Steinhobel is probably South Africa’s leading industrial designer. He works both in Austria and locally, with a portfolio that stretches from pool cleaners and sex toys, to Sebastian Vettel’s helmet accessories, to ballistic missiles in SA and weapons for Smith & Wesson. His career has taken him across the globe – he is planning to write a book about his adventures – and sitting through his 623 slides (he didn’t show all of them) it’s difficult not to be amazed and inspired by the breadth and range of what he has produced.

Though product design is central to the objects we help sell, in some ways industrial design is something of a poor cousin to advertising. “It amazing that advertising budgets are so much bigger than design budgets,” Steinhobel observed. “When what we are doing is the rudder steering that product’s future.” That beautifully designed products sell better is a message he emphasizes over and over again – whether it’s the world’s first plastic gym machine or a dispenser for Hulett’s sweetener, which increased sales fourfold.

One of the first designs he showed us was a trophy for the Best Company to Work For Award; he sketched the concept on his iPad while stoned on morphine in Sandton Clinic after a fourth operation for a collar bone shattered in a motorbike accident. Like the trophy, some of his design doubles as art – the provocative and sensual $120 000 carbon fibre chair he sells in Europe, for instance. Other examples are intended purely to sell product, as is the case for lawnmowers and cutlery, while still others, like a reusable menstrual cup distributed by the government, have a social purpose. He shows a design for a bus stop “that actually shelters people rather than [serving as] a bad excuse for an advertising billboard”.

A couple of the objects in his portfolio would seem not to need to look beautiful – a scanning device for grain silos for example - but as he explained, products like this are sold at trade shows and in boardrooms, where it’s important that the object have a certain appeal for the potential buyers that will play with them. He uses the German word zeitlos – timeless – to describe what it is he tries to create, regardless of the product category. “Besides being fundamentally beautiful, we always try to get a zeitlos form.”

It’s always interesting for those of us in advertising to hear from a creative professional who works in a related field. “It’s not easy to make a living by your creative wits, you have to push the extra mile,” Steinhobel said. The major challenge faced by industrial designers is the fact that so few clients understand it is what they do and the value they can bring: “Just getting the bean-counters to appreciate the importance of design would make a huge difference.” In the US, more and more corporations have industrial designers on their boards. The extraordinary success of Apple is a salutary reminder of the economic impact of design.

How can industrial designers and ad agencies work together more effectively? The two usually work closest on projects that involve packaging or point of sale design, but Steinhobel sees other opportunities. With the laws governing liquor advertising set to change, for example, it would make sense for agencies and designers to work together to find new ways to market brands through promotional items.

“There are massive opportunities here,” he said. There can be little doubt that no matter what results from a collaboration with Steinhobel – even a promotional ice bucket – it will be beautiful and functional. And, of course, zeitlos.