Industrial Design and the digital future.

A very generic view of what the future sounds like

Industrial design as a field has always been linked to the ever changing landscape of the Industry. Coming to life as a byproduct of the industrial revolution in mid-18th century Great Britain, the field itself truly matured as a field during the early 20th century in an effort to augment the existing traditional crafts and the increasingly mass-produced world. Nearly a hundred years later, another industrial revolution has opened the doors to a new frontier in the world of Industrial Design, one that challenges the norm of what we perceive as products.

We truly never realize just how integrated technology are with the products we use every day. We are quick to make a judgement on a product, but it takes a long and thorough thought to fully understand it, even for a designer. It’s easy to take things like the smartphone and never truly understand the million decisions that shaped its path. Perhaps, it is justifiably so, as many consider a good design to be one void of design itself; a product that feels inherently so, because it would not be any other way.

When we think of Industrial Design (and Product Design to an extent), we always imagine it as creating real, physical objects that we can touch, and feel. Product intangibles have mostly been an extension of those physical objects, like how luxurious products give a sense of exclusivity, or how products with sharp lines feel aggressive and manly.

But what if those intangibles become the core of the product itself?

Enter: the computer. At first glance, it is without a doubt a physical object, we can see it, touch it, use it. But once we turn it on and the screen goes black (when it shouldn’t), we quickly decide that the computer is unusable. The object is there, there are buttons that we can touch, but it is not a “product” that we can use, as products are made with intent to satisfy the desire or need of a customer. The intangibles, namely the software we use to interact with the computer therefore becomes essential to the product.

Interaction design is not a new field in the world of Industrial Design, dating back to the mid 80s, but it’s importance and role has increased significantly since. The rise of the computer, and its role in our lives prompted designers to not only design the physical computer, but also the software that users interact with. This opens a new frontier of Industrial Design: The digital products.

Google Trends Graph for “Digital Products”

Think of this very article in this very website. It is the reinterpretation of a physical object: the newspaper, the book, the paper. And yet, it is merely just words that are put in many, many lines of codes that all communicate and work in symphony to provide a visual manifestation of it to the reader. It is the reimagining of those physical objects in a digital form that not only emulates the experience of it, but transforming it in a way that adds value to the product.

With the increase in digital spending, its very clear that the industry is shifting to a more digital future. The shift is accompanied by a number of emerging fields: Cyberpsychology, Big Data, Machine Learning, Automation, Internet of Things and many more, all that can benefit the decision making process for the designer. Unfortunately it is not just about connecting physical products to a digital framework, but transforming the product itself to a digital landscape and improve upon it.

The Covid-19 pandemic will perhaps be the catalyst to this future. As it is the first time a global pandemic has occured in the internet age, more people are staying at home and using digital products, and more people are finding problems with the existing digital framework. Particularly on education, the problems of affordability rise with the context of the existing infrastructures. More people are learning digitally, but more people are increasingly dissatisfied with what they have. It is indeed a challenge, but when has the world of design ever said no to a challenge?

Product Design Student from Indonesia — eternally stuck between knowing too little and wanting to learn more