A New Era For Industrial Design - Designers Respond

May 25 2019 - 11:40am


In the Spring 2019 issue of INNOVATION magazine, Max Burton, IDSA, Global Lead for Connected Products at Fjord, outlines 10 key points the modern industrial designer must consider given the current landscape of our industry. He then invited nine world renowned designers with diverse backgrounds their thoughts on a simple question: 

"In your career, what major change or impact have you noticed being a designer? Based on that, what advice would you give to a young designer embarking on their career or a seasoned professional seeking a way to progress?" 


Below, we share their responses. 



The Entrepreneurial Journey

I am seeing more designers using their training in creating objects and experiences to explore authentic career paths that align with their core values. Although working as a designer in-house or in a corporate, consulting or agency setting or in a freelance role are great ways to gain technical skills and discover personal strengths, designers are increasingly breaking free of the traditional ways of working to find more fulfillment in their work and daring to pursue entrepreneurship, particularly women. The rise of crowdfunding has helped democratize design and lowered the barrier to entry to secure initial capital for many consumer products. 

After working for others for most of my early career, I felt it was time to focus on a product area that was most meaningful to me and would be of help to others. For me, that area was in personal pleasure for women, but, in general, opportunities are ripe, particularly in taboo industries, or formerly taboo areas, such as cannabis, adult toys, feminine products, death, and money. 

If you are interested in entrepreneurship, keep in mind that Design + Market = Business. 

Just because your design is awesome does not necessarily mean you have a business. You need enough people who are willing to pay for your service or goods to build a business; otherwise, you just kind of have a hobby. Products that have more depth than aesthetic will be more sought after and have a greater chance of success in the marketplace—if you are enhancing people’s everyday lives. 

While entrepreneurship can be glorified and romanticized, truthfully, it is not for everyone. Having an idea is only part of the equation, and 90 percent of the journey is the pursuit of realizing the idea and building a sustainable business. Most importantly, keep in mind that the entrepreneurial journey has a lot of ups and downs, and if you’re just looking for fame, fortune or a founder title, it may be very hard to handle the roller-coaster ride. 

—Ti Chang, IDSA
Chang is an industrial designer/entrepreneur passionate about designing products for women. She is the co-founder and VP of design of CRAVE, specializing in modern sex toys.



Embrace the Ambiguity

The range of products, systems and relationships we endeavor to reimagine through thoughtful design is more varied and complex than ever. Therefore, design practice, in parallel with design education, has been under constant pressure to continuously evolve in order to stay relevant. The good news is that design, however it is defined, is receiving unprecedented interest, not just in the outcomes of our efforts but in how our community thinks and works. Numerous articles in print and online appear almost daily about how design thinking can be successfully applied to everything from social justice to increased profitability. After taking this all in, I can't think of another time when designers have had as many opportunities to define for themselves how they wish to participate in our world.

My advice for emerging professionals is to embrace the broad applicability of your design talents. Understand the value in applying your analytical skills to framing open-ended, ambiguous and tough problems. Help others synthesize disparate sources of information, opposing objectives and conflicting narratives. Make use of your communication skills to create compelling visualizations and iterative tests that propel us to engage in conversations about challenging subjects and lead us toward good decisions. And be thankful that your design training gives you the foresight to focus on understanding the whys before you go about designing the whats. 

As technology continues to break down boundaries between disciplines, the fluidity of our profession has given birth to forms of practice that didn't exist less than a generation ago. For many of us, interaction design, systems design, design strategy, futures design, speculative design and social design were not part of the vocabulary when we began our careers. Finding one's niche in this dynamic landscape isn't easy and can be daunting. My own experience has shown me the possibilities that arise when we focus on our values and embrace the ambiguity that comes with working in a constantly expanding field. 

—Helen Maria Nugent
Professor Nugent is dean of the Design Division at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco and a founding partner of Haelo Design. 

Photo Credit: Nicholas Bruno / CCA (edited by IDSA)



People Are At the Center of Good Design

When I was starting out, users were seen as subjects and designers saw themselves as the experts. Now the lines have blurred in a beautiful way. Today’s best designers, young and young at heart, have to understand how to include everyday people in the design process and work with them creatively to identify new opportunities and solutions.

