Sitting in physics class at Towson University, Neal Hassel ’11 glanced around the room at his peers. He’d always enjoyed physics, especially Mr. Hughes’ AP class at Mount Saint Joseph, but a couple years into his degree, he could tell he wasn’t quite as passionate about the discipline as his classmates seemed to be. Luckily, physics wasn’t the only subject in which Neal excelled at The Mount. As a senior, he was also enrolled in an independent art study, and the prospect of pursuing a career involving this other interest felt much more fitting.
Neal transferred into Towson’s art program, at first unsure of the track he’d choose. He eventually landed on a major called object design. “I went through that program, and it was totally my passion,” he says. “Everything came naturally to me.” He graduated and sought out an internship at the world’s largest tool company, Stanley Black & Decker, whose corporate office and makerspace are located right in Towson’s backyard. To his surprise, his internship application was met with a full-time job offer, and he began his career as an industrial designer.
Industrial design is a key component of product development. Neal collaborates with the marketing and engineering teams to determine how a product can best serve consumers' needs and sets out to bring those ideas to life by creating photorealistic images of what a final product could look like.
Ergonomics plays a big role in Neal’s design decisions. He explains, “We have to understand how things feel in your hand and what types of applications people are using them in. Are they using it overhead where they’ll have to support weight for a while? What can we do to improve that overall experience?”
In addition to functionality, Neal must also take into consideration something called visual brand language. For example, DEWALT, a Stanley Black & Decker brand, produces lines of instantly recognizable black and yellow tools with signature patterns, grips, and textures. Every five years or so, the products undergo a design refresh. In 2017, Neal played a part in evolving the signatures on a next generation set of drills and impact drivers.
In previous designs, the handles displayed the word “brushless,” a callout to the tool’s motor technology, either molded into the yellow material with no color contrast or printed in black ink, which provided high contrast but at an added cost. For this project, Neal and his team worked with their manufacturing partners to find a way to mold in high-contrast black material for essentially no cost difference.
“It’s super small, but it actually saved us money and was an improved design element,” Neal explains. “Any time we can call out features and benefits that users will recognize helps them subconsciously feel like they actually have the top-quality piece of equipment as opposed to maybe not realizing it. Now we've implemented it on tons of tools. That’s something I influenced that we now see proliferated across the greater portfolio of products.”
Much like the cyclical process of refining a product’s design, Neal has taken an iterative approach in his career. As his role has evolved over the years from a focus on 3D modeling to a broader set of responsibilities including the identification of consumer needs, he has learned more about himself and his interests. “I’ve taken something from each step of the way and incorporated it into the next iteration of my career, so to speak,” he says.
Neal’s favorite part of his job is that it’s different every day–from researching consumer pain points and workshopping solutions to digitally sketching product variations to building 3D models. A product development cycle can last anywhere from 12 to 24 months or more, and there is a lot that goes into finalizing a design.
“When it’s a more complex design, you need to make sure you’re continuing to show end users throughout to confirm everything that you’ve been developing. So, it’s a lot of trial and error, two steps forward, one step back, but you keep making progress. Your first sketch is rarely ever what the product actually ends up looking like,” he admits.
Such was the case when Neal designed a string trimmer for the Outdoor Department. Since DEWALT’s outdoor products are relatively newer in the range, there is typically more leeway in design because there is not as much legacy to reference. So, Neal’s initial design was bold, stretching the standard. After some early feedback, Neal toned down the design to a much more conservative look before finally landing somewhere between the two styles.
However, the most dramatic difference between Neal’s initial design and the final product was not in aesthetics but rather in functionality. After identifying that storage of pole tools is a pain point for users, Neal worked with his engineering counterparts to develop a patented folding mechanism that allowed the trimmer to be stored in half the space.
Iteration by iteration, Neal has built a career he can be proud of and has contributed to a portfolio of products on garage shelves everywhere. Over the years, he’s occasionally let himself wonder if he should have stuck with physics, and each time reaches the same conclusion, “No, I love what I do.”