From teaspoons to forklift trucks, industrial designers like Professor Tony Parker of Massey’s College of Creative Arts are involved with the look and feel of mass-produced objects that we use in our everyday lives.
‘In my recent research, I’ve been fascinated with and focused on designing for affect,’ Professor Parker says. ‘That’s designing to make objects highly desirable through their aesthetic form, ergonomics and functionality. Engineering is typically a technologically driven process, but industrial design is interested in human engagement and our interaction with objects.’
The majority of Professor Parker’s work in recent years has been working with Gallagher Industries, a large New Zealand technology company with an 80-year history of manufacturing products such as electric fences, stock-weighing equipment, petrol pumps and access security systems. ‘Initially, my role involved embedding industrial design within the product development process and establishing a systematic approach to the look and feel of their products so they all looked like they came from the same company,’ he says. ‘This human-centred aesthetic approach became the focus of my research, and helped Gallagher to develop new products, focusing particularly on how products are a manifestation of brand. A product has to work technically and ergonomically but it also uses aesthetic shapes and forms that communicate to the end user that “this is from Gallagher, you can trust us, we’re a premium product”.’
Professor Parker has now been involved in the industrial design of dozens of award-winning products that have been mass produced. ‘It’s a highly collaborative thing to do, because these are technological products for international markets, so I work very closely with a range of specialists within the company. I lead the industrial design side of it, so I’m expected to come up with the overall concept for the product and then work collaboratively with engineers in different subject areas to realise that as an object of mass production.’
Last year, Professor Parker and his Gallagher colleagues completed work on a new series of high-tech weigh scales. Shaped like a robust computer tablet, the portable unit plugs into weigh bars that sit underneath an animal crate. As well as an animal’s weight, a wide variety of other information can also be entered, and used to analyse productivity and farming methods. This is particularly important for ‘gate to plate’ traceability regulations when animals move between farms or across international borders.
That’s a very tricky thing to do sometimes, without actually having something to put in front of people to say: ‘Is this what you mean, does this grab you?’
PROFESSOR TONY PARKER
‘For example, a specific animal trait or event such as veterinary care can be added to an animal’s record. This information gives a comprehensive history of an animal’s growth, reproductive performance, wellness and condition. Through this device, you’re able to access that information, critically evaluate it and decide whether farming practices are effective and as productive as they possibly could be.
‘Gallagher is a great site for me as a designer to test ideas about what design could or should be, and how much value some of those ideas actually have in a real production organisation. It’s a very good site to be a reflective practitioner and is also a generator of ideas which you can test there and then. There is a lot of emphasis in contemporary design practice on assessing the needs and roles of end users. That’s a very tricky thing to do sometimes, without actually having something to put in front of people to say: “Is this what you mean, does this grab you?”’
Working in this way, the designer becomes more than an observer of particular practices, taking an active role in working with engineers, developers of technology and those involved in marketing, to deeply understand the issues that they are confronting and the opportunities that have not yet been realised. It is a combination of creativity, knowledge and exploration about a complex situation.
‘It’s a very holistic and deeply engaged research practice that I’ve got and I love it,’ Professor Parker says. ‘I’m very grateful to Massey, who encourage me to do it, and I’m delighted that Gallagher also want me to be involved. I think the impact is pretty obvious. All these products are the result of collaborative work and we know that they have an impact on not only the economic performance of the company but also its status internationally. This flows through into other economic benefits for the company, for cities, regions, and for the country. You feel like you’re doing really good, impactful work and not just something that’s going to gather dust on a shelf.’