The R&D Tax Credit Aspects of Industrial Design

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        Recently developed blockbuster products have exemplified the value of industrial design. However familiar its revolutionary potential may be, it remains difficult to encounter a precise definition for design. In the words of Steve Jobs, "Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

        Industrial design can encompass the aesthetics, ergonomics, functionality, usability, marketability, and manufacturing of a product. It has the ultimate objective of optimizing the connection between product, user, and environment for the mutual benefit of both consumers and manufacturers. Companies engaged in innovative design aimed at enhancing product performance may be entitled to significant federal R&D tax credits.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

        Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13% of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent.  Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

Industrial Design and Academic Innovation

        In the fast-moving world of consumer products, design can be understood as the ability of taking something from its existing state and moving it to a preferred state.

        Industrial designers must innovatively respond to user concerns, anticipating the visual, tactile, safety, and convenience criteria, as well as the psychological, physiological, and sociological factors that determine how a product is perceived. Concurrently, they must respond to practical concerns, including manufacturing processes, marketing opportunities, and economic constraints, along with the effective use of materials and technology. To this end, designers must work closely with a wide variety of professionals, such as management, marketing, and manufacturing specialists, in order to develop concepts that incorporate all relevant design criteria.

        Throughout the country, numerous academic institutions offer cutting-edge industrial design programs aimed at training professionals in this complex field of activities. Notable examples include:

  1. Rhode Island School of Design:
    Founded on 1877, the Rhode Island School of Design was one of the first colleges of its kind in the U.S. Ranked first in industrial design by the U.S. News & World Report in 2012, the RISD program offers a hands-on approach intended to explore innovative ways of using creative thinking and the design process itself to do things better. Groundbreaking projects developed at RISD use design as a tool to address social, cultural, and environmental concerns. Recent examples include the development of interactive design elements featuring photo-luminescent materials with the objective of harnessing the sun in the creation of zero-power lighting concepts.

  2. Syracuse University:
    With a five-year industrial and interaction design undergraduate program, Syracuse University offers a process-oriented approach to design development aimed at advancing a wide variety of skills. Ongoing efforts include the development of innovative ideas for the built environment, particularly with respect to new material applications.

  3. Art Center College of Design:
    Located in Pasadena, CA, the Art Center College of Design is among the top of the country. Committed to socially responsible design, the College is known for its rigorous, transdisciplinary curriculum, as well as for its strong ties to industry. Its industrial design program focuses on the development of resilient business model-based designs, built upon unique insights about human needs. The study of context sensitive technologies, such as glasses that translate texts, and augmented reality, such as bracelets that simulate human touch, are examples of recent projects.

  4. Pratt Institute:
    Consistently ranked among the top ten in the U.S., Pratt Institute's industrial design graduate program is the oldest and largest in the country. The Institute offers a wide variety of subjects, from consumer products and packaging to transportation and exhibition design. With a vast number of ongoing projects in partnership with private companies and public entities, Pratt Institute is committed to supplying propulsion to idealistic, aesthetic, and practical ideas. Recent examples include a partnership with Herman Miller for the creation of furniture that promotes physical and mental well-being and the redesign of a fleet of mobile information carts for the Grand Central Partnership.

  5. Carnegie Mellon University:
    Throughout its 113-year history, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University has been a center for innovation and for the transformation of groundbreaking ideas into marketable alternatives. Denominated Master's of Integrated Innovation for Products and Services, CMU's industrial design graduate program is aimed at training elite innovators. With a tradition of pioneering work in the field of integrated product development, CMU offers a complex combination of design, business, and engineering. In partnership with industry sponsors, CMU students have developed innovative products including a self-cleaning car comprising a robotic vacuum and a home-like truck featuring an ergonomic, fully integrated kitchenette and dining experience.

Corporate Industrial Design Innovation

        The benefits of industrial design innovation are easily perceived. From mobile devices to medical instruments and home furnishings, industrial design can affect virtually every aspect of one's daily life. The emergence of wearable technologies and the Internet of Things is bound to intensify this influence. The following paragraphs discuss recent examples of industrial design breakthroughs as well as relevant trends for the near future.

The Virtuous Circle of Industrial Design Innovation

        Manufactured by Corning, Inc., Gorilla Glass exemplifies the revolutionary potential of industrial design. Combining thinness, lightness, and damage-resistance, the innovative glass has been instrumental in the development of a new generation of mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. It all started with the original iPhone, in which Steve Jobs wanted to use glass instead of plastic. Faced with the fragility of conventional glass, Apple turned to Corning, which had been known since the 1960's for developing chemically strengthened glass.

        Since the creation of the original Gorilla Glass in 2006, two other versions have been introduced, featuring thinner, more durable and scratch-resistant compositions. The company has also launched the Antimicrobial Gorilla Glass, the first EPA-registered glass of its kind, formulated with antimicrobial properties to protect touch surfaces.

        Corning's 162-year long history of innovation inspires great expectations for the near future. The glassmaker is currently working on a 3-D shaped Gorilla Glass, which is expected to enable the development of new mobile gadgets with curved displays, such as the iWatch and a new curved iPhone.

        While being itself an example of taking something from its original state to a preferred one, Gorilla Glass has also enabled major industrial design innovations involving other products. Its new curved version, for instance, is expected create novel avenues for interaction with mobile devices, optimizing connection with the user. New products eventually uncover novel needs, creating space for enhancements and opening a virtuous circle of innovation.

Design Thinking

        Global design firm IDEO has been an important supporter of industrial design innovation. With a human-centered, design-based approach the company specializes in identifying uncovered needs, behaviors, and desires, and developing solutions that incorporate both the possibilities of technology and the requirements of business success. With the mission of helping organizations innovate, IDEO encourages the so-called design thinking, which "brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable".

