The Death of “Industrial Design”

I happened across a Top Five blog list yesterday on some big MSM site. On that list was design*sponge and next to it was, iirc, some simple description like “a blog about design”. I’d heard of it. Probably even surfed through once or twice. But now of course I had to surf over to find out what was so special.

Having spent some time looking over the blog, I honestly don’t see much about the side of “design” that those within the ID community often claim is implicit in their work: innovation, creative thinking, invention, problem-solving. What I do see are lots of aesthetics; “surfacey” design as Gerald Hirshberg once described it to me.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice stuff. But as far as I’m concerned it’s mostly only aesthetics. The blog could just as easily have been called “style*sponge” from my point of view (and this is only my point of view). But it’s design*sponge.

More interesting is what I read on the “About” page (Link):

design*sponge is a website dedicated to home and product design.

Only one month after its launch, Design*Sponge was featured on the cover of the New York Times’ House and Garden section,The … {snip – long list here} … Magazine’s Blog.

All this attention over what appears to me to be a blog documenting “design” as mostly stuff that looks nice. Is it any wonder that Industrial Designers are seen by the masses and by most corporations as people who only provide product styling? How many threads are over on Core77 asking what an Industrial Designer really does; or what the difference is between an Industrial Designer and a Product Designer? The confusion is everywhere. Especially when people start trying to use terminology between cultures. Industrial design in Asia is not necessarily defined the same as industrial design in the West. As a result there can be significant disconnects when working together.

Perhaps it’s time that the profession spin off a different label for those Industrial Designers who do more than just provide style. I’m not saying style isn’t important – I’m on record claiming that it is. But right now for many of us, industrial design is something much more. It’s about developing solutions within the constraints imposed by manufacturing; incorporating as much style as possible without impacting other “design” issues (ergonomics, material limitations, molding issues, aso) and sometimes compromising style – often reluctantly – to meet the legitimate needs of the business (e.g. chasing crazy development deadlines to meet customer mod sets, or developing a product to use a specific manufacturing process in order to maximize business assets… like idle blow-molding machines, or seasonally-used rotomolding equipment).

In addition, more Industrial Designers are involved in product engineering than ever before; especially those of us who are dual-degreed. Where once CAD was limited to specialists, increasingly Industrial Designers must have the ability to use a full-fledged CAD application to even get a job interview. Yet that part of “design” isn’t being communicated on sites like design*sponge. In fact, even veteran Industrial Designers often downplay that part of the designer’s job … but to emphasize something even further from “style”: thinking processes; creativity, innovation (that last word has gotten lots of press recently).

Something is wrong. And as far as I’m concerned, the job description “Industrial Designer” should be put to rest. There may not be much use for it in the future anyway. We may as well make the break now.

{Update: 27 September 2009

It’s taken a while, but the rest of the Industrial Design community seems to be finally seeing what I saw when I wrote this entry. Phillipe Stark said it not too long ago (though I don’t think most people fully understood his meaning), but now frogdesign’s Jon Kolko is saying it (Link):

Design has outgrown “Industrial Design”, and a professional organization [IDSA] cannot exist only in the form of self-maintenance.

What took everyone so long to acknowledge what’s been evident for years? Who knows.}

2 thoughts on “The Death of “Industrial Design”

  1. Don’t be disheartened. When design is free from the restraints of manufacturing, the whole concept behind the creation of the profession falls into question. As “industrial” falls out, a new term should replace it. And most people don’t understand what it means anyway; plenty think it’s the title for people who design factories.

    I actually like “Product Designer” myself. Maybe we should also have “Product Engineer” for those who only concern themselves with the mechanical function; and “Product Stylist” for those that concern themselves only with exterior aesthetics. I can see where a few IDers would consider that offensive, but they shouldn’t imo. They’d be closer to sculptors and artists and there’s nothing wrong with that; especially considering where technology is headed. A “Product Designer” would be someone that covers both roles: as engineer and as a stylist.

    Just a thought.

  2. Wow csven. Heavy stuff. As a student of Industrial Design I find the last paragraph a little disheartening. What are you thinking for a new name? I hope it doesn’t include the word “Solution.” Lunar Design uses the term “Product Designer” which is pretty good, IMO. The bottom line is that “Industrial Designer” is the term we use to describe what we do. And, considering the core77 posts you mentioned, it doesn’t seem like that term is doing its job very well. Neither does my job title, “Mechanical Engineer.” My brothers still don’t quite grasp what my job entails. But if I understand your concern correctly, it sounds like there is a breakdown of understanding within the design and manufacturing community of what Industrial Design involves. If this is the case, I can see the bigger picture problems on the way.

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