No. 51 PAGE No. 79

Industrial Design
Industrial Design Engineering Department
JULY 1965

Industrial design - sometimes referred to as the bridge between technical design and the customer - plays a significant role in the development of subscribers’ apparatus. The author surveys some aspects of his work in this field, with particular reference to telephones and switchboards.

Before the introduction of any new product to the public there must be a complex and often protracted process of research, planning and development. The industrial designer’s influence is vital at all stages of this process since he must not only make the outward form of the product attractive to the eventual user but achieve a logical relationship between form and function.

Ideally, when the function has reached perfection, the form is beyond criticism, but only few objects such as the ball and the wheel and perhaps the ploughshare, have attained such excellence. In general, extreme simplicity of design is not feasible; many components are needed for the function, and these must be integrated with a form that is both practical and pleasing. The conviction of the ‘rightness’ of a finished design for public release is backed by the designer’s intuition, resulting from long experience, a recognition of engineering problems, understanding of product usage, an awareness of public taste and, lastly, a sense of timing.

The field of telecommunications, as typified by the activities of this Company, affords considerable scope to the industrial designer, particularly in relation to subscribers’ apparatus. This is the generic name for all the apparatus seen and handled by the public, and comprises such items as telephone instruments, standard or amplified handsets, PAX cordless cabinets, PMBX and PABX switchboards, dials, keys, plugs and so on. Since these items are complementary to the vast hidden network of automatic exchanges, transmission systems and line equipment that constitutes the public communications network, they have comparable long-life expectation. Because of this the industrial designer is presented with the challenge to achieve a design that will remain aesthetically acceptable to the user for as great a proportion of this service life as possible. He strives, therefore, not merely for acceptance of the design at the point of sale, but acceptance in subsequent use.

To appreciate the extent of his task it must be borne in mind that subscribers’ apparatus is almost constantly in sight of the user and is critically appraised in relation to other equipment and furnishings in home or office. The successful design therefore is one that fulfils as far as possible two separate conditions. Firstly, it must be a sufficiently effective common denominator of the best in design trends elsewhere to achieve compatibility with other equipment; secondly, it must establish a design-idiom not only original enough to connect it with a particular manufacturer but sufficiently tractable to link a particular family of products. The fulfilment of these conditions in present-day subscriber-apparatus design represents a complete departure from the past, when apparatus was to be tolerated for its utility, provided that it was unobtrusive or could be installed where appearance did not matter.

This revised attitude to a whole class of technical products has no exact parallel elsewhere and could not have been brought about by designers working in isolation. It is the result of a permeation throughout this industry of a conscious design philosophy, one largely formulated and sustained by this Company. It may be summarized as a search for ‘presentability’, defined as a compound of the aesthetic and practical qualities that a highly representative body such as the Council of Industrial Design would itself prescribe.

The procedure in preparing any new design usually takes the same characteristic form, the designer collecting his brief at an initial meeting between engineers, chemists, sales and marketing representatives and possibly production engineers. The designer will commence by producing many varied ideas in rough sketch form, in a number of different media, in order that one avenue of thought can finally be decided upon. From these initial roughs, one or two of the more pleasing forms will be rendered, often in colour so that a more finished visual may be shown to the other persons involved in the design project. After this, further meetings with engineers, sales representatives, etc., take place. The finalized concept, which may possibly be a composite one based on the one or two visuals shown to the interested parties, will be then produced in three-dimensional form. Usually these initial block models are produced in wood and finished to represent the actual material visualized for the ultimate production model. From this point forward, once the design concept has been given management approval, the industrial designer and the mechanical and electrical engineers co-operate to provide the initial working prototype, and finally the production model.

As regards subscriber equipment, requirements in design fall under a number of headings, broadly similar whatever the purpose of the equipment. A review of details under these headings as they affect the telephone is of interest, since this instrument confronts by far the greatest number of non-specialist users.

Best defined as the ability to give the lowest ratio; time spent manipulating/time usefully employed. Good design reduces this mainly by eliminating points at which mis-operation can occur.

With a telephone the primary consideration is the handset which must be designed to suit the modal distance of the average user, i.e. the distance from ear to mouth and the cheekbone clearance. Correct shape of the handle section is also important to ensure stability in the cradle as well as in the hand.

Among other points for consideration are the position of the carrying handle, legibility of dial markings, push-button shapes and spacings.

Mechanism, Controls, Components
Although perfection in the mechanism, controls and components is largely the concern of the apparatus engineer he must confer with the designer in deciding how they are to be related to the design as a whole.

This covers factors such as the ability to withstand the maximum amount of rough usage the instrument is likely to meet over the whole period of its expected service life. Particular attention is necessary to vulnerable points such as the case fixing points and cradle area.

Resistance to rough usage has been increased in one version of the Etelphone by arranging for the casework and main circuit board to be complementary parts of an internally braced, virtually shock-proof system. In this design, the circuit board, which also carries the dial, is retained in place by the downward pressure of the case and can be detached from the instrument in a few moments.

In other subscribers’ apparatus, maintenance is similarly assisted by one-piece cover construction with simplified fixings, but optimum access to individual components is a matter for joint study by the designer and apparatus engineer.

In the past the decision to enter production of a new design often depended ultimately on how far it would make use of existing materials and machines. Few fundamental advances however can be interpreted in production without some breakaway in technique. An example was the adoption of new forms of plastics, specially developed by the plastics industry, and of new moulding methods in the production of the B.P.O. adopted 706 telephone (Etelphone). These materials and methods were however to prove indispensable to a whole range of other manufactures. General advances of this nature derive much of their initial momentum from the influence of the designer, and his confidence in the projected design.