        Recent IDEO industrial design projects include Medtronic's PowereaseTM Surgical Instrument System, a groundbreaking tool specifically tailored to meet the needs of spinal surgeons during reconstructive procedures. With the objective of lessening physical strain and enhancing surgeon control, the instrument was carefully designed to respond to the interplay between the required strength, skill, and time throughout the different stages of surgery. Preliminary studies show that, in comparison with manual tools, the novel powered instrument system enables savings of 51% in time tapping the pedicle and of 55% in time placing screws. In addition, it reduces unwanted vibrations by as much as 38%.

        Another example of IDEO innovative design is the award-winning project of redefining self-service banking for BBVA Group. The challenge was to overcome ATM industry standards by creating a custom-design system based on customer needs. Through intensive research and close cooperation with manufacturers, IDEO developed a unique ATM solution featuring significant improvements of privacy, ease of use, and simplicity.

Sustainable Design

        Growing environmental concerns are increasingly an issue for industrial design projects. Williams-Sonoma, Inc., the premier specialty retailer of home furnishings and gourmet cookware in the U.S., sets an interesting example of the commitment to incorporating sustainable elements into product design.

        Williams-Sonoma favors the development of long-lasting products, therefore contributing to the conservation of resources. In addition, it incorporates sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and FSC-certified wood, into its designs. The company is also committed to using fewer or alternative materials in the design of its products.

        Williams-Sonoma's example illustrates the overarching and irreversible trend of sustainable design.

Sportswear and Wearable Technologies

        Sportswear is an important field for industrial design innovation. Combining comfort and high-performance is an outstanding challenge that requires constant innovation. Recent efforts have made garments look and fit better while helping athletes improve their performance. The use of smart textiles is a telling example.

        The innovative Adidas miCoach Elite System features a small data cell fitted into a pocket in the back of a player's base layer. Through a network of electrodes and sensors woven into the fabric, this cell captures and transmits more than 200 data records per second from each player to a central computer. The system instantaneously sends simplified insights and results to the coach's tablet, enabling unprecedented monitoring capacity. The coach is not only able to assess the workload of an individual player but also to compare athletes' performances and have a general view of the team's key metrics.

        This groundbreaking solution illustrates the proliferation of electronic wearables, yet another vibrating field for industrial design innovation. The combination of wearable technology and sports is bound to revolutionize training and coaching.

        Speedo has recently introduced its Fastskin Racing System, an innovative system combining swimsuit, cap, and goggles. Through three dimensional body mapping, the system is accurately designed to fit head, face contours, and body shapes of each athlete, optimizing comfort and hydrodynamic efficiency. Fabric, fibers, and finishes are carefully designed to diminish skin friction drag and water absorption while providing enhanced stability. According to Speedo, the system can generate an 11% improvement in oxygen economy and a 5.2% reduction in body active drag.

Smart Homes and the Internet of Things

        Recently acquired by Google for $3.2 billion, Nest Labs, Inc. has been an example of innovative industrial design. The California-based home automation company developed Nest Learning Thermostat, a sensor-driven, Wi-Fi enabled, self-learning, programmable thermostat whose sales have reached 100,000 units a month.

        Nest thermostat's ability to "learn" its users' habits, such as the time one leaves and returns home, and set the temperature accordingly is a striking illustration of industrial design innovation leading to enhanced functionality and improved end user connection. This cutting-edge solution demonstrates the bourgeoning of the Internet of Things, where objects are enabled with the abilities to sense and communicate and therefore become strategic tools for collecting information and responding to it.

        Google's interest in Nest Labs signals the ongoing multiplication of smart home products, such as smoke detectors, humidity monitors, doorbells, and security systems. Enabled with smart sensors that process information and pick up on patterns, these new products are poised to be major sources of data. Access to the so-called "Big Data" has gained strategic importance, especially for information-driven agents, such as Google.

3D Printing and Co-Design

        New design tools have emerged, bringing unique opportunities for industrial design innovation. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of building three-dimensional objects from digital models. Commonly referred to as a next Industrial Revolution, the use of 3D printers can change the way we make virtually everything. Notably, the combination of open-source design software and 3D printing has started a wave of DIY, individualized design.

        The so-called mass customization enables the replacement of one-size-fits-all products by highly precise solutions, developed in response to customer needs. There is a change in the relationship between production and consumption, through the establishment of an interactive dialogue. Consumers become active participants in the design process, in other words, co-designers.

        In this scenario, designers must face the challenge of shifting from the development of invariable products to the creation of product platforms and the definition of design rules that allow for a range of customizable product solutions. Additionally, the product design process begins to include the development of design tools and interfaces for consumers as co-designers.

        New York-based Shapeways has served as a platform for the design and 3D printing of user-created objects. The company has printed and sold more than one million objects using various materials, such plastic and ceramics. This successful example sheds light on a new era of product design, where cutting-edge manufacturing technology is combined with a highly personalized approach.


In our fast-moving world, the importance of optimizing function, value, and appearance of products and systems has gained unprecedented importance. Companies pursuing industrial design innovation must respond to ever-evolving consumers' needs and interests, being able to anticipate and engage in change. Federal R&D tax credits are available to assist companies engaged in this challenging pursuit.

Article Citation List



Charles R Goulding Attorney/CPA, is the President of R&D Tax Savers.

Andressa Bonafé is a Tax Analyst with R&D Tax Savers.

Charles G Goulding is a practicing attorney with experience in R&D tax credit projects for a host of industries.

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