Bringing simplicity and beauty to today’s highly complex products requires closer teamwork than ever. The boundaries between consultants, clients and other partners have also blurred, and our physical and digital spaces are much better tuned for working together more fluidly.

The designer’s toolbox has evolved vastly during my career, and I have found it important to constantly experiment with new tools and methods, not necessarily to master every tool but at least to understand the benefits and drawbacks and to appreciate the expertise of others.

Despite the significant change I have seen in the design industry, the understanding of people and what makes for good collaboration has—and will always be—at the center of good design.

—Richard Whitehall
Whitehall is a designer and partner at Smart Design where he leads the firm’s direction and is constantly looking for new ways that design and technology can make a difference to organizations and everyday people.




I was schooled as an industrial designer with a Dutch / Japanese background. When I graduated, I was intrigued to work on projects that entailed designing new experiences. This meant that I worked my whole career on products that included hardware, software and services. Looking back, I have noticed that most disruption in the past 25 years has come from areas converting from analog to digital, transitioning from products being born with predefined functionality to products becoming ever-evolving experiences. These disruptions create opportunity. Opportunity for designers to impact the end product even more. Why?

No product can be made by one discipline. No experience can be made without the fusion of hardware, software and services. The most successful designers keep abreast and excel in their area of competence, but also lift themselves up to a conceptual level where they are able to bridge and impact other disciplines. Because, in the end, any product is only successful when there is cohesion. To achieve cohesion between so many disciplines, a product needs a clear point of view of its purpose and differentiation. Who comes up with this point of view? Turns out, often it’s the designer.

I have been most impactful as a designer or design leader when being involved in the product or even company vision overall. In my mind, the lines are often blurred between product management and design. I have founded disciplines in both areas and always aimed for more cohesion.

Where convention tells us that product management is about defining product requirements and designing is about coming up with a solution that best meets these requirements, the reality is that this often leads to unsuccessful experiences, especially when you are trying to come up with something new.

Product managers are trained to find and assess data. If they do this well, they take in an enormous amount of data looking at user intelligence, market intelligence and technology opportunity. This alone is a Herculean task. Then to take all this data and find the unique point of view and opportunity is incredibly hard. It requires creativity.

This is where you come in. Designers are trained to take that data and come up with new ideas. Of course, there is also the dirty secret that new experiences don’t come with data in the first place. You need to design first and create a unique point of view before you can test and determine if it is a good idea.

All this needs to happen before product requirements are locked. So don’t wait. Swim upstream and make it known you are interested in collaborating from the outset of a new initiative. Creativity in product definition is crucial. In my latest project, I co-designed the company strategy for Sonos. No surprise: it is heavily experience driven. And perhaps is an example that as a designer you can impact a company far beyond the limits of the look of a product.

—Mieko Kusano
Kusano is senior director of experience strategy at Sonos. She founded Design & Product Management at Sonos, leading Sonos experiences from its first product introduction all the way to becoming a billion dollar business.



The Future is Circular

The future of design is circular. If we continue to contribute to the linear design-produce-use-dispose progression of the status quo, then we are jeopardizing the very foundation of our economy—the resources that sustain us. The circular economy suggests a new way forward: to couple economic growth with responsible consumption and regeneration. This type of transition presents an incredible opportunity for design. 

In a circular future, we will design products that are never completely disposed of but instead get better with every iteration. We will design services and experiences that will be relevant to people’s needs without being harmful to our planet. We will design with data in new ways that will continuously teach us how the systems we design should evolve. We will design networked companies to collaborate across industry silos and innovate together in service of outcomes that benefit all.

Designers have a unique role to play in this future, not least because it asks us to rethink how we design and to what end. Successful innovation and design is grounded in a balance of desirability, viability and feasibility; yet in the future state where circularity is commonplace, we know that the balance will need to shift. If the goal is circularity and regeneration, we can no longer start with desirability alone. Instead, we’ll need to put new emphasis on how things are made (feasibility) and how we can make economic sense of our designs within this new context (viability). The circular economy asks designers and innovators to be advocates for the entire system, not just for the needs of the people within it.

