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It’s Time For Industrial Design To Grow Up

Traditional industrial design can’t deliver what it takes to create tech devices. Besides new skills, we need new language.

It’s Time For Industrial Design To Grow Up

I am an industrial designer by training, but it’s been a while since I called myself one. Industrial design has changed, and what I do has changed, too.

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The kinds of projects I work on require skills beyond those taught in any conventional industrial design curriculum, and the people I hire are typically proficient in areas that borrow from technical fields rather than classical design disciplines.

So, I’d like to propose that we retire the term “industrial design” for designers who work in technology. It isn’t simply outdated; it fundamentally misrepresents what it means to design for the tech world today.

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Industrial design is about creating an object. To be commercially successful, its physical presence and symbolic meaning typically need to fit with the craft and economics of the industry of which it is a part, whether it’s a car, a mobile phone, a kitchen gadget, or a TV set.

Historically, in that world, designers were routinely handed a piece of technology as is and asked to wrap it with a beautiful skin. Not only were they excluded from any discussion of the object’s interface or software, they were often told to try and minimize the effects of the exterior form on the object’s guts. In many cases, the object was 95% defined, physically, before the designer ever saw it.

The PC world of the ’90s is an excellent example: Intel developed reference platforms–motherboards that PC companies then packed into boxes, with minimal alterations. The PC brands typically focused on secondary items like drives, monitors, and such. These metal and plastic parts and bits together were called a chassis (borrowing from traditional automotive-industry vernacular). Designers were not supposed to meddle in the core mechanics of the device.

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In that world, design’s relevance was further minimized by the sheer economics of the process. Often, a computer that would sell for about $1,500 would have a budget of about $10 to $20 for the box and any aesthetic features on it. “Make it nice,” clients asked, and many of us tried hard. Each curve was scrutinized against costs and a brand language that had everything to do with marketing and little or nothing to do with the experience of the product. Breaking that operational mold was difficult and painful, and not just for designers. The market was rigged against any serious innovation in form, and the software experience was set (most often by the Windows OS) so “Why bother?” was the rational business thinking.

A PC Chassis, set as fixed, was common to ’90s design tasks.

But then something radical happened. Tech companies started asking designers to create objects in which a user experienced a product primarily through its software. Or designers found themselves creating objects whose size constraints required that they be designed both to fit a human hand and have software that would adapt to a small screen. Things got complicated. UI, UX, ID, and engineering became intertwined in a swirl of conflicting demands, requiring that teams form a cohesive approach to multi-dimensional design dilemmas.

Mobile phones, whose form and size are limited by the earthly dimensions of the human hand or pants pocket, were at the forefront of this problem. If a client wanted a speedy processor or a larger screen, that meant the device would need a larger battery–and things like human grip and how fingers reach buttons needed to be rethought. Antennas, connectors, cameras, and more–each technological feature added to the phones had an immediate impact on their form, interaction, and marketability.

Giving an object form became an intricate three-dimension puzzle where industrial design, mechanical, electrical, and radio frequency (RF) engineering had to play nice together. A beautiful sketch carried an impact far beyond aesthetics. In this world, specifying metal in a design meant far more than taking a simple stance for durability or an elevated brand experience. In the old industrial-design world, the designer who envisioned a metal case had to think about weight, mechanical rigidity, and craftsmanship. In the new industrial-design world, a case like that also needed to be vetted through electronic engineering, RF testing, radiation, assembly technique, yields, and manufacturing tools. It was a far more complex dilemma than any industrial-design school curriculum ever imagined.

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HTC One M8, designed by HTC design team

And then things got even more complicated. Wearables, the Internet of Things, and other trendy tech concepts elevated the problem even further. Designers needed to integrate a few more layers into the three dimensional work of the mobile phone. Sensor technology, for example, requires careful placement and optimal geometric alignment on a device. UX/UI designers have to squeeze more and more features into less and less space, since no one can carry a five-inch display on his wrist.

Above all that hovers an even bigger issue: what’s the optimal use of an object if it’s a front-end-to-cloud-service venture? For example, if you have a smart thermostat, why would you ever touch it at all, rather than use your iPhone app to set the room temperature? Even, further, won’t that thermostat eventually learn my behavior and adjust automatically to my preference, with very minimal input from me? And if any input is needed, maybe it should come through a regular web-browser page. Essentially, should we even have UI/UX or any physical dimension to an innovative business concept or web technology venture?

