Konstrukt Design, Sydney

Product Design Glossary

By: Peter Cooper


As with many activities, whether it’s science or snowboarding, product design has a language of its own.
There is specific terminology, or jargon, used within the profession to describe things. Some of which is relatively self-explanatory, some still has me wondering. (Can anyone tell me where ‘rendering’ comes from?)

Below I’ve compiled an alphabetical list of terms, and endeavoured to provide an explanation for each, based upon my experience doing work in the United States, Australia and the UK. Hopefully this will help next time you’re wondering ‘What does that mean?’

If there are words I’ve missed, or if you strongly disagree with an explanation, please let me know so I can consider for future updates.

I’ve not listed all the different software tools used by designers; acronyms for international organisations; nor many engineering or manufacturing terms. Please note this list has been prepared from my perspective within the field and does not reference external sources. Many of the terms are not unique to design, but may have a particular meaning within this professional context.

Remember that certain terms may mean different things to different people, but hopefully, whether you’re working with designers, entering the profession, or a student, this might answer some questions.

Two-dimensional. Usually used in context of CAD or image.

Three-dimensional. Usually used in context of CAD or rendering. A 3D rendering is a 2D image generated from a 3D CAD model!

Brand of CAD software, most often used for free-form modelling and visualisation. Becoming less prevalent.

Visualisation comprised of moving images, usually created from 3D CAD. Allows a ‘movie’ of the design without needing physical samples. The quality of an animation can vary dramatically depending upon application.

Study of measurements of humans. Used to inform ergonomics.

A collection of components that are related and have interconnections. Parts joined together form an assembly. May be physical, also within CAD.

back end
The later phases of a design program, closer to manufacture. Within some organisations some of these activities are identified as engineering.

bill of materials (BOM)
Table containing a list of the components and the quantity of each required to produce an assembly. A costed BOM includes pricing information. An indented BOM indicates how different components and sub assemblies relate to one another and the order in which they are assembled.

See bill of materials.

Instructions and requests provided to design team prior to the commencement of a project. Format can vary, and may range from informal & verbal, to comprehensive document.

computer-aided design. Software used to assist with design and documentation. Giving rise to the fabulous terms ‘pumping CAD’ and ‘CAD jockey’.

Colour, material, finish.

Computer-numerically controlled. Refers to various machinery used to produce prototypes, tools and components.

Part. Single, discrete element within an assembly.

Early-stage design, not all aspects are resolved, however overall intent or direction should be apparent.

contract manufacturer (CM)
External company that produces parts or products to order.

control drawing
2D representation of a design, used to assist production. Often used in conjunction with 3D CAD data, a control drawing can provide information such as dimensions, tolerances and notes that may not be readily obtained from 3D data alone. Also called 2D drawing, engineering drawing or technical drawings. Similar to architectural ‘plan’

design thinking
An approach to problem solving based upon methodology used by designers, but (usually) applied to other disciplines, such as business and education.

Determining and accurately documenting all the aspects of the design, largely related to the performance and manufacture of the part. Depending upon organisational structure this work may be carried out by engineers.

Design Institute of Australia.

Distance or measurement.

Usually refers to a precise black and white ‘line’ image often generated in CAD within a recognised format, used for communicating technical aspects of a design. See also control drawing.

Design with significant consideration to the environment, also called green design.

Electrical (or electronic) engineering.

Application of principles that consider the effective, safe and comfortable use of a design by humans. An example would be the design of a handle based upon anthropometric data and with subsequent usability testing.

exploded view
Visual representation of an assembly, showing some or all of the components separated to illustrate the parts and their relationships to one another.

Finite-element analysis. A computer-based engineering tool for assessing structural aspects of a mechanical design.

Surface treatment of component. May be functional and/or cosmetic, examples include polishing, painting and anodising.


form study
Type of prototype used to assess the external form of the design, usually full size, often in a single colour or with minimal cosmetic finishes. The ‘clays’ used in automotive design are an example.

front end
Preliminary stages of the design process, typically where overall configuration and desired appearance are established.

See general assembly.

general assembly (GA)
A drawing or CAD model illustrating all the components of a finished product and their relationship to one another. May incorporate a bill of materials (BOM).

human factors
A phrase largely interchangeable with ‘ergonomics’, human factors relates to consideration of human users in the design of a product and environment. Some people make a distinction that ergonomics more specifically relates to the physical association between people and products.

See industrial design; also internal diameter (e.g. the distance across the hole in a donut).

International Design Excellence Award. Presented by IDSA.

Idea generation, typically early in a project and in a relatively loose/abstract form. Brainstorming is an ideation technique.

Industrial Designers Society of America

Computer software often used for 2D design work. Also used extensively by graphic designers.

industrial design (ID)
A term for the profession, as in the design of industrially-produced goods. Some attribute the origin of the phrase to a Kiwi c.1920, and it has been largely misunderstood by the public ever since…
Generally interchangeable with product design, though industrial design (or ID) is more often used by people ‘in the know’. When a distinction is made, it is generally that whilst there is a lot of overlap, industrial design is more focussed toward the earlier stages of the design process

intellectual property (IP)
Characteristics of a design the owner may wish to protect from unauthorised use. Strategies include trade secrets and formal, legal IP protection such as utility patents & design registration.

Elements of a product via which a user receives and inputs information. On a smartphone this may be as simple as a touchscreen and a few buttons. On a motorcycle it is far more involving, with both hands and both feet operating controls, along with visual display of information.

See intellectual property.

