IT IS HARD TO DEFINE DESIGN
Industrial design has a history of almost a hundred years. Despite an established history, it is obvious that few other professions in the world has such a disputed definition. There are a few reasons for that of course. First of all some might argue that industrial design does not have a well-known and agreed-on reason d’etre. Is it safe to say that ‘making things beautiful’ is a good enough reason for a whole profession to exist? Or does this profession exist to make things work well for the human beings that use them? If so, doesn’t that part of the mission intersect painfully with other professions like engineering and human factors? How about idea generation? Can’t we at least own that? Probably not. Product managers, product planners and the like are a marking that territory for years now and they’re ready to own it. So what is it really that makes industrial design so special?
At its best, ID cares about all of the above – aesthetics, function, ideation and much more – all at the same time. And since it cares about all of it at the same time, it cannot care for any of them enough. Aesthetics, is probably the easiest part of the whole equation to explain, since there rarely is need for an explanation when something looks beautiful. It is the easiest to sell, too. It is also the unique part of the craft that cannot be owned by anybody else. A unique angle is great but should it really be the only angle?
INDUSTRIAL DESIGN SHOULD CARE ABOUT USERS MORE
Interaction Design, Service Design, User Experience Design are all breeds of this hundred-year old behemoth, one way or the other. Embarrassingly though, somehow all these new kids on the block suddenly seem more interested in the well-being of the end user than ID has ever been. How did that happen? Weren’t we the sole advocate of the user in any given conference room? Maybe the proverbial student beats the master every time.
HAVE WE BECOME VISUAL DESIGNERS OF PRODUCTS?
It is curious that there is a distinction between a Visual Designer and an Interaction Designer in the digital world. A distinction that has never been established within ID. A Visual Designer is concerned solely with the appearance of the screens, the transitions, the icons, the visual quality of the overall interface. Where as interaction designer is the person who solely cares about how the product is going to be used, utilized, misused, abused. One can ask the question of whether this distinction is completely necessary or not. The better question that I am curious about is did we, as industrial designers, become the visual designers of the product world? Did we forget about the part of our profession that really, and deeply cares about the user?
I have been the witness and the participant of many incidents where industrial designers were defending aesthetic details that had nothing to do with actual user benefits. Full disclosure, I have been also an active participant of this mis-prioritization in some instances. I have also seen these type of discussions hurting not only the end users but also the reputation of ID within an organization or in the society in general. Many times, I also tried to protect what little has left of the respect for the end user during design processes. But why is it so hard for a designer to focus on what is actually important?
Money sometimes is the focal of these discussions. Especially when short-term financial goals are prioritized, end user is forgotten. Design makes money and if the design team is pushed to create shelf value, it makes money faster. However, it is not a good enough reason for ID to lose its focus.
UX IS NOT THE LUXURY OF SCREENS
It saddens me that every time somebody talks about User Experience, there is a high-resolution display involved as a delivery system. Can’t there be good user experience without a high-resolution display? Better yet, without any display? I believe there can be. And there should be. There is a very good reason why Bill Moggridge thought of Industrial Designers as perfect candidates for Interaction Design. ID has the innate ability to look beyond the looks of things, discover patterns in behavior and furthermore turn these findings into tangible results as products. Nothing in this process dictates that aesthetics take the front seat so comfortably, leaving no room for any other criteria. Designing products should be a intermediary tool, not the end goal. The end goal should be the quality of user’s experience with a system, the impression, the benefit, the stimulation, the learning, the pleasure… Note that none of these say aesthetics necessarily.
BEAUTY OF MOTION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN STATIC BEAUTY
But let’s be clear. I think we all crave beauty in our lives. We seek out beauty. We strive to be beautiful. We want it by our side day in and day out. Even so, is it the static beauty that we ultimately want? Is it the way that an object is lying dead on the coffee table that turns our fancy on? Or is it the beauty when the product is used, the motion or the animation of system? I believe it is the moment when the user utters the phrase “Wow! They have thought of everything”.
“It all starts with a sketch” many designers say. A sketch is merely a 2D representation of an idea. When you add another dimension to it, you have a mockup or a 3D model. What is it when you add the dimension of time to the mix? Is it a prototype? If it works, yes! The power of prototyping is long known among designers and engineers. A prototype for an engineer is albeit a very different animal. Since an engineer is there to implement a function, he makes the prototype for testing. For a long time, from the designer’s perspective, a prototype was something that an engineer made. Or maybe it was something that is concocted out of whatever piece of cardboard is left over in the studio. It was not seen as a tool to explore. More a tool to convince.
For a 19th century craftsman, the grandfather of the modern designer, ensuring a good experience was not the goal. It didn’t need to be. He has already learned how to make another variation of something that has been tried and seemingly perfected for years. There was no reason for doubt. Also for the early years of design, experience prototyping was irrelevant since design was usually limited to ornamentation only. But the giants of Industrial Design towards the mid century understood what “keeping the user happy” or “making things” can improve. A good example of this is the way that Walter Dorwin Teague created a full mockup of the first commercial jet plane interior together with the simulated engine noise, stewardesses and fully functioning seats.
EXPERIENCE PROTOTYPING CAN SAVE ID
What we need to acknowledge is that prototyping can gain a new meaning in the hands of industrial designers – especially those who work with things that have interactive components. This is because the prototype, more than a model or a visualization, can represent or simulate the experience of the end user. We live in an era with so many accessible tools to prototyping experiences that, we can no longer excuse ourselves with the lack of technical skills. We can no longer get away with saying “imagine when you touch here, this thing will light up”. With tools like rapid prototyping, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, MakeyMakey, Touchboard and many more, we can take the power back and make peace with the tools that once belonged to the engineers. The classical way of designing; research, sketching, modeling, polishing, refining is far from enough for the profession of Industrial Design to survive the 21st century. Interaction Design has already taken this path without hesitation with great examples coming especially from students from Umea Institute of Design, Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, MIT and many more.
TINKERING IS THE BEST WAY TO EXPLORE
A design that is static can fool anyone. What we have always heard from our teachers was to just mock-it-up quickly. A clay model or a rough foam mockup can definitely add the necessary 3rd dimensional insight but… A mockup always seems like it has the potential of turning into a great product. Usually though, great mockups that do not work, end up fooling the designers themselves more than anybody. Even the lowest fidelity experience prototype is ten times more useful than the greatest looking mockup. The designer will see more flaws in his creation through the eyes of the user with something “working almost as if” than something that “looking almost as if”. Better yet, though, the designer will explore more potential by letting real people touch the ideals of his imagination than putting them on a pedestal and protecting them. By improving our tools, we can also improve our point-of-view. The power of making things work beautifully is surely more attractive than making beautiful things.