material science

Material science for designers

For too long designers have had to wade through the arcana of science, engineering and physics textbooks to perform one of their essential roles - analyzing and selecting materials. With the publication of Materials and Design (updated in 2014) and Materials (2007) by Michael F. Ashby et. al. (see right-hand column), that arduous task has changed. The design community now has access to information written in its language and focused on its needs. (It will come as no surpise to readers that one of the authors, Mike Ashby, lectures at UK's Royal College of Art.)

Although wood/fibre materials are barely mentioned, the significant data for metals, plastics and composites are presented with the support of an impressive array of charts (maps), diagrams and colour photographs. Materials and Design: is product-focused and an excellent introduction to the science of materials. Materials: is more "scientific" in approach but uses design-led methodology and ample illustrations throughout.

"[Material engineers generate] new developments in materials and processes that are sources of inspiration for product designers; for example, the ability to colour and mould polymers to make bright, transclucent shapes; the co-moulding of elastomers to give soft tactile surfaces; surface coatings that reflect, refract or diffuse light; carbon fibre composites that allow exceptionally slender stuctures; and more." (1)


By studying the internal structure of materials, scientists learn how the physical behaviour of materials is affected by their atomic arrangements. The electron bonding of atoms in the molecule of one material or the relationship between atoms in a composite material will determine specific attributes such as strength, density, hardness, transparency and even cost (see chart).

Following a format used throughout both books, the chart above shows bending strength and cost for common furniture materials. Presenting data visually in a quasi-three-dimensional pattern reveals relationships that would be hard to comprehend in a traditional table format. The maps were generated with CES software from Granta Design, a CD-ROM package that allows every aspect of material selection (including eco-factors) to be interactively manipulated.

Not content with only explaining property data, Materials and Design: helps answer the question "how do I shape this material" by classifying processes as shaping, joining and surface. Almost unique in a materials science text, a one-page summary (including description, design/technical notes, cost, eco-factors, etc.) of manufacturing, assembly and finishing technologies is provided for each material.

All the chapters of Materials and Design: integrate environmental issues, while Materials: assigns one specific chapter to the task.

(1) Materials and Design, page 2
(2) Chart data courtesy of Granta Design

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