Many companies have stated publicly that they intend to join forces on the challenges and opportunities that a circular economy offers to them, and many are looking to designers to help them do so. Designers are uniquely equipped to make the circular economy a reality: We have a particular ability to frame questions to get ourselves and our collaborators into an opportunity mindset. We think and work holistically, and we create networks between collaborators. We move from research to design to production and back, and we constantly alternate between divergence and convergence. Most importantly: designers make ideas experiential and tangible, and prototyping and iterating are our tools for understanding and learning. All these qualities will play a significant role in our ability to move toward a circular economy and to design products, services, experiences and conditions for a circular future.

Designing for a circular economy should be top of mind for every designer because it’s the way of the future, it’s exciting to design on the edge of innovation, and it’s the right thing to do.

—Leif Huff
Leif Huff is an IDEO partner and executive design director at IDEO New York. He is passionate about making ideas tangible to help clients address the most complex challenges in a human-centered way.



Design for the Collective

Consider the icons of modern design. Loewy, Eames, Rams. The names speak for themselves, synonymous with groundbreaking work that carries legacy and weight in our world today. These are individuals who had a vision to reshape our world.

But then there’s that word—individual. For me, design has been less about my individual view. Design is about our ability to solve problems in service to a greater world. Design is a verb: the act of inventing, collaborating, learning, and creating. This revelation came to me at the Stanford d.school, where it finally clicked that the art of design is equally as affecting as its usability. The emotional with the rational. Art is that great individualism. But innovation takes a village. 

As our lives are increasingly digitally connected, the way we design has evolved from the lone creator. We now have the responsibility to create products that scale and connect to millions of people across infinite applications and services. No single designer can solve for those complexities. A designer is still a visionary, but it’s imperative that our visions contribute to the collective. To design the future, we need to be more open in our approach. 

I understand on a personal level that this is easier said than done. I consider myself an introvert with a preference for listening over speaking, responding over reacting, looking inward over reaching outward. To ask a designer to be open is to ask them to leave the comforts of creative thinking. But this is exactly my challenge to designers everywhere: to see creativity as a more inclusive venture. By opening yourself up to new perspectives, new feedback, new ways of thinking and creating, you’re becoming more of a visionary than you could be on your own.

As the creator, you are a conduit for ideas, helping bring diverse perspectives into products and making everyone’s voices heard. Technology is a reflection of ourselves as humans, and design holds up that mirror. Your greatest strengths are in transparency and humility—creating possibilities rather than solutions. This is how we design a more open, inclusive world. 

—Albert Shum
Shum leads a collaborative team creating the future of experience design at Microsoft, driven by a human-centered philosophy for more inclusive technology.



The Value of Design Doing

Throughout my career I have seen a tectonic shift in the role of industrial designer as well as the role of design in the industry as a whole. Designers and design have become much more valued, in part thanks to design-led companies that have demonstrated time and time again the value design can add to products, both in terms of delight through elevated user experiences as well as tangible value to the profit line. 

I believe this has led to an academic search to unlock the magic of design so that other companies and industries can apply it as a winning formula. This has spawned a boom in Post-it-notes-driven, step-by-step formulaic approaches to innovation under the brand of design thinking, bringing together designers and non-designers alike. It has made our industry more approachable and understandable, and has opened up valuable seats for designers at decision-making tables. 

While I appreciate the things design thinking has done for our industry, the takeaway I have had from experiencing this shift firsthand (and consuming my fair share of Post-it notes) is that no amount of processes or consumer insights can substitute for the key core skill industrial designers bring to the table—Design Doing (yes, the capitalization is intentional!). We should never undervalue the core skills, and we should celebrate the soft skills of aesthetics and gut instinct. The materiality and the form of objects are what ultimately give them undeniable and undefinable appeal, and this is something that can’t necessarily be taught or discovered; it is innate. 

