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Industrial Design’s Past, Present, & Future: The Evolution of a Profession

(A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Innovation, the quarterly of the Industrial Design Society of America.) 

Since I started in industrial design, it has grown up. But is it all grown up? Twenty-five years ago when I was coming up, let’s face it, the profession wasn’t all that credible. People heard “designer” and thought “artist.”

That was plain from my in-laws’ expressions when their daughter announced she was marrying an industrial designer. (They were not pleased.) Another common reaction was to  focus on “industrial” and assume we all built factories.

When I was asked to contribute an essay for Innovation’s “What Is ID?” issue, I thought about how, in design school, I tried to explain industrial design by pointing to IKEA’s democratic design. A lot of people didn’t like the look and feel of IKEA products, so I never got too far with it.

Today I explain my job as studying people in everyday life and figuring out how to solve the problems they encounter. It’s not only about designing a pretty appliance, it’s about designing one that’s meaningful, serves some functional need, and addresses the aesthetic expectations of a target audience. These things are quantifiable — they’re not a matter of subjective taste.

In twenty-five years my definition of industrial design has changed and so has the profession. I’m grateful to Innovation for the chance to reflect on some major changes, and where I think industrial design is headed:

It’s easier to explain what we do now.

When I came to the United States to join Bresslergroup in 1988, I knew the U.S. was a country where an industrial designer could make it to the cover of Time magazine. I had seen the Raymond Loewy cover and knew that Loewy, like me, was born in Paris, raised in France, and moved to the U.S. to make it as an industrial designer. In the middle of moving to a new country and learning a new language, that was a comfort to me.


I was correct that the business community here did recognize the value of design — right away I noticed I did not have to spend as much time convincing people. Since then, forward-thinking companies have become even more forward-thinking. They’re pushing design at the top, with CDOs (Chief Design Officers) working alongside CEOs and CFOs. “Voice of the customer,” a buzzword in the ’90s, has evolved into a more regular practice of contextual research and needs definition.

Today I explain my job as studying people in everyday life and figuring out how to solve the problems they encounter.

And now we have that other buzzword, “design thinking,” whose widespread popularity is teaching executives to become fluent in the prototype-test-iterate design process. Its ubiquity has made it easier to explain what we do.

Empathy and user-centered design are central.

Of course, I’ve grown up, too. There are certain moments in your professional life that reveal themselves as major turning points. The biggest was when I was conducting research for one of the first projects I worked on at Bresslergroup: a portable video magnifier for people living with low vision.

I spent two hours interviewing a woman named Lucy (that’s us, pictured above) about the stationary video magnifier she was using to sign contracts, sign checks, and use her cell phone. She gave me a lot of good insights about the ways her video magnifier made her life easier. When she realized the portable magnifier we were designing would provide the opportunity to lead an active life outside her home — to let her do the kinds of things we take for granted, like reading a menu or a sticker on a supermarket shelf — she started to cry from happiness.

I still can’t talk about this experience without a tremble in my voice. I came back from that research wanting to be a better designer. I wanted to design a solution to improve the lives of Lucy and others like her who are living with low vision. I became more empathetic that day, and more focused on user-centered design.

Design students are more sophisticated.

When I was in design school, industrial design was less defined and more slotted into three-dimensional design, such as furniture and craft, or into engineering. Victor Papanek’s book, Design for the Real World, was something our teachers suggested we read, but it wasn’t part of the curriculum.

Today’s design school students and graduates who interview for our internship and junior designer positions are already looking at projects as end-to-end, user-centered experiences. They are practiced in including front-end aspects such as design and user research, needs definition, and concept development.

Now more schools than RISD are teaching human-centered design and even offering specialized degrees for students who want to pursue design management, design research, and design strategy.

As industrial design expands, it gets more focused.

As industrial design expands, it becomes more specialized. My generation of industrial designers are great generalists. We combine artistic, technical, and research abilities.

Specialists will become important moving forward. The technology in products is growing more sophisticated as is the ability of products to solve very specific user needs. These highly focused products will bring more focused design curriculums and careers. At Bresslergroup we develop products across many categories and harness the cross-pollination of technology and ideas. As we move forward this will become rarer. There will be separate groups of designers for medical products, soft goods, shoes, handheld electronics, etc.

The future of industrial design will be more about problem definition than product.

One reason for the increased specialization is the lack of hands-on manufacturing experience for designers. It was relatively easy for me to get firsthand experience when I was training. At one of my first jobs I worked for a fashion apparel company in France whose manufacturing facility was very local — it was right downstairs. And a colleague of mine at Bresslergroup who got his start in the UK recalls driving to the tool maker to review, and sometimes hand-finish, the molds before signing off on them for final production. These kinds of experiences are much rarer today, with so much manufacturing happening overseas.

Without access to factories, it’s difficult for young designers to fully understand a product — especially a sophisticated one. This is why the bulk of designers who specialize in handheld electronics, where miniaturization is a required skill, are either they’re in Asia or working for large corporations such as Google, Apple, or Samsung that enable access to those factories.

As self-driving cars become the norm, car design will become more about experience of not driving and car designers will transform into user experience designers.

Perhaps because designers are becoming more removed from manufacturing, the profession is evolving to be less about product and more about problem definition. The oft-discussed commoditization of traditional industrial design skills (form and styling) contributes to this, too. So does the growing importance of the product experience as products become more digital and evolve into a service that may or may not involve hardware — and the user may or may not own that hardware.

Car design is a great example of this shift. As self-driving cars become the norm, car design will become more about experience of not driving and car designers will transform into user experience designers.

Some things don’t change: Industrial design will keep changing.

All grown up or not, it can’t be argued that industrial design is an exciting profession that always keeps us fresh and on our toes. You can’t get bored with something that’s always changing. I believe this is one of the reasons why so many people choose it — we’re always learning something. We’re always solving a different problem for a different user and a different industry. And designers are quite taken with the idea of change — if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have become designers.

And the best news: The massive shift from creative execution to creative definition means that designers coming out of school can now command much higher starting salaries than we used to.

Designers are quite taken with the idea of change — if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have become designers.

When I graduated — when my in-laws looked at me sideways — design was more of a vocational choice, and we expected to start at the bottom and work our way up. Now students don’t have to worry about that — they can make a good living coming out of school and shape their career as they go along, taking on different skillsets and stretching into a design strategist or user experience design role.

I tell the young designers I work with: Your career is truly what you make it. The profession has grown by leaps and bounds in ways that provide an incredible amount of room to grow — how many can say that?