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Industrial Designers, Design Your Future #1: Be Tactical

Design is about managing change — sometimes this means managing the change you need to make in your own career in order to adapt to an evolving field.

Technology is becoming more sophisticated and more affordable, and our product experiences are transforming from simple physical interactions into complex digitally and data-driven ones.

Virtualize the industrial.

As the emphasis in industrial design (ID) continues to shift from form toward user interface (UI) and other elements of human to computer interaction, industrial designers will need to figure out how to thrive in a digital environment.

The growing difference in hourly rates for interaction designers and industrial designers might be the most concrete metric to demonstrate this shift. The former are beginning to command nice premiums over their counterparts. We are also seeing some major reorganization underway in large design consultancies as they transition their staff’s focus from industrial design to user interface design. (College students and administrators, take note!)

Transition into a hybrid.

What does this foretell for five or fifteen years from now? The design profession will ultimately follow the lead of the interaction design community, who understand the needs and benefits of integrating product development skills with the strategic skillsets involved in user research (including usability testing and validation). They’ve created user experience (UX), a field with blended capabilities, but they have not yet incorporated industrial design.

The day is close when ID departments will report to UX departments. This has already started happening inside forward-thinking technology-driven companies. We’ve foreseen the change, too, and have proactively grown our interaction design team as well as our industrial design team’s understanding of interaction design.

But how about for the individual designer? Some of my colleagues have managed successful career shifts but the large majority of industrial designers are slower on the uptake. Like anything, this adjustment is easier said than done. How does a staunch IDer begin to hybridize?

Future of Design: Be Tactical (Infographic)

Become an expert in interaction design.

It is comforting to realize that interaction design, like industrial design, is a multifaceted discipline requiring multiple skill sets. Just as some industrial designers are stronger at product usability, architecture, and ergonomics, other designers focus more on visual brand language development and form. There is a parallel to be drawn with the interaction discipline where usability and information architecture (IA) is a distinctly different skill than visual design, which finds its roots in more traditional graphic design.

Once industrial designers understand the dichotomies of the interaction design field, they can better identify the area where they’re most likely to fit. In general I have found that traditional industrial design training tends to spit out designers who are better at usability and information architecture. These are a natural expansion of traditional ID skills where critical thinking is a requirement. (Very few designers are able to expand into the visual design aspect of the interaction discipline, probably because graphic design is rarely part of the curriculum of an industrial design program.) If usability and information architecture are your thing, follow that path into the more expansive field of user experience.

Know your emerging technology.

Designers will also need to be smart about emerging technologies in order to act as arbiters for our clients. Which technology makes the most sense in the context of the products we’re designing? We need to be the experts, because we’re the ones who understand product experiences.

Industrial designers have the foundation to be smart about implementing technology to enhance the brand experience rather than implementing technology for technology’s sake. This tactic becomes even more valuable as the technology adoption cycle spins faster and the cost of manufacturing keeps going down. Everything will be smart and embedded.

Of course, it’s not just designers who need to evolve. Design firms will need to reconsider their design management practices—at Bresslergroup, we’ve developed an integrated process where interaction and industrial designers work side by side. I encourage other firms to learn from the experts and hire true interaction designers rather than repurposing their industrial designers, at least until hybridization becomes the norm. And design schools will need to adjust their curriculums (more on that later).

Embracing these tactics will remove (some of) the bumps from your ride.

(Globalization and rapidly developing technologies are transforming industrial design. Happily, major transitions usher in major opportunities for the nimble and forward-thinking. This is the first of a Design Your Future series of three posts about the future role of designers, in which Bresslergroup Design Director Mathieu Turpault outlines some key opportunities.)

Read Parts 2 and 3 of Mathieu’s series:

Industrial Designers, Design Your Future #2: Be Nimble

Industrial Designers, Design Your Future #3: Be Flexible