Monday, December 15, 2008

ID is the least defensible field in product development
(and that is why design is powerful)

Hear me out on this. I've given some thought over the years about the core responsibilities of industrial designer. What could you take away form our workflow- and still be considered an industrial designer? Concept engineering is something that we do all the time, as is market and brand analysis. Life cycle analysis could be something we might have to do more of. But take them all away and you would still be considered an industrial designer. To me it seems like styling and ergonomics are the two things that you cant take away and be an industrial designer- ie: design a product to make sense to the user, and make a product that is beautiful.

What are the technical skills that we possess that no-one else could take responsibility for?
Ergonomics is a field unto itself, and the level of ergonomics that we practise is something that most people can pick up quickly. Most people I know from various departments can come up with good ergonomics given some effort.

Beauty on the other hand is something that needs years of experience to generate. The generation of usable beauty for all seems to be the core of industrial design. Beauty is hard to generate, and hard to defend- but I think that even above ergonomics beauty is what drives industrial designers.

What about design thought?
Personally I am not a big proponent of the term design thought. It is my belief that everyone is creative, and we box in other peoples thoughts by saying that designers are the only ones that can brainstorm, prototype and make connections. Sci-fi writers make new connections all the time, as do businessmen and software engineers. To say that we are the only ones to think of a product or service from the customers point of view is simply not true. We happen to be the ones earlier in the product development cycle and have to generate those ideas. You could even take away functional innovation and brainstorming and still be a designer.

So what?
I posit that beauty is what drives designers. Beauty is also the most subjective aspect of what we do and the hardest to analyse. Is the Ipod 25% or 200% more attractive than the Zune? ID runs into the fact that beauty is very low on the totem pole of importance in product development (I think that it should be that way). Functionality >ergonomics> beauty.

It is like the curse of oil. Oil rich countries tend to be unstable, and non-innovative. Oil-poor countries like Japan, and China tend not to be one-trick ponies, and have mulltiple economic and innovation strategies.

Industrial design is like a resource poor country. We have very little to call our own. We have difficulty defining our own profession. We cant afford to rely on one set of expertise or technical knowledge. It also means that we jump through more hoops outside of our core expertise to shepherd what matters to us through to the final product.

This constant weariness and position of defence makes us hungry and that is what makes us potent product developers.

Just some jetlagged thoughts from my hotel early in the morning :)


Fredrick Maroon said...

I couldn't agree more.

Defending and articulating good design has to be one of the hardest tasks afforded to any one individual. Especially so, since the typical designer is right-brained and more than a little odd.

How many times have we lost design arguments based on some engineer's arbitrary decision of what's too expensive? I know that I've had products severely modified due to an organizational fear of innovation.

Defending design requires the rhetorical skills of a lawyer and the motivational abilities of Tony Robbins. And that's not mentioning the analytical capability of creating a feasible/functional design and the one-in-a-million shot at defining beauty in a culture as dynamic as ours.

The necessity of a designer to be a 'jack of all trades' is probably what causes industry to take a dismissive attitude when considering our overall positive impact on the bottom-line. Our role is too hard to quantify or too easily shelved (stylist, art-guy, etc.)

I'm embarassed to admit that I've been in more than one meeting where my role on a project was that of "he's the one that makes it pretty". But I'm also the one that cashed the check, so I suppose I can't complain too loudly. :)

DT said...

Hi Thomas,

I think you have some great valid points, but as a whole I must say i disagree with the direction you are heading.

I believe Industrial Design is very unique, and I would challenge any person or designer (ie non ID) who could say they can do what we do.

I don't have all the answers but here are some main ones:
1) Multi-disciplinary. I rather call it T shaped individuals rather than seeing us as "jack of all trades" which i think is the wrong approach.

2) The ability to consider all requirements and aspects and turn these into meaningful and relevant designs. This is by far the biggie.

Thanks for sharing.

Thomas Parel said...

DT- Thanks for posting your thoughts. I agree with you that T-shaped characters are abundant in Industrial design. It would probably be appropriate to call many IDers π shaped. My general point is that being T-shaped is not something that intrinsically identifies the work we do, any more than terms like "creative" or "hard-working".

The discussion was about why we have great potential, and why IDers have much more potential to be balanced and powerful contributors. I completely agree that holistic analysis and T-shaped expertise profiles characterize many industrial designers. I was putting down some of the reasons "why" this was the case. After all we are all creative beings- why then are designers the people tagged creative. My theory is that the primary pursuit of beauty which needs to be justified for the masses does not have a body of technical knowledge that is permanent. Thats what makes us strike roots in other fields that have nothing to do with our formal education.

Thomas Parel said...

Fred- great observations from your experience. We probably shouldnt be ashamed when "he's the one that makes it pretty" is used to describe us. I know for sure that most IDers get a visceral kick from beautiful designs- which is why you dont have many ID blogs that go crazy over UI flowcharts and ergonomics :)

Jeff Mowry said...

Great post, Thomas--thanks! (Nothing to add but compliments.)

Anonymous said...

I agree, it's a great post and why we go to all this trouble
must cross most designers minds sometimes... where I live,
there are lots of engineers who work 75-50% the time designers
work, but can make the most insane salaries right out of
school. Year for year, they will easily make double what a
designer will make in 5 years & work less to do it. Why do we
work so hard for this?

I like the idea that what we as designers are after is beauty,
but I bet a lot of scientists and engineers find their own kind
of beauty in their work. Some solutions are elegant whether they
are stylistic (in our case), ultra simple, or cleverly inventive
- imo they are both rewarded and valued a lot more sometimes.

Me personally, I think it's a little about ego... we go the extra
mile to make something that we have touched in an very subjective
way, that we personally believe is the best. It's thrilling and
un-predictable... it must hit some kind of subconcious button

The thing I wonder is What happens when we get older though and
can't afford the house's that other professionals can have? or work
with people that work 40 hours and can enjoy their families in the
evenings instead of training and doing extra work to be better. Not
to be pessimistic, but not all of us will be design directors
bringing in the big $$... its really a crazy career-lifestyle

gfutfy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Wade Burch said...

Good take on the subject. I have always thought it is funny when designers get hot under the collar for being considered stylists. If anything it is a colpement that we can create beautiful things.

But I would submit to you that the true core of ID is elegance.

Other disciplines look for solutions to problems based on a variety of criteria. Engineers are often working toward robust/durable solutions or cost-minimizing ones. Marketers are finding solutions which minimize development time or increse margin.

But designers are the only discipline that messure solutions by elegance. Elegant solutions seemlessly blend into the natural environment whether that is a physical environmnt, business environment, or design environment. The real problem I think we face is how to adequetely describe elegance. It tends to be something that is only understood when seen.

Thomas Parel said...

@Anonymous- I know what you mean with regard to career path. It seems like to have more say we need o change career path, which sucks.

@Wade- I think you hit the nail on the head when you describe elegance. I think that is the term that I was circling around- elegance implies beauty and minimal footprint at the same time.

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