What is it about the click of a tactile button, the loo seat closing really slowly, that stitching on the cuff of your favourite jacket or the embossed pattern on the grille of your new Bluetooth speaker, that gets your heart going?

These little things may seem somewhat trivial to you, but as an industrial designer I use them to engage people, and hopefully make them fall in love with the products and services I create, as they get close up and personal with them. I obsess about these things on a daily basis, but often wonder if my audience can comprehend, or even notice, this level of minutia, these design details that consume me?

So what exactly is design detailing? When we look at an object for the first time, we make an instantaneous and intuitive judgment about what it is, how it functions, where it’s from, whether we like it or not, how much it costs and so on. We make these judgments in the blink of an eye, by subconsciously absorbing and evaluating the design as a holistic proposition. But as we probe further, picking up the object, touching it, smelling, hearing and generally interrogating it – that’s when we look beyond the whole, and begin to appreciate the individual component parts that create it.

These elements are ‘design details’, and can come in a myriad of genres: colour, texture, form, sound, materials, typography, and so on. And it is the interplay of these discrete elements that provide pleasure in sometimes unexpected places.

Design detailing is essentially the resolution of (product) design at close quarters.

Nick Rhodes,

Programme Director of Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins

Creating difference through details

Design details can be functional, decorative, exposed, hidden, iconic, or simply frivolous – whatever they are, if they’ve been carefully crafted by the designer, these little design gems can be extremely powerful and make the difference between a product people love or hate, a product that is commercially successful or a total flop.

Take, for example, your favourite smart phone. To be honest from a cursory glance, they are all very much of a muchness – a rectangular block, with rounded corners, identical proportions, gloss black screens, metal bezels and a single function button. So why do some make us dance, and some make us run for the hills? Apart from the interface and cost, it’s the design detailing which visually sets them apart, and makes you lust after them or shy away. Do you love or hate the twin camera bulge on the rear of the LG G5, is the beveled screen on your Samsung Galaxy Edge an ergonomic delight or visual frippery, do you care about the sheer engineering precision of the iPhone, or would you rather cover it up with a snakeskin rubber cover?

It’s these kind of design details that set products, experiences and brands apart, generating meaning, which is ultimately what consumers purchase. It’s how consumers decide whether certain products are for them (or not).

We spoke to Nick Rhodes, Programme Director of Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins, one of the world’s top universities for this field of study. He explained that ‘Design detailing is essentially the resolution of (product) design at close quarters. Any product that has a relationship with the body must have appropriate visual languages attached to it to aid its readability.’

‘A chair signals you can sit on it, because of its relationship and scale it has with your body, and the joints you have. Appropriate detailing is about the readability of an object, environment or interface’. And further to physiological relationships Nick also explains how design detailing can help consumers understand new, never before seen technologies, by referencing known objects and experiences. ‘Think about new tech - you often see new details that haven’t existed before. If you reference already archetypical forms that we know and can understand, that’s what makes previously new details and interfaces intelligible.’

My heart belongs to the details. I actually always found them to be more important than the big picture. Nothing works without details. They are everything, the baseline of quality

Dieter Rams

Detailing for identity

So detailing can help us understand what an object is, how to grip it, where it opens, which way up it goes and generally how to interact and interface with it. But detailing is so much more than that. It can bring endless pleasure. I’ve often got out of my car, and looked back to admire the light lines on the body work, the complex light clusters, or the alloy wheel pattern – and that’s after 5 years ownership.

Nick explains further that beyond functional benefits, detailing brings pleasure in different ways. ‘Patrick Jordon, talks about four kinds of pleasure: 1) physiological pleasure - The shirt I’m wearing is really comfortable, 2) psychological pleasure - I don’t expect it to fall apart because it’s really well engineered, and that gives me reassurance, 3) ideological pleasure - I know this shirt is made in Japan on looms salvaged from Levis in the 1960s. It’s recycled. It has provenance, and 4) sociological pleasure - you can only get this shirt in Ueno market in Tokyo, and I know people that know that. It gives me social status.’

These pleasures are bought together by choreographing and curating details to convey these messages to me in a coherent way – that’s the skill of the designer.’

As a practicing product designer I pore over these details to an almost obsessive level – in the quest to imbue meaning into the things we’re creating. We can zoom in, quite literally, to microscopic detail, using 3D CAD and 2D graphic software packages. But does the man on the street appreciate, or even see this level of detail? Well in my view, subconsciously, they certainly do. Consumers often won’t be able to articulate this, but they definitely appreciate it.

I think subconsciously people are remarkably discerning. I think that they can sense care.

Jony Ive

Less is moreish

In Western culture as we move deeper and deeper into a world where minimalism and essentialism are held as banners of good taste, you could argue that detailing is disappearing. But quite the opposite, the fewer design details there are, the more important they become, the more difficult to convey the right message, and the more tricky they are to ‘curate’. But done well, consumers revel in the beauty of well executed ‘minimalist’ detailing as their appreciation of design detail matures.

So as I return to the packaging design detail I’m currently obsessing about, maybe I can rest assured that if we can get it right, if we can persuade the client that extra cost and time is worth it. If we can make sure the toolmaker doesn’t destroy the meaning by shifting the split line because it makes his life easier - then all the effort and obsessing will be worth it when we see consumers loving the pack, taking unexpected pleasure as they open and close it, but not quite sure why.