Ok, I'm still a Product (but, not industrial) Designer!

Digital illustration on Marc-Olivier Jodoin photo

I guess I’ve been thinking about my career since my graduation. I hold an Industrial Design degree and, looking back, I realized that, no matter what I was doing, I always worked as a product designer but not always Industrial Designer. And that is great! 🙂

And why I am bringing this subject today? Basically, because I’ve been taking part in several discussions about the design profession and how we should define ourselves as, digital, product, fashion, etc.

Before I jump into any kind of conclusion, let’s try to define what Industrial Design is (or I think it is …). And in order to do so, nothing better than a bit of history (and just to make clear, I’m a designer, not a historian. So, sorry for any kind of mistake!).

It all started with the Industrial Revolution. Design was raised on the Machinery Age as a response to: “How can we design an object that can be produced in large scale”. Before that, the craftsmanship reigned so it was easy to design based only on human skills and capacity. But, we became “faster”, “stronger” and “more accurate” and it’s all thanks to those new machines. Since we moved from handicraft production to mass production we needed to review the way we were designing.

But the more important here is to understand the moment when design emerged. And I’d like to highlight the word moment. During a long time Product was equal Industrial. Sure! That was the period that we were living. Meaning, that was the reign technology and mindset (Ok, that mindset still ruling). Even when I graduated, 17 years ago, Product Design and Industrial Design was (and I think in many cases it still does), practically, a synonymous. What made perfect sense at that time, needed to be reviewed today. We have access to other kinds of technologies and knowledge; we evolved (in several ways) as a civilization, so we should change the way we create and, consequently, how we will call ourselves (actually that is the part less significant, in my opinion).

Based on the graphic that I made for the introductory chapter of The Design Revolution book

If you google “product design jobs” you will find thousands of opportunities to work on startups or tech companies to create apps or any other kind of digital solutions. And that is exactly what some of my colleagues are complaining today: “product design is physical, not digital”. In other words, should be made by atoms and not bytes. But I totally disagree with that (sorry…). I used not to disagree, but I changed my mind on the last couple of months, and I will try to explain the why.

Having so many offers like these is the sign of the times. Today we are in the middle of a Digital Revolution and it will be expected from us to use "new machines" to design contemporary solutions. We are evolving from an “Industrial Design Age” to a “Post-Industrial Design Age”. We used to design closed solutions to be produced by machines and impact thousand of lives. But, today we have to create open systems and living solutions that will impact billion of people. Basically, we have the opportunity to tackle new (and old) challenges with much more power and experience. We have the duty to use all within our reach to change, radically, the way we build “things”

Design Ages

The point is that all those solutions that we are designing now, cannot be just made by atoms. It will limit our capacity to resolve issues. It will limit our capacity to go further. We must use all that we have in our hands and that includes our "new" capacity to create atoms and as the result of this junction of a physical and digital solution, we will have the potential to create new concepts and or ideas (meanings) that will impact our cultural rituals.

Let's use the Iphone (for a change :P) as an example. We can say that the device is an Industrial Design result, made of an atom. The interface is made of bytes and we can call Digital Design result. Those together created a platform that supported new businesses models. This newly designed system impacted our social and cultural rituals.

Product Design on Post-Industrial Age | Iphone Icon by Okar Patil

In other words, it changed the meaning of a phone (we shifted from: we will use it just to make a call; to will connect me with world), allowing new business creation and humans interactions. All these solutions are what I call: Product Design.

Product Design started with atom’s transformation and now evolved to bytes creation. But it didn’t stop there. It now combines bytes + atoms + ideas + cultural and social rituals. Or, apps + devices + strategies/concepts + services/processes, to be less conceptual. It’s the designers using the whole moment’s potential in order to create outstanding solutions. It’s the Product Design evolving as it should.

We are struggling to leave the Industrial Age in order to embrace the Digital Revolution. We need to develop solutions, mindsets and processes that will lead us to the “The Post-Industrial Design Age”.

So, what does Post-Industrial Design means? It’s the creation of a solution that will improve humans lives and reshape the way we organize, empowered by all available knowledge and technologies at moment. Or is the best possible way to do something, now. Again, it is evolution.

Just to wrap up my case, I’ll break down the Product Design concept into some basic elements (for a sanity check) :

  1. It’s made to be scalable. That is the reason why of the whole design discipline exists. It started a long time ago on Machinery Age and, now, is the main reason of why we are using digital technologies. It's cheaper, cleaner, faster and can have a wider impact.
  2. It’s focused on craft (details) and beauty. Design is all about details. And a good solution, no matter in what kind of support, will always go deep into all the details. We can perceive when we have a good solution by how we took care of the details, does not matter if it is a service, app or watch. Details always make difference.
  3. It only exists to enhance people’s life. Design is a human-centric discipline. If it is not helping someone in a certain level, there is no reason to do so. We use machines to build what we have created for humans and not for "machines".
  4. It explores current technology and knowledge. It's the response to the Zeitgeist. Design uses all the current and available capabilities in order to challenge the present and create the future. We use the past and present to envision a possible future.

If you agree (you don’t have to) with those four concepts. Can we say that digital, service or system solutions might be called Product Designs? In my opinion, yes! We can. That is how I figured out that I’m still an Industrial, sorry a Post-Industrial Designer and it's what I’ve been doing so far! 🙂

Author: Jaakko Tammela

Collect by: uxfree.com