Do industrial designers have a rule for the number of materials used in a product?

What if I want to use moss for a board game?


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  • No, they do not have a rule.
    – DA01
    Nov 25, 2012 at 4:32

4 Answers 4


The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote, "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away".

That's a commonly-quoted principle of all design; each element should justify its existence. Don't include anything that doesn't serve a purpose.

That doesn't mean there's a hard-and-fast rule in play; you're likely to need at least four materials/textures in a chess board game (two for the game board and two for the pieces). But if you can remove something without any detriment to the object filling the user's need in some way, that thing was evidently extraneous and can (or better should) be removed.


Short answer - no they don't have a simple rule.

It depends on the purpose of the design, the materials, the budget, the goals, etc.

  • Thanks Adrian. You're saying there's no law for this sort of thing. I need to clarify my goals for the design first. So if I had a chess board with stone pawns, wood rooks, and a king covered in faux fur, that's groovy? The design gods wouldn't have material unity or some cool word to describe this? Nov 24, 2012 at 9:22
  • It may or may not be groovy depending on what the design goals were. There isn't "a" rule. The number of materials depends on the interplay of dozens of things.
    – adrianh
    Nov 24, 2012 at 10:44
  • For example - what's the right number of materials for a chess board. I've seen chess boards that vary from printed black-and-white squares on a piece of paper, to a lovely piece that was made of 64 different kinds of wood / wood-treatments that was a demo piece for a furniture restorers skills. Both were the right choice for the context.
    – adrianh
    Nov 24, 2012 at 10:47

Think of materials used in a product in much the same way that you might think of colours used on a website or mobile application.

While it can be effective to use many colours, they can also be distracting and harm your initial goals. So the answer is that "it depends" on your product, and what you are trying to achieve with it, more than on some rule.

I should note that some designers have arbitrary rules that they use for themselves based on their philosophy of design, but there is not any generally accepted rule. Nor should there be.

  • That's a really helpful comparison, John. So just like on a website, where you want to use one or two colors, too many materials on a product may be distracting. Metaphors are like roads, and you don't have to take them all the way to the end. But maybe you could even apply this thinking to accents, and how changing material sparingly could make a bold statement. Nov 24, 2012 at 23:20
  • @TylerLangan that would be a good way to apply it. I tend to prefer a single main material (or colour) to set the tone of an item, and then use specific materials only where they are functionally needed, or as accents to either draw attention to some other detail, or draw the eye along a path.
    – JohnGB
    Nov 25, 2012 at 1:13
  • So making pawns out of stone may be permissible because in chess, they act as the walls. They structure the direction the pieces have to move. For example, if you have a pawn wall in the center, one player may decide to move around it to the left while the other player races to move her pieces around it to the right. Would you say this is an appropriate change of material from wooden pieces? I'm designing a chess set on my own. I spent a little over a year making the 2D in my spare time. Now I want to make it 3d. For this use case, let's say the board will serve as a beautiful ornament. Nov 25, 2012 at 1:21
  • (The pawns are the smallest, weakest pieces. They aren't even technically called pieces. You have 8 "pieces" and 8 pawns.) Nov 25, 2012 at 1:22
  • @TylerLangan I don't think that your question as it applies to chess pieces is a UX question. It seems to be more a design aesthetics issue. In terms of design, I would agree with you, but that is entirely subjective.
    – JohnGB
    Nov 25, 2012 at 12:55

From the clip of Jonathan Ives - from the documentary 'Objectified'...

For mass produced products there are strong production engineering and production cost drivers to 'simplify' products.

Form follows function.

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