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What Makes For Great Industrial Equipment Design?

I’ll admit that when it comes to design, I have a soft spot in my heart for industrial equipment—that is, those pieces of design which are intended for specialized, professional use. These aren’t iPods or airplane kiosks: These are hardcore pieces of technology that you and I never get to appreciate on a daily basis. And that’s one reason why industrial equipment is such a vitally important area of design.

Unlike an iPod or an airline kiosk, which just result in frustration and perhaps poor sales if they don’t work well, industrial equipment is about functionality in its purest form. To see what I’m talking about, let’s take the example of a boring old forklift. Now, you might expect that machinery like this is pretty mundane. But in fact, if any one piece of it doesn’t function well, workers get hurt and productivity lags. The mere placement of a lever or a pedal can distinguish a superb piece of machinery from a terrible one—and when you multiply the benefits of something working as well as it possibly can, you end up with a material impact on the vital functions of a business. And if you didn’t think that forklifts could be a thing of beauty, I urge you to consider those made by Crown Equipment, a company that perennially wins awards for outstanding design:

Just in that picture, you’ll notice the clarity of the levels and pedals; the fact that the pedals have enormous knobby surfaces designed to give feedback even if the user is wearing workboots; and wheels with flat, covered hubs that make potentially fatal snags almost impossible. Pretty brilliant, huh?

Superb industrial equipment design is also vitally important because it’s where cutting-edge science becomes cutting-edge technology—it’s designers who translate possibilities into capabilities, and to do so they must allow a simple object to be used as readily as possible, with maximum intuitiveness. In doing so, they can create pure beauty. Consider, for example, the Nanopoint Celltray, created by Carbon Design:

That tray is a recent technology, which allows living cells to be viewed under a microscope. The slide is what you see in the middle; the circles you see are the wells in which living cells can be arrayed. Besides being stunningly gorgeous, you’ll notice a few details on the tray itself—such as the rounded bowl of the slide holder, which prevents it from slipping but also, if it does slips, keeps the slide from clattering across a table. This is tremendously precise stuff, and failures of design might literally cost lives, in the form of blown diagnoses.

I bring up all those examples to hint at what we’ll be judging, when we judge the industrial equipment entries in our inaugural Innovation By Design Awards: How well does something fulfill its purpose? How deeply have the designers anticipated the needs of a product’s users? And does that product exceed the bare minimum of function, to create an easier, everyday life for the people who depend on it?

Moreover, by providing some inspiring examples, I’m hoping that you, the reader, can help us out: What pieces of industrial equipment do you find inspiring? What examples can you provide of designers going all-out to see more deeply into a product’s function?

Some examples of Industrial Equipment:

  • Medical devices
  • Heavy Machinery
  • Professional Tools
  • Construction Equipment


Yves Béhar

Yves is a designer, entrepreneur, and sustainability advocate. He is the founder of fuseproject, the San Francisco and New York based design and branding. He is also Chief Creative Officer at Jawbone where his products, brand and communications guidance has built the company into a leader in wearable and audio consumer electronics. His collaborations with renowned partners such as Herman Miller, Jawbone, GE, Puma, Canal+, MINI, Samsung, Issey Miyake, Prada and many others have received international acclaim.

Bill Moggridge

Bill Moggridge is the Director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. He oversees the only museum in the United States devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. Moggridge is credited with designing the first laptop computer, the Grid Compass, in 1981. He describes his career as having three phases, first as a designer, second as a leader of design teams and third as a communicator.

Max Wolff

Max Wolff is the Director of Design at Lincoln. His extensive luxury and global automotive design experience has taken him from Australia to Asia and America. Wolff previously worked for General Motors, where he held key design positions, including assignments with Cadillac, Holden and GM Daewoo. He will help the Lincoln team expand and enhance its brand lineup, which will include seven all-new or significantly refreshed vehicles in the next four years and its first-ever C-segment vehicle.