3 Things UX Designers Can Learn From Industrial Design

Two experts offer a handbook for applying industrial design principles to UX. Wait, what?

3 Things UX Designers Can Learn From Industrial Design
[Images: StudioM1, Trifonov_Evgeniy via iStock]

In late 2012, Apple expanded the role of its universally respected chief of industrial design, Jonathan Ive, to include “leadership and direction for human interface” design. Six months later, the tech commentariat had turned on him. The skeuomorph-endectomy that Ive performed on iOS 7 was roundly mocked, and some people wondered if Ive’s industrial-design chops could possibly translate into the realm of UI, UX, and IxD (as “interaction design” is sometimes code named).


The jury may still be out on that. But while plain old office politics probably had a lot to do with Ive’s elevation at Apple, the company no doubt saw the same writing on the wall that Simon King and Kuen Chang elaborate on in their new book, Understanding Industrial Design: Principles for UX and Interaction Design. King and Chang, both IDEO-affiliated designers (the former used to lead an interaction team in Chicago, the latter currently leads an industrial one), have melded minds to produce a lucid, persuasive handbook for anyone interested in the trends that will likely shape the next decade of product design—whether it lives within a screen or not.

The book’s biggest strength is its approachability. Unlike some of O’Reilly Media‘s weightier technical tomes, the “Beetle Book” (as it’s cheekily described in its promotional URL) can be read in a day. King and Chang distill 50 years of history and best practices into seven core values that increasingly drive digital and physical product design in equal measure: sensorial, simple, enduring, playful, thoughtful, sustainable, and beautiful. And the examples they provide for each go beyond the obvious. Sure, Dieter Rams and the Nest thermostat make their expected appearances. But so do disposable ballpoint pens and Bloomberg financial terminals. If you’ve ever (or more likely, never) wondered how the shape of an elderly person’s walking cane might inform the design of an online form, Understanding Industrial Design will open your eyes.

Here are three things that the authors think you should know about how, where, and why industrial and interaction design meet.

1. The split between physical and digital design is a historical accident
“The book was inspired more by the desire to connect the two halves of product design,” King tells Co.Design. He and Chang get right to business: Their first chapter, entitled “A Brief History of Industrial and Interaction Design,” situates the entire history of interaction design within a broader history of industrial design as applied to personal computing in the 1960s and ’70s, when foundational concepts began germinating out of the labs at SRI and Xerox PARC, and into the business plans of startups like Apple and Microsoft.

In King and Chang’s telling, prototypes like Douglas Englebart’s oN-Line System (of “Mother of All Demos” fame) and Xerox’s Alto (of “Steve Jobs stole it” infamy) were designed as fully integrated systems–their software and hardware intimately coupled like yin and yang. But at the almighty cash register, “intimately coupled” just didn’t move enough units. (Steve Jobs learned this the hard way.) Thus began, according to the authors, a 30-year “split between physical and digital,” which necessitated the discipline of “interaction design”—a label coined by Bill Moggridge and Bill Verplank in an attempt to reclaim some of the industrial-design thinking that had been lost in the divorce from software.

Only in the late 2000s, after the iPhone kicked off the mobile computing revolution, did an economic path emerge that could invite industrial design and IxD to reconverge. Ten years into that convergence—led not just by Apple but also tiny but forward-thinking consultancies like Berg—it seems obvious that preserving too many firewalls between industrial and interaction design results in cumbersome “smart” products. What’s less obvious is why an Amazon Echo catches on, while a Nest Cam doesn’t. King and Chang don’t have the answers, but by candidly explaining the false binary between digital and physical product design, they at least equip the reader to start finding out.


2. Data is a material just like any other
Spats about flat UI design versus skeuomorphism may be old hat now, but they hint at how painful it has been for designers to understand that data is not like a medieval humor that can be be “poured” agnostically into devices, but that it has properties (or “grain” to borrow a term from Berg) all its own, analogous to the material properties that industrial designers are sensitive to. In the book, King and Chang link this sensitivity to data’s grain to the industrial-design concept of form giving: “the process of determining the best shape, proportion, and physical architecture for a 3D object.”

“Designers need to understand the qualities of a particular data set and sculpt experiences with it,” King explains. “There are things a particular data set can do, points in which it breaks, and contexts where it has unexpected uses—just like any other type of material.” What impact does a particular web font have on page-load time across different devices in different physical contexts? Investigating this question may seem purely within the domain of digital interaction design, but King and Chang would suggest otherwise; in fact, they might well regard the distinction as moot.

“We wanted to expose people to industrial design in a way that allows them to examine a design and think about the qualities of a solution,” King says. “For designers more fluent in digital mediums, the hope is that it breaks down barriers and helps them realize that their experience is valid and useful in the physical domain as well. The goal is to provide inspiration, not hard skills.”

3. Hybrid design labs will become the new normal
Pathbreaking hybrid product design that bridges the digital and the physical used to be confined mostly at two extremes of the business spectrum. At one end, boutique invention studios like Berg and their in-house analogues (like SAP’s Communication Design Group, or Jony Ive’s own legendarily secretive industrial design studio); at the other, massive strategic consultancies like IDEO, Frog Design, and Fuseproject, with global presence and whale-scaled resources.

Soon the middle ground may become solid enough to stand on, too. Big companies won’t necessarily have to hire Alan Kay to conjure up reincarnations of 1970s-era Xerox PARC. Instead, they can form autonomous subsidiaries like Ford’s Smart Mobility, LLC. “That’s one example of a client that works with IDEO to prototype new offerings that are inherently blending industrial and interaction practices,” King says.

And while Berg ultimately bit the dust after 483 weeks, King thinks that the hybrid approach it helped pioneer of “finding opportunities in networks and physical things” has spread far enough that other mid-sized organizations will pick up where they left off. “I think that [kind of practice] requires a very strong partnership with a client, where outside designers remain involved to work through the constraints that are often only exposed in later phases of production and manufacturing,” King says.


And just as full-stack developers, journalist-coders, and other professional hyphenates have seen the demand rise for their very particular sets of skills, so too will designers who can move back and forth across the increasingly porous barriers between disciplines.

“In scoping teams for these kinds of product design projects, the strongest teams were those with designers who personally straddled two disciplines,” King says. “I always hoped to find people in an overlap, because they could toggle back and forth to see the pros and cons of digital and physical choices.”

Hear that? That’s the future of product design. Read the “Beetle Book,” and get yourself ready for it.


About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.