Nest thermostat

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This is where we need to leave behind the old world of industrial design and develop a new vernacular. That’s why I call what I do technology design.

And what does that mean? In designing an object, I define what can be done physically or digitally, delivering what kind of experience, at what speed, with what kind of future roadmap for the business and its physical-digital experience. That’s technology design in a nutshell.

If it sounds complex, that’s because it is. In fact, very few companies get it right. Navigating such a multi-dimensional universe requires far more integration and talent than ever before. It requires a team of multi-dimensional thinkers, with acute knowledge of little details and how they affect the big picture. Traditional business-case or management theories cannot deliver that level of dexterity.

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FitBit Surge, designed by FitBit design team and NewDealDesign

Technology designers deal with both the physical and digital. In doing so, they inform engineering of the right components, their layout and how they connect to a bigger software platform, either on a mobile phone or in the cloud. In the process, they set sizes, costs, and form factors. For example, a touch-based user interface will require a screen, covered with flat glass and placed at an angle comfortable for gestures like swipe and such. Alternatively, a similar object made for the outdoors may forgo the touch interface for more rugged physical buttons, affecting its user interface considerably. If, however, the designer chooses to use a round knob as an analog metaphor, that will affect both industrial design and UX/UI from the ground up.

Even non-physical things like voice-activation or hand gestures necessitate tricky and complex physical design decisions, like where to put microphones or cameras. If buyers are going to use them in the context of social interaction, it gets even trickier. Technology designers deal with the social awkwardness of this new breed of objects just as they deal with envisioning open platforms for physical or digital innovation.

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In practice here’s what technology designers do:

1. Design the object’s form

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First, they create physical experiences: informed, complex, and well-connected physical objects (still) have major powers of attraction. Think of the excitement generated by a well-designed new mobile phone. They push the right buttons on our visually trained minds. Viscerally and immediately, objects deliver multiple messages, setting us up for our first physical experience. Touching, turning the knob or grasping it with our hands, we get the feeling of the object and enjoy its exterior. “Tactility leads to quality,” an old value of ID, is still valid. Technology design is still about an object’s exterior, yet it also goes beyond its physicality.

2. Define the architecture of the object’s innards

Before a user can experience the exterior of the object, someone had to make its interior work right. That is the second trait of technology design–a hidden, new, and core requirement, setting it apart from industrial design. It is an architectural task combining the innards of objects into the right configuration to set in motion a very complex set of parameters. Technology designers select a path, and combine electronics, sensors, batteries, and interaction features into a holistic multi-dimensional theme, which includes three main areas: hardware layout, software strategy, and cloud-based services. This holy triangle of hardware, software, and cloud defines every digital object and experience today.

The theme dictates much of the usage and function of the object–it will be used in this way, not that; it will be able to operate X number of hours before charging; and the interaction it provides will be limited to such and such a display, relying on either an app or web-service for setup or further interaction.

LYTRO ILLUM camera, designed by LYTRO design team and Artefact.

3. Navigate between software and hardware

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A third facet of technology design deals with interface, or UI/UX design. Until recently, designers mostly focused on traditional screen sizes–as large as notebooks or as small as mobile phones. The Internet of Things and wearable tech are changing that. Now, we have interactions that are the result of the many decisions and compromises that lie between software and hardware. That’s another aspect of technology design.

4. Define the path for multiple players

The creation of a tech object is a joint interaction between many people, organized in small teams within a highly collaborative environment. To do it well requires setting the right process in motion from the start. Aligning the right tasks, communicating the theme, and preparing demos are part of the magic of creating something new and innovative. This is the fourth and essential part of technology design: creating the right models and proofs-of-concept that allow everyone to be engaged and connected rationally and emotionally to the challenge. Plotting the path, and describing when and how each stage will be demonstrated, visualized and proven, is an art of persuasion. At the start, the idea is fragile and must be gently presented as an inspiring vision. Shortly after, the vision must be supported and be shown plausibly. Following that, a real, demonstrable, joint digital and physical experience must be made to convince the last of the skeptics. As he or she hands off the product to engineering for multiple stages of samples, prototypes, and builds, the technology designer must still be on guard. There are thousands of ways to screw up a great product idea.

The thinking and creative process of industrial design has been a wonderful basis for me, but it has its limits. Technology design takes industrial design into a different realm–combining physical and digital thinking into experience themes, business-creating processes, and magical unveiling moments. The industrial heritage of ID is still there, but it’s been elevated to a whole new dimension, with digital thinking and connectivity across many fields.

About the author

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards.

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