Product design: a tale of two disciplines
Changing design disciplines isn’t unheard of, but it comes with its own unique set of challenges and techniques to navigate. Here, JM’s Product & Industrial Designer Hamish Snow delves into how his formative years in industrial design equipped him to make the leap to digital product.
“Ah, so you make sheds?”
When I tell people that I studied industrial design at university, this is the typical response. While not entirely inaccurate, it isn’t hard to see why this particular discipline of design can cause confusion.
So what is the purpose of an industrial designer (if not to craft sheds)? One way to think of it is this: engineers erect bridges, photographers expose images and architects create buildings, but who designs the objects we most frequently use in our day-to-day lives: toothbrushes, chairs, cars and even drones? This is the domain of the industrial designer.
Originally, everyday objects were crafted individually by hand, a painstaking and time-consuming process that was more akin to fine art — a comparison that owes considerably to their typically ornate and decorative nature. Many objects were often beyond the reach of the general population due to their high cost, restricting their accessibility to those of the wealthy upper classes and nobility.
The industrialisation and mechanisation of these processes, however — most notably during the Industrial Revolution — allowed for mass production on a scale that had never been considered possible. Repercussions were wide-reaching and profound, and as the costs associated with manufacturing goods significantly decreased, their accessibility was for the first time within reach of the general population. A perfect example of this democratisation of design is Michael Thonet’s 1859 “Number 14” chair. Constructed using six pieces of steam-bent wood, ten screws and two nuts, and able to be disassembled to save space during transportation (a precursor to IKEA’s flat-pack furniture), it’s one of the best-selling chairs ever made and is now ubiquitous in cafes and homes throughout the world.
As time went on and marketplaces became increasingly crowded, companies now needed to differentiate their products from the competition in the pursuit of customer’s attention (and hard-earned money).
Novel features, delightful functionality, superior ergonomics and arresting aesthetics became the weapons corporations deployed in a fierce consumerist arms race, and central to this was the industrial designer.
Tasked with managing all aspects of a product’s development — from initial sketches right through to finished production — industrial designers typically complete extensive research of both the end user and market segments, create prototypes in increasing levels of fidelity, produce production specifications (originally physically, now primarily with the aid of computers) and consult extensively with engineers of varying disciplines.
Different, but the same
So how then, you may be pondering, can someone trained in the creation of physical products begin a career as a digital product designer? What similarities can an Oxo Good Grips potato peeler and a ride-sharing application possibly have in common? Surprisingly, the two disciplines aren’t as different as you might imagine.
At their core, both disciplines are fundamentally user-centric, in that all design decisions are made with the intended end user in mind in an effort to enhance their lives for the better. Design legend and lead designer at Braun from 1961–1995 Dieter Rams has observed that “design is the effort to make products in such a way that they are useful to people.” Ideally, this is the ultimate goal irrespective of whether your product is created using injection-moulded polyethylene or pixels.
This user-focused mindset means that product designers (both physical and digital) are now, more than ever, considered fundamental for business success.
A product or platform that is helpful, delightful or joyful to use will have a clear advantage within the market as customers will favour it over competitors that are confusing, annoying or downright creepy (Furbies anyone?). Such a notion is particularly prevalent within the tech industry, with a 2007 report by John Maeda citing the fact that, since 2010, 27 startups co-founded by designers have been acquired by some of the most profitable companies on the planet, such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Adobe. Companies started by designers have also generated billions of dollars in value and are raising billions more in venture capital.
The line between the two disciplines has been blurred further in recent history as physical products increasingly incorporate — and sometimes completely rely upon — a digital interface in one way or another. Ushering in a new paradigm within the field of industrial design, Apple’s 1984 Macintosh (immortalised in this famous presentation given by Steve Jobs) was the first commercially successful product to incorporate a Graphical User Interface (GUI) — holistically combining the physical and digital within one product and changing the world forever.
With such strong fundamental similarities, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that knowledge and learnings from the physical and digital design realms can — and should — be applied interchangeably. Gleaned from almost three years working as a product designer aboard the good ship Josephmark, here are a few learnings I wanted to share with designers currently operating in or attempting to move into either or both spaces.
Exercise user research principles and techniques
Designers should constantly be evaluating the decisions they make within their practice against the criteria of ‘how will this benefit the user?’. Empathy for the circumstances of others that can often be different from your own is a necessity, and can only be gained by — you guessed it — talking and interacting with them.
As a self-confessed introvert, this is a process I still find slightly daunting, but one which I’ve come to consider as one of the most rewarding aspects of the design process.
Stay on your toes because times are a-changing
Just as the needs and circumstances of users are as individual as snowflakes, so too are they likely to change over time, for a myriad of reasons. Expansions in learning, geographical location, physical disability and/or ageing and psychological well-being — and that’s to name only a few. In response, design needs to be fluid and malleable, and ideally adapt to the user’s changing circumstances over time. It’s the responsibility of the designer to be constantly considering the context within which their work will exist, and for whom.
Understand the numbers
Also crucial is a consideration, even if only at a basic level, of business principles and metrics. Hold on, I can imagine you’re thinking, eyebrows rapidly raising in astonishment, why would a designer need to concern themselves with something as uncreative as business? Unless you’ve designed a way to manufacture money (which is ethically pretty questionable for a number of reasons), then your creation will somehow have to recoup the costs required to bring it into the world, and ideally generate a profit. This can then be invested into ongoing research and development, expanding the product suite and new feature development, and generally allow you to keep doing the thing that you love to do.
Open your mind, and keep it open
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is a willingness to learn. Innovations in science, technology and a whole host of other fields are now occurring at a rate never before witnessed in history, and the moment you pause to think, “finally, I’ve caught up.” You’ll already be two steps behind. Sure, this can seem overwhelming, but I also see it is as an incredible opportunity. With a plethora of information literally at our fingertips, we have the ability to expand our knowledge constantly. This means we can improve our practices and be active rather than reactive in the face of such rapid change.
Slowly but surely, the barriers that have clearly differentiated design disciplines are beginning to fade.
While the final outcome of the creative process — an MRI machine for the industrial designer; an emotional well-being application for the digital product designer, for example — will remain distinct, the processes through which each designer reaches their resolution is becoming increasingly harder to distinguish. This presents an amazing opportunity for designers both now and in the future when, at the end of the day, the ultimate aim of the game is to help people.