Industrial Design: well positioned for the challenges of the 21st century

Written by  Mike Edwards Wednesday, 15 April 2009 04:55

By Tim Poupore -

I got a phone call recently inviting me to take part in a formal debate. The motion, “Industrial Design is well positioned to deal with the pressures of the 21st. Century” appealed to me, but when I was asked whether I wanted to support or oppose it, I couldn’t decide.

This fact intrigued me, and over the course of a ten minute call I found ample reason to argue both sides. Why the conundrum?

The challenges we face as a society are numerous, but Industrial Design can and must be seen as a greater part of the solution. Among its better-known contributions is the ability to make products distinctive, assisting manufacturers by improving desirability and increasing market competitiveness, and therefore profitability. This is often expressed through enhanced ergonomics; making products easier to use, safer and more efficient, resulting in a more positive experience for the user when compared to a competitor’s offerings. I.D. also contributes to material and process efficiencies, part consolidation, cost reductions and production streamlining, thereby boosting margins and further enhancing consumer value. Those are the obvious benefits, and most manufacturers are at least aware enough of these contributions to involve a designer at least periodically as part of their product development process.

As a methodology, however, Industrial Design offers much more that may not yet be obvious to design consumers seeking a triple-bottom line of economic, environmental and social benefits through design. This very same process that seeks solutions within the complex matrix of product design and development cannot be truly successful, or consistently effective, if practitioners do not use its power to explore deeper and more significant solutions that speak to needs far beyond the manufacturing enterprise.

From an environmental standpoint, Industrial Design offers the opportunity to build a greater emphasis on more sustainable manufacturing practices through the selection of materials and processes with greater regard to so-called green factors. Energy costs, resource management, appropriateness to purpose, toxicity and related downstream issues of disassembly and disposal must become more significant aspects of the development process. I.D. offers a host of ways of incorporating these qualities and then presenting their true value to consumers who can then make a more sophisticated and informed choice.

With regard to the needs of the people who comprise our markets, Industrial Design suggests ways to broaden the scope of product application to encompass the different abilities of users. Aging populations face special challenges, expectations of product safety and utility expand daily, and devices that empower users and extend capabilities are sought eagerly as market expectations rise and consumer demands grow.

Perhaps the most significant opportunity contained within design methodology has to do with the front end of the equation. Indeed, the base definition of design - determining the features and attributes of a manufactured thing - suggests that design cannot begin without research into the needs and wants of the consumer. Truly understand those needs and build a product to satisfy them, and success awaits you. This explains why the single largest growth area in Industrial Design practice today is Design Research, and why everyone from business schools to governments is droning on and on about the need for design-led thinking. Of course, the best (and easiest) way to take immediate advantage of the benefits of Design Research and design-led thinking is to hire a capable designer...

The Other side of the debate

And this brings me to the other side of the argument. While Industrial Design - the Methodology - is well positioned to deal with the challenges of the 21st Century, I’m not so sure Industrial Designers - the Practitioners, are all up to the task. Too often we settle for a truncated role on the development team. We accept subjective input from Marketing and poorly-articulated direction from Management without question or clarification. We fail to challenge our mandates, to dig into the impetus behind a design brief or push for the budget to probe the real needs of users. We hide behind aesthetic savvy when the statistics that could prove the true value of our contribution are only a survey away. And we moan that we are unappreciated even as we fail to back up our recommendations or justify our contribution in a language business understands.

Our job, our responsibility, if we are to be truly useful and truly Professional, is to practice the full range of our methodology to the mutual benefit of all stakeholders. We must do a better job of promoting design as a strategic business tool that permeates the enterprise, deploying structured, user-centred design research to discover unmet needs, creating innovative conceptual designs as solutions to those needs and upholding rigorous development protocols that lead to profitable manufacture and high-value jobs. In short, to use the full power of Industrial Design methodology to champion the social, environmental and economic needs of the 21st. Century. Let’s see where that argument leads.

Tim Poupore, ACIDO, is President of Ove Industrial Design Ltd.

Mike Edwards

Mike Edwards

Editorial Director: Ryerson Polytechnical Institute electronic engineering technologist with over a decade of manufacturing experience and 20-plus years in technical publishing, is also trained in hydraulics, electro-pneumatics, bearings, mechanical CAD software, sensors, motor drives and electric motors.


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