Mechanical engineering.

City in northern Italy. Significant to design both as a place and an event. As a place, for the amount of design activity focussed there. The annual Salone Internationazionale del Mobile (Milan furniture fair) is the world’s largest furniture exhibition and attended by many designers.

model (including CAD)
Representation of a design. May refer to a physical item or a representation within computer software e.g. CAD model

Tool used to create plastic parts. Typically made of metal.

mood board
Collection of images gathered at the outset of a project to help clarify and communicate aspects of the aesthetic of the yet-undesigned product. Interchangeable with theme board.

The file type used by a given software program during normal use (creating & saving files) Example ‘.docx’ for MS Word. Native files are often not used to transfer design data, as translation formats such as STEP offer tamper resistance, revision control and do not have the interdependence that is common with CAD data.

New product development.

original design manufacturer (ODM)
Company that designs and produces goods to be sold by other brands. The design may be initiated by the ODM or may be to meet a specification provided by a brand.

original equipment manufacturer (OEM)
Contract manufacturer that produces complete, finished products. Manufactures products for other brands, (to the design and specification of those brands) which the brand then distributes. Common business model, with many brands outsourcing some or all of their production (to OEMs).

off-tool sample (OTS)
Initial sample created using production tooling. Used to check design and ‘tune’ tooling prior to making production quantities. Common to have at least 2 generations of OTS (OTS1, OTS2, etc.) as first OTS will often not have cosmetic finishes applied to tool.

Describes form. Soft, irregular shapes, as occur in nature.

See off-tool sample.

A single element. Some products, such as a paperclip, consist of a single part. Often a product is an assembly of multiple parts.

percentile (as in ‘5th percentile’)
Term used within ergonomics to indicate a portion of the population with regard to a particular trait. Using height for example, of a sample population 50th percentile is the mid point, 5th percentile would be the shortest 5% of people within the sample group, 95th percentile the tallest 5%.

A period within a design program that is identified as having a particular focus of activity and/or outcome.
A project may have a user-research phase, a concept phase, etc. This term is commonly used in the US, the word ‘stage’ is largely interchangeable.

pilot run
An initial small production run produced as a check prior to commencing full-scale production. The pilot run provides an opportunity to further refine assembly process or identify any remaining issues with the design or manufactured parts, thereby saving time & $ in the transition to full production.

Brand of CAD software, subsequently named ‘Wildfire’, and now ‘Creo’ (the family of products still widely referred to as Pro/E). Well-established platform for mechanical CAD with large user base.

A body of design work for a single organisation, typically involving multiple projects. Alternatively a piece of computer software, increasingly called apps or applications.

A specific, defined design task. In this context often a product. May also be more narrowly defined, such as a piece of stand-alone research or a conceptual exploration used to gather knowledge without necessarily being intended for production.

Stated approach to a design project. This is a response to a brief.

Model made during the design process to assess aspects of the design prior to manufacture. Usually physical, but may take other forms, including on-screen or even Post-it notes. For glossary of terms relating to prototyping see separate article, (coming soon!)

Rapid Prototyping (RP)
Various technologies for producing a prototype directly from 3D CAD data which produce a result far more quickly (typically within a couple of days) than traditional model-making.

An image of a proposed design which may be generated by various means including marker pens on paper, 2D software, or 3D CAD visualisation software. The detail provided in a rendering can range from quite abstract and suggestive to photorealistic. In layman’s terms, an ‘artist’s impression’. I have no idea why the term rendering is used…

May be undertaken at different times in a project, for different reasons. Common types are user research, competitor research, and research into materials and process.

Rhinoceros (Rhino)
Brand of CAD software, tends to be used for free-form modelling and visualisation.

Item demonstrating one or more characteristics of a design. Can differ from a prototype in that a sample may represent a material or process, without necessarily being in the form of the design in progress.

A ratio of size to allow documentation of designs that are too large or small to be documented effectively at true size. For example a chair may be drawn at 1:5 scale (one fifth of full size). A scale may also refer to a ruler with graduations to easily measure scaled drawings, but this is more common in architecture.

An image that is quick to generate and does not contain complete detail. Also used as an adjective, e.g. sketch model.

Brand of CAD software. Widely used platform for mechanical CAD.

See phase.

STEP file
Computer file format for cross-platform transfer of 3D CAD data.

styling freeze
Point in time after which no further changes to the appearance are intended. This may be implicit and not formally identified.

sub assembly
An assembly that forms part of a larger assembly. For example the display of a smartphone.

A company that provides goods or services relating to the item being designed, typically prototype or production components. For design the term is largely interchangeable with ‘supplier’ (though this may be debated by a procurement specialist!). Supplier is more commonly used in Australia and the UK.

theme board
See mood board.

Dimensional variation that can occur between nominally ‘identical’ components during manufacture. Tolerance may refer to a dimensioning approach to define this, or the variation observed in parts.

tool, tooling
Catch-all phrase for dedicated elements of manufacturing equipment used for the mass production of components. Tooling is a general term which includes molds used for injection-molded plastic parts and dies used for cast metal parts. Investment in tooling often represents a major capital expense and time component of new product development programs.

The person or people who will use the design. A product may have multiple users, for example ‘users’ of a piece of medical equipment may include the patient, the doctor, and technical staff.

A company that provides goods or services relating to the item being designed, typically prototype or production components. For design the term is largely interchangeable with ‘supplier’ (though this may be debated by a procurement specialist!). Vendor is more commonly used in the US.

That’s it for now! If you want more, try: