Materials should lead the design process.

Should design be led by material characteristics? Does using material as a start point produce better products than fitting a material to a design?


I’m going the IP approach…

It depends.

the end user/use leads

I’m siding with zippy. No point in using some fancy material just for the sake of it.

This is true, but sometimes (especially in the corporate design world) the company own certain assets which the design has to run on. This then starts to limit the material and manufacturing process. This may not mean that the material drives the design, but it is a big contributor.

Not the ideal and quite probably not recommended. But it done all of the time.

Zip’s right: user leads.

But I also believe in honesty when it comes to materials & manufacturing processes. Pick the right mat/mfr for the need (user and manufacturer), then accentuate the positives–don’t try and hide it just because it doesn’t fit your aesthetic vision.

If you’re given Filet Mignon, don’t make a Cheeseburger.

Certainly, that is a very real design constraint. Not only materials, but assembly lines, shared components among products etc.

But the original question was “Does using material as a start point produce better products than fitting a material to a design?”, and I’m struggling to find any arguments for that.

However, not saying that a brief running like “This our new awesome material, what can you apply it to?” can’t produce good design in the end. The process will most likely include and (hopefully) dictated by the user still.

Thanks for all the posts.

One thing I’m thinking about is whether materials can inspire better products.

If you are given a new material and told to make a non-specified product, will that product be better because the potential of the material determines the outcome, rather than ‘design a kettle’ or whatever, then choose the material?

oh you mean, here use our cost effective carbon fiber…then yes but only if your a good enough engineer to know HOW to use it properly.

use, maybe, but user, gotta say no. User/consumer lead design is what propogates crap like faux wood finished (printed wood on laminate) desks.

Personally, I’m all for honesty of materials as CG advises. If it’s wood, make it look like wood. If it’s plastic, make it look like plastic. Every material has benefits and drawbacks and the key to good material use is recognizing those and playing on the strengths.

As for material first or design first, it all depends on the design/development process. If you are a wood company, it’s most likely design from materials will be the start. If you are a housewares company it’s about finding the right materials to execute your design…

There is no right or wrong way to design (materials vs. design first) as I see it, it’s all a question of the context and the problem you are trying to solve.


An example of material led design I would cite is where Rosenthal porcelain commissioned Marcel Wanders and more recently Patricia Urquiola to explore their material. Wanders produced the egg and sponge vases, Urquiola the tableware with the detailed textures. Although vases and tableware are what you may associate with porcelain, the exploration of the materials’ potential produced innovative results.

Carbon fibre is a good example though Zippy I think, if you take that material out of its normal context and give it to a domestic goods or furniture designer: They will have to conduct extensive research or collaborate with an expert in that CF but may come up with new applications which push the potential of the material in a new setting such as with ‘Surface’ table produced by Established and Sons…

It is important to take different approaches to lead yourself to different solutions. If you take the same approach on every project, you will end up with similar solutions on every project…

Think of it this way: if you always take the same road, you always end up at the same destinations!

Another thing to think is about is your (and your company’s) capabilities. For me, going to the factories and studying how things are put together, and how materials are used is as inspirational as a research trip to Europe, or working with athletes. It is important to have information from all aspects feeding into your mental process.

this is right up my ally.

i came from manufacturing, and became a so called “designer”.

as mr.lowey said “think about the poor bastard that has to make your design”.

i tend to get heavily involved into a process, then design with what you know you can do. it really sucks when you design intending a process then find out you cant do that. but when you get creative with your new found process, you can actually make the poor bastard that has to make your design … happy!

my two cents, im gonna get warned for my language… haha!

Selection of new, innovative material helps to reposition the brand.
However, it can’t always become a starting point for a budding company.

You have to be an established brand to do some experimentation.
Then promote the advantages of particular material.

It should have more prominence through unique design, style & utility/ functional factors (more lifespan, scratch proof; etc.)

The material change is the repositioning parameter not the leading factor, although the product may get lead because of it.

I think this shows the subjectivity of design.

When people use the term user I believe this must be in the form of user centered not user lead. Cynical design processes are the reasons why products and companies eventually fail and why the world is full of useless bits of mass manufactured plastic and electronics that sit broken in draws and fill rubbish tips.

Understanding a user, their environment etc is key to a good design, how can you design a snowboard accessory without understanding the culture of snowboarding and the users and environment.

Focusing on materials as the main driver is a flaw, as the process of design has begun with assumption. The material is the result of research into the project area. If a designer starts to assume and relies on pre-conceptions then they are not designing, their styling.

Material is important but can only be justified with a solid base of research.

Anybody can style not everyone can design.

That’s chicken & egg question. It’s entirely dependent upon the the application of the design.

With plastic’s the design & material selection are very dependent upon each other. For instance if you are designing a living hinge (flip top, accordion fold, etc) your material is going to dictate your designs success. You wouldn’t want to pick a nylon because it’s very nature is rather brittle. You would want to pick another material with the tensile strength yet flexibility like a polypro. Or a chromed product would need abs material of which there are abs grades specifically for chroming.

Of course if you are designing a product that isn’t meant to withstand much handling the material selection isn’t as important as the design because you are appealing the the end user’s senses.