In fact, I’d like us start considering industrial design as nothing more than archaic pair of words from a different generation. They can sit right next to switchboard operator, another pair of words no longer useful. I’m taking a somewhat American-centric view here, because I’m pretty sure our friends in Europe and Asia left industrial design behind years ago.
The writing has been on the wall for years now. The title of Industrial Designer is irrelevant.
We no longer have to follow in the footsteps of pioneers like Loewy, Dreyfuss, and the Eames – and we don’t have to carry the job title they created. The game has changed and while they and others got us here, it takes a different kind of designer to get us where we're going. And the pioneers didn’t face the challenge of “The Digital” — all of the digital services, experiences, and interfaces that have conveniently replaced those that were once physical.
“The Digital” has (arguably) changed the design profession for the better, but not for the easy. We’ve had to grow. Growing is painful, especially when you’ve been designing with a physical mindset — an industrial mindset — for decades. I’ve seen so many designers — including myself — suffer the anxiety of trying to figure out the intangibility of digital when all that we know is physical.
Designers good at their jobs have a key unquantifiable attribute: Foresight. That has helped them come to an early and important realization: Digital eats industrial. Digital eats the physical. And if you’re a recent grad, then truly none of this should be a surprise — and you’re likely already ten steps ahead of me.
The context in which we design has changed dramatically. To be a competitive as a designer, you need to do more than hot-looking design work; thinking beyond the object is critical. We need to design how it works — and more importantly why it should exist. You can call it user experience design or product design, it matters not. Design changes faster than the currently fashionable titles because design is in a constant state of flux — and it needs to be in that fluid state to remain relevant.
If we look back a mere 15-20 years at the role of an industrial designer on a given project, it was straightforward:
1. Solve for user needs.
2. Champion elegance in the form and function of a physical product.
These are still critical to any physical product’s future success, and somewhere buried in today’s product development process these still exist. But the modern designer — physical or digital — can’t help their team achieve the project goals without being involved intimately in the research, engineering or storytelling. Let’s not forget color, material, finish, product graphics, and the user interface. From end to end, the industrial designer plays a key role.
Design itself is diversified; broken into smaller specialties that focus on the key components of product development and process. At the same time, companies aren’t willing to support a staff of specialists — they need people that can bridge the gaps and think across the boundaries of their specific degree/discipline. Perhaps you’ve noticed how your role as a designer means that you spend more time defining what to design than the technical work of actually designing?
To design is to define tomorrow — be it physical, digital or both. And to be an integral part of that definition process, the modern designer needs to earn their voice at the table. Designers today need a systems-thinking mindset and a clear end-to-end understanding of the user experience in order to collaborate and influence effectively.
Piled on top of the technical skills, designers need to understand business, understand the manufacturing process and supply chain, user needs and desires, and find a way to bring inclusivity into the design process. That’s a lot to ask of a single designer — and the term industrial design can no longer contain all of that.
So, what’s a designer to do?
Be fearless and get to work.
If you’ve been uncomfortable with all of the rapid change around you, then continue to be uncomfortable and throw yourself at something new. If you’re in a place that still sees design by its old, limited industrial design definition, it’s time to advocate for the real value of design, and the value of the process. And be patient because it’s not going to happen in a day, a week, or a year — push for change and you yourself will grow and change as a designer.
So goodbye, Industrial Design. We are moving on. We’re Designers first, and whether that’s accompanied by digital, physical, experiential, product or something else, we can choose to build the future of design ourselves by making design invaluable to the process no matter what form our product takes. Ultimately, it's our work that matters more than the terminology.
PS: It takes a long time for the world to catch up and small steps are OK. I changed my LinkedIn profile just a little: Director of [Industrial] Design.
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