I just came back from CES (thanks to Here for flying me over to see their work, I’ll write about that soon too) and wanted to write down some thoughts I’ve been having over the past few months which crystallised during this trip. I’ll be giving a talk tomorrow in Oslo at an event organised by Telenor which will touch some of what I’ll write about here too.
I’ve been thinking about product design. Technically I studied industrial design, graduated from a B.A.(Sc) Sp. in 2004. We were never introduced to programming, computer science principles, electronics design or prototyping and the internet was an image search tool for presentations. That was 2004 but I have met people who still constrain their product design career that way. The course I studied has basically not changed while over the past 12 years, product design has been taken away from ‘designers’ to become an extension of computing and the latest technology.
A product has become a physical manifestation of computing capability, with little concern given to the ‘user’ because it is now so cheap to produce something physically, that whether someone finds a product ‘useful’ or not hardly matters. It’s about what the ‘user’ can contribute to the computing power and the technology. The function is almost accidental. A physical product is no longer a tool to solve an actual problem. The design of the product is now simply a process of execution of a technological capability, not the core value. The physical product, just an accidental interface to a land of data to be mined. It is a physical access point to people’s behaviours, language skills and habits in their home, cars and at work.
A bit like Narcissus, looking into the mirror, we want our technical capabilities to mirror us. We are making the mirror.
Robots and assistants at CES were a great examples of design by technologists, of that mirror made physical. I worked for over 2 years for an EU-funded social robotics project and the computing technology has hardly improved (mostly relying on great copywriters) but the access to design means that simple, clunky technology can be made to look final and believable enough for consumers. Some of the ‘robot companions’ you can find in the CES Robotics Marketplace included Abilix, Koova, Unibot, Furo-i Home, Loobot (don’t ask), Alpha 2, Laundroid (no product pics), Nannybot and i-RobiQ. All a little hopeless, there was also Kuri a gender-confused (copy uses both he and she but not it) home robot launched by Mayfield Robotics. The CTO’s interviewed talks about the technical ability to make robots cost effective, not the fact that there was a great need for them. And that’s the problem in a nutshell.
The expression ‘just because we can doesn’t mean we should’ will become ‘now that we did, why did we again?’ as user and need-driven design has completely disappeared in the developed world.
Our biggest problems have nothing to do with connectivity and technology but we’re enjoying the engineering-led distraction.
Environmental responsibility, ridiculous packaging, data ownership are all areas that people have been thinking and writing about for over 70 years and we have done, as designers, almost nothing about them. At least not enough to fill the halls of CES.
So design, as it was once conceived, is no longer the glue between technical capabilities and user needs. It is simply the physicalisation tool of technologists with no real understanding or appetite for real needs as there are better, advertising led ways of making money. Hardware doesn’t make you money anymore.
How did we get here? Well the design industry just went to sleep. It’s star system (Stark, Rashid, Béhar, Mooi, etc) is decades old and young talent distracted by it.
For a product designer to want to learn about technology, he/she would not be going to a traditional design course but then he’d lose out on some of the technical essentials of design. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
There is not yet a space for graduate design education that caters to this new world, that fights back. A world that teaches people that to build great products, a design education isn’t enough, you need financing, marketing, engineering and manufacturing partners. You, actually, need to be a design entrepreneur in order to control the user-need driven vision you are taught in design education. And that’s hard to tell someone who, at 18 or 19, just knows that they like to draw.
I’d like to try to build such a design program longer term. If you’d like to talk about that drop me a line at alex at designswarm dot com. Let’s keep calm, but let’s not carry on. There is much work to do.
Happy New Year!
Interesting reflections and thoughts Alex. I feel too that the role of the physical product is changing and will be part of a product-service system where interesting new user experiences happen as these can adapt to the use and change shape and meaning while using.
That said there are little (or none?) good implementations where this is designed as a whole. Totally agree that you need more than understanding product design. The design entrepreneur is a good definition indeed. As I think back at what I was educated at Industrial Design Engineering in Delft it was that mix. Only twenty-five years the complexity of the products was rather different without the internet embedded and our multilayered society… And also; we were just introduced in the principles, the understanding all just really starts after graduation. Question is indeed if there is enough time now for students.
I also really like the metaphor from Claire Rowland on the hidden design that is so important in the experience of the things we use. Infrastructure, service design, data, etc. And all this is not something static; rule-based design is key.
I see often that there is great value in merging the knowledge from physical and digital product design, but that it is still very hard to overcome traditional borders between disciplines.
I hope we can create a design discipline that is not about shaping the end state of a thing, but the beginning and a path of using the thing in changing contexts. That combines different approaches. Without becoming too complex to handle. And with a good focus on the human values as leading principle.
Enough to chew on…
Heya! When you say ‘a product-service system where interesting new user experiences happen as these can adapt to the use and change shape and meaning while using’ I don’t actually think that this is what happens. A product gets made that fulfils the basic requirements of ‘enclosing’ technology and mostly its actual physical use is completely secondary to the data-driven use. I don’t think user experience and physical design work in the same cycles or even with the same objectives sadly.
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