Monday, October 17, 2016

Visual stereotypes in design

Visual stereotypes in design

Visual stereotypes in product design derive from mechanistic requirements as well as concessions to mass produced items, transportation and material heritage such as can be seen in items ranging from sewing machines to trucks. The human body can motivate certain proportions and dimensions (anthropometrics) as seen with medical devices, bicycles and the like. Stereotypes are hard to break even in the fine arts. You see breaks as artistic revolutions such as cubism, impressionism etc. In the mechanical world, stereotypes become a marketing grip so they are difficult to divorce.  Therefore, a toy gun looks like a real gun and a current staplers look like one from 50 years ago.

These are expected proportions of a hot dog, pickup truck and drill

                         New York’s Chrysler building representing Art Deco

Repetition of design features in Dyson and Lamborghini products

First step in design?

Methodical approaches to product design can be especially helpful when designing for a foreign culture or working within a strict brand identity. One helpful design technique is identifying the typical shape or form of an object, referred to as the visual stereotype. This identified form represents an archetype upon which to start a design or as a baseline to compare a new design’s non-mechanistic appeal in qualitative analyses.  

Visual stereotypes are exemplars of shape or form that provide a culturally relevant expectation of category, experience and function. The visual stereotype helps us understand such things as the product’s role or its brand association. A good example of the power of visual stereotype is seen in American pickup trucks in which the proportions have remained unchanged for over 40 years.

The visual stereotype can also present a design feature conveyed through a family of designs. This feature could be a subtle part of brand image and is a complimentary feature to include in designs seeking to embrace a brand identity. Certain features are identified with design movements such as repeating geometric lines and streamlined forms in Art Deco. Features are also repeated in brands such as the organic forms in Dyson vacuum cleaners or facets in the newest Lamborghini automobiles. Color has long been used in brand identity but there is a movement towards color customization  that reduces this unique brand affiliation.

Because the amalgam of product shapes leads to a stereotype, outline drawings derived from photographs   can  be   superpositioned as data in establishing stereotypical outlines. Photographs can be digitally enhanced to produce high contrast, at which point they can be imported to CAD. After profiles are outlined, they are superimposed upon one another, a process that creates the visual stereotype that establishes proportions.
When a visual stereotype is identified, designers can use it to provide a foundation for starting a design or for guidance in incorporating subtle design elements into brand sensitive designs.

Changes in painting

Fishing Boat Example

 One example of using a visual stereotype was in design work I did in Malaysia in which I identified a curve fit of the sheer line of a 'Class B' fishing boat. An equation was developed that represented a curve running between the high point at the bow, the low point amidships and the high point at the stern that was used as a starting point for my design.  This improved the objectivity of this ethnographic design pursuit by using the identifiable feature of anticipated form and proportion.  The lines drawing below shows the final design and you can see its origins in the identified visual stereotype.


Range of profiles, Mersing, Malaysia

Some of this writing derives from my book, “Engineering for Industrial Designers and Inventors: Fundamentals for Designers of Wonderful Things" (