The current range of cordless switchboards, including the BPO adopted 2 + 6, 3 + 12 and 4 + 18 were developed as the culmination of a series of design studies over the preceding decade. These adequately illustrate the evolutionary pattern underlying subscriber equipment in general, both by reason of the extreme contrast between the starting and end-points, and the well-defined relationship, evident at each stage, between external form and available materials and manufacturing techniques.

The initial stage was confined to an attempt to improve the external appearance and wear-resistance of the traditional form of cordless switchboard by facing it with plastic laminates. At this time such laminates (thermo-setting melamine-faced materials) were being used on an increasing scale in the interior decoration of buildings and in the construction of furniture. They were available in a variety of attractive colours and designs and possessed great durability and hardness. In such a context the switchboard (Figure 1) gained in compatibility with its surroundings but it remained an interim design. The traditional effect, inseparable from the underlying wooden construction, had not been modified.

Figure 5
3+12 Switchboard with one piece cover

At this stage the dominant possibilities of the new plastics, namely to liberate design altogether from the limitations imposed by woodworking techniques, had still to be fully explored. Valuable experience was however gained, this proving useful to the design of larger floor-pattern switchboards.

A further step, still within the constraints of the traditional shape, was to provide moulded corner sections which provided protection and enabled the laminate panels to be individually exchanged or replaced if required (Figure 2). The only attempt to advance the styling at this stage was in a few variants with sloping front panels.

Figure 6
4+18 cordless switchboard
Figure 7
The 2+10 House Exchange Telephone
Figure 8
Etelux luxury telephone

It was clear that the only way to a more sophisticated outline lay in shedding the wooden substrate, the necessary strength and rigidity being conferred instead by a metal framework. This would mount the majority of components and give adequate support to the casework, which should be in as few separate parts as manufacturing techniques permitted.

Reference to Figures 1 or 2 shows that two features of the earlier switchboards (the keys and indicators) could not possibly have fitted aesthetically into a unified contemporary design. Consequently, the development around the mid 50’s of miniature wedge-handle keys and miniature indicators was a timely and essential contribution to further progress.

The first of the new designs is shown in Figure 3. Among novel features of the equipment was a hinged chassis surmounting a cast aluminium base and mounting keys, indicators and other components. The cover was a composite four-part construction, the ends being compression mouldings of plastic and the transverse plates of enamelled metal. Whilst this arrangement offered the possibility of economic maintenance in that individual sections of the cover could be separately replaced, if necessary, the appearance was less unified than would be given by a one-piece cover construction. It was not however economically possible at the time to produce such a cover using existing compression-forming techniques.

Reasonable quantities of this switchboard were produced, mainly for export, experience confirming both the soundness of the new engineering techniques and the acceptability of a design idiom based on similar construction and overall visual effect.

With the introduction of thermo-plastics and vacuum-forming techniques the designer was at last able to experiment with different shapes of moulding with comparative freedom. Moulds or formers could be easily and cheaply modified and the effect on the finished product assessed; also complete prototypes, with casework varied to suit different arrangements of components and controls, could be assembled and compared. It also became practicable to obtain advance data on market reaction by the small-scale distribution of prototype designs.

Figure 9
Floor-pattern, indicator-signalling switchboard (Export series)

Following a satisfactory response to these designs a number of switch boards featuring one-piece, injection moulded covers were produced, three of the final production versions (all BPO approved) being shown in Figures 4, 5 and 6. It is of interest to note that the 4 + 18 switchboard illustrated in Figure 6 is also the basis of the Company’s new Ship-to-Shore Cordless Cabinet, developed in collaboration with the Admiralty. These switchboards represent a complete re-statement of design in a class of equipment which had remained virtually unchanged for half a century and may be expected to remain acceptable in the aesthetic sense for many years to come.

Figure 10
Latest lamp-signalling switchboard approved by the B.P.O. and ready for installation in the B.P.O. Tower Building, London

The design experience and manufacturing capability accumulated in typical developments such as the above, has led to the appearance of other items which have achieved wide recognition in the subscriber apparatus field. Among these are the 2 + 10 House Exchange and the ’Etelux‘ luxury telephone (see Figures 7 and 8). More recently, work has progressed on a new low-price telephone and a telephone incorporating push-button dialling.
The floor-pattern switchboard is another area of design where the scope for improved appearance has been broadened immeasurably by the use of new materials. Two examples of this class of switchboard, using similar materials and constructional techniques, are illustrated in Figs. 9 and 10. The first is typical of a range designed to meet a variety of signalling requirements for administrations overseas the second is the prototype of a design that has been developed for and recently adopted as standard by the British Post Office. This prototype is at present being installed beneath the new 620 ft.
BPO London radio tower, in the same building that houses the ’Mercury‘ trunk exchange.

Other recent developments include the new PABX 4 floor-pattern console-type switchboard and a 7 + 35 alternative table floor pattern switchboard. The latest extension of this range (see Figure 11) is the pedestal-mounted console for the PABX installation at the Plessey Company, Vicarage Lane, Ilford, Essex.

It can be seen from this brief description of some aspects of the industrial designer’s function, particularly in this industry, that he has an increasingly important role to play in the creation of new products.

Figure 11
Pedestal-mounted console for PABX installation at the Plessey Company, Vicarage Lane, Ilford, Essex

With his specialized knowledge of aesthetics and associated skills he is able to co-ordinate actively the various demands made in the initial product brief, and give the most suitable emphasis according to customer demand which, in the final analysis, is the most important aspect of design after all.


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Last revised: July 29, 2003