’t imagine anything more inspiring to “form development” than a life drawing class.

Thanks for all of the great ideas.

My time spent looking at natural structures, bio-structures, crustacean shells, coral, never translated into useful source material for industrial design. Beautiful yes, useful, no. If there was on area to avoid spending a great deal of time, I would x out this.

Unless you do movie prop design for alien features.

Really? I always found looking at natural forms useful, but on a very macro abstract level.

The other exercise or way of thinking that I find useful is to start investigating and mentally cataloging the lexicon of the man made world. Things tend to look a certain way for a reason, and certain forms conjur somewhat predicable reactions in large groups of people. To develop form is to be a student of how form effects the psyche and to understand how it relates to the past and present, and hopefully the future

To say not to look at the natural world for form inspiration is a pretty bold statement. Maybe the form you are developing isn’t literally biomorphic, but god, the proportions of life are programed into all of us at a fundamental level. When an average person looks at something and says it looks fast, or too feminine, or dislikes the proportions of the grill of a car, that instinctive response comes from our being part of the natural world. Literally translating the form of a sea cucumber into a toaster is one thing, but telling someone to ignore everything but the built world is kinda nuts, IMHO.

Yup, bold. Look, I know natural design however you define it, is beyond compare. Breathtaking, awesome, inspiring. I understand that especially when you are young and looking for “The Answer”, it is fantastic to look at all of those natural mechanical and form solutions.


For commercial product design it is, for me, a dead end. Natural market selection eliminates biodesign everytime. It usually gets eliminated at the sketch phase in the first review.

Micheal touches it here. Mankind has a object language, an object language (as I interpret it) that runs at a 90 degree angle to the language of DNA and genomes. Our object language, whatever the structural/psychological/learned dynamics underlie it, have evolved distinctly from nature.

You can strive to be the Luigi Colani for the new century, but I am just giving a little advice that it might not be the most successful devotion of time looking for product design inspiration.

Not slamming Colani, for me he sits in a unique ground as an industrial design artist.

+.85 nxact

For the most part I think you’re right about bio forms. Once you introduce the constraints of brand message, feature set, usability, and mechanics, I think you have a pretty tough job to even use bio forms, outside of textural effects. Pretty? Yes. Useful? Rarely.

For me, it’s a lot more useful to see what visual words mean in the culture at large. A lot of the bio stuff seems lacking in context for me most of the time - kind of force-fitty if you do pursue it, and kind of random. Often a client has at least a vague idea of what they want, usually with a couple key product images and a some vocabulary words to describe their vision. I think once you crack what they are after/what it means to them/why, you have a great opportunity to build the product’s language based on cultural or segment/demo-specific interpretations of those ideas, and also to add those ideas you yourself think are relevant based on your own experiences as a visual thinker. Build a design language reference, talk the client through it, see if you both are aligned, and start out the gates with a laser sharp aesthetic focus so you don’t spend the better part of eternity on a shapeless journey through the wilderness.

I say: look at everything, draw everything. You never know where inspiration will come from. Also, we are within 5 years of a substantial design trend change. With flowery motifs all the rage in graphic design, perhaps we will have a new Art Nouveau generation as a backlash against the geometry of the iAesthetic. Maybe something else…worth keeping up with.

Agreed, tastes change, and the rate of that change is increasing, as well as going through a schizophrenic fit between globalized trends and regional niches. It is best to be able to create tasteful design in a number of aesthetics, and to continue to challenge yourself. Don’t limit what you will do based on what you have done, instead intentionally search for white space in your portfolio and explore there.

Between “don’t spend too much time looking at biodesign” and “look at everything”, we didn’t answer your question.

Example: Last year I was commissioned to design a high end 15 meter powerboat concept, my first. I went to boat shows, marinas, and took pictures of what attracted me, bought all the yacht magazines and marked the images that appealed to my sense of appropriateness. As well made notes of everything that I did not like about boat design. Bought books on Amazon about boat construction techniques to get an idea of why some things are the way they are.

Then a profile was built of the potential customer and the use of the boat with his family, roughly based on the person commissioning the work. This could give a guide to additional items of inspirations, cars, watches, airplanes. Then a set of historical references, airplanes, certain classic cars, lifestyle images, architecture. This formed the inspiration to start sketching on top of the technical hull plan.

What drove the design the most was the usage of the boat and how it would be perceived from the vantage points of the father, the mother, the son and his friends and the outside observer.

The background imagery becomes a shape catalog that gives unconscious guidance to the form evolution. The shapes that come out are not so literal interpretations of the reference, but many of the detailing of the design at a later stage are.

+1 nxakt

One issue I often have with using that workflow is I end up unconsciously creating forms that look like something Ive seen in the market you are designing for. I don’t normally like to start with competitive products because in the earliest of ideation stages I end up drawing a bunch of stuff that looks like the competitive stuff. I find it helpful to pick out the emotion, feeling, story, technical detail, language whatever it is I want my product to convey in form and find inspiration outside it’s category. Later I’ll move towards competitive products to refine those initial concepts.

I think you can draw form inspiration from anywhere. It never hurts to sketch out early ideas that are too crazy, or that may not work. You’ll eliminate those as you progress through the design process. You just never know what will end up inspiring you and the final form.

My experience has been that I need to find the functional and design center of a new area, attempt to determine what are requirements and what are conventions. Then enhance the required characteristics and expand in new ways and break the conventions.

I have learned to trust my personal intuitive blend of combining the accepted core aspects and injecting the new.

I find it helpful to develop a persona and then explore all of the other objects, environments, and services that would be in that persona’s life, and not look at the particular market I’m working in. In other words, build a world for your design to sit in and see how the problem solves itself. Do that over a few different personas and you have a range of solutions.

I have to say that one of the largest concerns is developing a consistent style or form that cannot be translated from one company or product to the next. Having worked in the product development industry for several years has forced me to come to terms with my own aesthetic sensibilities. I have found on many occasion that final form is highly driven by function and cost. This of course can vary based on the industry. One of the best descriptions I have heard so far suggests that having a deep understanding of the client, their aesthetic desires, demographics related to marketing direction of the product and form language direction can be key in this process. Story boards are invaluable when it comes to this particular stage. I definately like to surround myself with beautiful looking products and images but having these translate into a consistent brand language is always a challenge especially if the company is pretty green or has outsourced this process in the past.