Design contexts

Contexts are a starting point to inform possible outcomes and situations in relation to a design brief. Within a context, many different elements need to be considered before the design of a product can take place.

Material properties

Designers are required to use their understanding of material properties to make informed selections when designing products. When making a selection, two types of properties must be taken into consideration:

  • mechanical - how a material will perform and react when exposed to external forces and loads
  • physical - something that can be measured, like weight and size

Mechanical properties

Mechanical propertyDefinition
DurabilityThe ability of a material to withstand damage or wear
DuctilityThe ability of a material to deform
StrengthThe ability of a material to withstand forces without bending or breaking
MalleabilityThe ability of a material to deform without cracking
StiffnessThe ability of a material to hold its shape without bending
BrittlenessWhen a material cannot absorb energy and will result in the material breaking into pieces
HardnessThe ability of a material to withstand indentation, scratching and wear
ToughnessThe ability of a material to withstand impact without breaking

Physical properties

Physical propertyDefinition
AestheticsThe appearance of a material, including colour and feel
DensityThe amount of material contained in a set volume
ConductivityThe ability of a material to hold heat in or out (thermal) or the ability of electrical current to flow through a material (electrical)
CorrosionThe breakdown of a metal due to a reaction with water
SizeThe measured dimensions of a material in two or three dimensions
MagneticThe ability of a material to be attracted to a magnet

Manufacturing processes

The designer will consider many aspects when designing and developing a product, including the selection of a suitable manufacturing process and the use of computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacture (CAM).


The designer may wish to prototype the final product using the material of choice to test how it could be manufactured commercially and whether the mechanical and physical properties of the material are meeting performance requirements.

Scale of production

The designer will need to consider the scale of production of the final product to ensure the product is affordable to manufacture:

  • one-off production - this is the most costly as specialist skills are required to make a unique product, eg a commission for a statue
  • batch production - this is cost-effective when a set quantity is required, eg masks for a festival
  • mass production - this is cost-effective on larger production runs because the set-up cost is shared over a large number of products, eg ballpoint pens

Consideration will then need to be made based on this to the material selection, the manufacturing processes and the associated running costs.


A designer may need to put a costing case study forward before a product is able to go to manufacture. Cost factors that need to be considered include:


A designer will need to consider the function of the product they are designing - why does it need to be designed (what is its purpose) and how is it going to work?

This will have a reflection on which materials and processes will be used, for example:

  • Does the product need to be used inside or outside?
  • Does the product need to be able to fold away or not?
  • Does the product need to hold a certain amount of weight?