Often overlooked for the sake of functionality alone, design can take a backseat when it comes to the product development of construction equipment and vehicles. But style does matter to customers, and construction equipment and vehicles, like other products, can be as appealing to the eye as they are functional, according to David Wilkie, director of CNH Industrial Design Centre.

“When people ask me why they need a good looking wheel loader, I ask them, why not? If it can be designed to be functional, I can’t find any reason why it shouldn’t also be designed to look good,” says Wilkie with the enthusiasm of a young artist.

Only Wilkie is no ordinary artist. As the director of CHN Industrial Design Centre, Wilkie leads the design teams for the company’s different segments, including agricultural machinery, construction equipment and commercial vehicles.

Wilkie boasts an illustrious career in automotive and industrial design. Having graduated with honours from the Charles Rennie Mackintosh School of Art in Glasgow, Scotland, with a specialisation in industrial design, followed by a postgraduate master’s degree in automotive design from the Royal College of Art in London, UK, Wilkie held various design roles in the automotive industry before joining CNH Industrial in 2014.

Sharing his design philosophy, Wilkie lists attributes that are associated with well-designed construction equipment and vehicles. According to him, good design is about form meeting function, where functionality, ease of use, personality, charm and memorable experiences are intertwined.

“Functionality is critical to investment in construction equipment because they do very important jobs. Ergonomics, aesthetics and comfort are equally crucial because they affect the users of our construction equipment, the workers who spend a lot of time in and around such machines. It is important that they don’t face difficulties or suffer from fatigue while operating our machines. My responsibility as a designer is to work closely with our engineers to develop products that are equally robust, comfortable and enjoyable to use,” he explains.

This raises a very important question from the perspective of investors: to what extent do aesthetics matter to buyers of construction equipment, and could stylish features help sell more equipment and vehicles?

“Construction machines are impressive by their sizes, technologies and features, which help create their unique selling propositions. When design and style are added to the mix, they can complement and accentuate their features and functionality, which eventually translates into a better selling proposition. Stylish features provide intangible and psychological benefits that customers associate with the product experience,” he says.

Wilkie believes that creative freedom is necessary to expand the boundaries of design and product development. According to him, that’s the only way to start new conversations and present ideas that have not been thought about earlier.

“As designers we tend to go beyond where we need to go and question everything with the intention to make dramatic changes. We don’t want to design for the sake of style alone, but we also don’t want to be frivolous about style. While we work with engineers keeping in mind the boundaries of physics, we do not restrict ourselves when it comes to creativity and imagination. It’s important that all ideas are discussed whether they are conservative or extreme, which may result in anything from ordinary looking vehicles to futuristic, conceptual machines,” he says.

“We need to develop products that offer value for money to customers. They need to be functional and affordable in order to be competitive in the market. Nevertheless, we encourage our designers to work with full creative freedom and design what they like, provided it gets the job done as specified. Then we adapt it to market requirements,” he adds.

All the principles of industrial and automotive design can be applied to construction equipment and vehicles. However, designing a wheel loader or tractor demands an entirely different approach as compared to designing a car, and it comes with its own set of challenges, according to Wilkie.

“Based on my experience in industrial and automotive design, I would say that automotive design is relatively easy and often repetitive. Car designers specialise in style and ergonomics and that’s where their responsibility ends. Industrial designers go beyond that and get heavy involved in the functional aspects of their products,” says Wilkie.

“As an example, while designing a wheel loader, we need to understand the working environments of our customers and how we can engineer the wheel loader to solve their problems. It’s a different learning curve, because I’m not a regular user of our products. Everyone drives cars, and so they have opinions and feedback about user experience. I, too, drive a car, but I don’t drive a wheel loader every day, although we have access to our machines to drive them and form our own opinions about user experience. Therefore, we rely on our engineers and customer facing staff who tell us what we can do and what we must not do,” he says.