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Industrial Designers, Design Your Future #3: Be Flexible

In my first two posts about the future of design I outlined a few ways product designers should set themselves up to thrive in their careers.

One is to “Be Tactical” by becoming a hybrid designer. In “Be Nimble,” I advocated for becoming more deft in product branding and front-end industrial design skills. The thread running through these posts, as I mentioned at the beginning of this series, is how to manage the change in your own career. In this last post I’ll step back for a broader view of some waves of change headed our way.

Get Comfortable with Change

I wrote how speed to market—and the branding process—will be condensed, and brands will need to speak to smaller niches. Product branding will also look entirely different. Brands will begin to differentiate themselves by providing twists on opportunities for customization.

Twists on Customization

Smartphones will likely be the first product category to offer multiple variations on a mass scale. You can already print your own custom-designed smartphone cover. As products go, they are closer than most to a fashion accessory and are currently manufactured using processes that lend themselves well to mass customization (i.e. no tooling but all CNC-machined as single units). Eventually you may be able to order a phone with the choice of two screen options and multiple skin and casework designs for each screen-and-guts combination.

Future of Design infographic

Growing Fluency in Immersive Design Language

The move away from physical design and into digital will intensify the demand for the subtle, intuitive multi-sensory or immersive features that fuel magical experiences. Tech-enabled products are less expressive stylistically—much of their design lies below the surface. Their simplistic, geometric forms combined with users’ expectations that objects be “smart” are setting the stage for multi-sensory features to become the primary differentiators between brands.

Aspects of the product that are invisible to the eye—haptic, kinesthetic, gestural—will become more critical. Color, finish, and materials will continue to define first impressions, but life-long emotional connections will result from branded tactile, audible, and haptic signatures.

Samsung stands out as one of the most innovative companies in the area of immersive design. Think of the audible startup and shutdown signatures on their TVs and their experimentation into meaningful haptic feedback on many of their Android phones. If you own a Samsung TV, chances are their audible signatures are burned into your brain—when you hear the sounds, you immediately associate them with Samsung. This is an example of brilliant multi-sensory design that is subtle, lasting, and powerful.

Sustainability in Product Design

With a few exceptions, companies are slow to see the need to invest in sustainable design. Everybody talks about sustainability and establishes glossy sustainability goals, but very few companies go beyond saving energy in manufacturing. They don’t yet realize the greatest opportunity to reduce their impact is at the design stage.

We’re past the early stages of greenwashing, and we’re all becoming smarter about what matters. In a few years customers will start demanding more meaningful sustainability achievement. And if we don’t become accountable quickly, the regulations looming in most industries will make us change our ways.

Today only a few of us in the leading consulting firms have developed an expertise in sustainable design. While schools are recognizing the need to teach it, the outcome is spotty and sporadic at best. (One exception is Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.) Things will change for the better in one of two ways: Either designers will proactively enable both cultural change and the product development process, or new regulations will force change.

The latter will be a slower and more painful process. Either way, sustainability will become a requirement for industrial designers, so it’s smart to be in the driver’s seat. (Start by reading Okala Practitioner: Integrating Ecological Design.)

Be the Hare, Not the Tortoise!

One way to track the evolution of industrial design is through a single product category. Before the 1950s cars were all about expressive form language. Forms were flowing and dimensional—designers were stylists, less limited by manufacturing processes. In the 1970s the car industry’s focus turned to mass-manufacturing and high-volume. Car frames got boxier and flatter, less poetic, and more generic. Most designs were rectilinear, because the technical know-how to accomplish anything more sophisticated at high volumes didn’t exist. In the ’80s and ’90s software and manufacturing caught up, and designers got their freedom back.

Things are moving much more quickly now. Car design today and into the future means interactive dashboards; shift knobs embedded with technology; and maybe soon the option to order from multiple form variations. The traditional product development process will accelerate tenfold or more in the next five to ten years, and the challenge for designers will be how to manage this high-speed process in a constantly moving world. There is no training for it just yet, and schools generally move too slowly to stay ahead of these innovations. It’s vital to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset and get comfy with the fact that things are going to accelerate quickly. Those of us who recognize the opportunities and adjust for them will stand the best chance of making it through.

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