My advice to young designers is to focus on the design part first, to hone your eye and your instincts, learn the tools of your trade—you will be able to rationalize your process later. Get your hands dirty—no amount of design thinking will ever replicate the magic of picking up a pencil and beginning to sketch, or will teach you more than cutting some foam on a bandsaw and holding the idea in your hands. Use design thinking as a tool, just like any other in a workshop, and in equal measure. 

—Gina Reimann
Reimann, a wearables industrial design lead at Google, is focused on designing wearables that bring together the best of AI and software in approachable human ways.



Learn Your Collaborators’ Jobs

In the late ’80s when I joined the design community, it seemed modern indus­trial design had just confidently emerged from the shadow of engineering- and manufacturing-based disciplines or craft-based industries like furniture, fixtures, equipment and packaging into mass markets. At this time, it was the dawn of the internet and the profession of industrial design was becoming more strategic, more market savvy and less of a pure applied art. 

Immediately during my first job post college, I received some great advice from Silicon Valley design legend John Guenther (HP/Compaq/Tandem/Design-Four/FMC/Rand). He advised me to not only deeply learn (and never stop) the craft of industrial design but to also learn my collaborators’ jobs. In other words, learn as much about the interdependent disciplines around product design as possible: marketing, research, business planning, finance, manufacturing, material science, bio-science, engineering, advertising, etc. He said that this would give me the empathy and the understanding to successfully commercialize my design work into reality and ultimately help produce better results. This advice is even more important and relevant today.

Industrial design in 2019 is as relevant as ever, but, in many cases, it is even more segmented, dependent and empowered by diverse disciplines, collabora­tions and development tools. For example, I believe that designers are the human advocate throughout the design process; therefore, designers today should strive to understand people even more intimately, what drives them and what impacts them as individuals, groups and communities. In parallel, designers should increase their understanding of technologies that affect industrial designed products. This might mean learning more about all things digital, software, sensors, new materi­als, processes and tools, sustainability, crypto, UI, UX, AI, AR, VR, IoT, and so on. 

That said, a word of caution. As important as it is to continuously learn about surrounding disciplines that affect design, some categories of design may not feel the pressure to expand beyond their craft, and I believe this too is absolutely needed. At the risk of contradicting myself, we need deep-diving specialist craft-focused designers. 

Today, the more diverse design becomes, it seems that more designers are distracted from perfecting the craft of industrial design, often becoming too depen­dent on modern tools and technologies, often committing to directions before their work has fully matured and realized its potential. The craft I reference is under­standing the history, influences and market factors before you begin your design work and then marinating ideas within a deep, iterative refinement process of form and detail development. Experienced product designers and developers should not deliver their worked too early but should strive to follow their visions into full development and manufacturing experiences when possible, including supporting their work into the market and eventually into people’s lives. 

—Brett Lovelady, IDSA
Lovelady is the founder and chief instigator of ASTRO Studios.



Flipping the “T”

For me, the foundation of why I became a designer is built on the need to constantly search for new solutions that improve how people live their lives as individuals and as communities within a global society. Although this has not changed, I have a hypoth­esis that we need to reconsider how we teach design and develop as designers. 

Instead of spending three to four years at college learning a specific design skill (i.e., industrial design), graduating, honing our craft professionally and then growing our “T” to become more rounded, I think we need to flip the “T” and spend the first three to four years being as broad as possible with a focus on the following founda­tional attributes: 

  • Amplified emotional intelligence and awareness 
  • Highly collaborative (virtually and physically) teamwork and leadership 
  • Creative thinking and nimbleness 
  • Commercial street smarts 
  • Communication and storytelling 
  • Experimenting and learning to design / create using new techniques and tools 

I believe this new breed of creatives will have the creative confidence and abil­ity to specialize and constantly retool, to learn and apply new skills in the world of design—or in any other profession. 

I also believe this approach will help unlock designers from being a seen as having a specialist service-based skill to commanding a creative capability and voice that naturally drives and leads in boardrooms around the world. 

—Alastair Curtis 
Curtis is chief design officer at Logitech, where he is responsible for innovation in design across all brands and businesses for the company.