Industrial design has a history of almost a hundred years. Despite an established history, it is obvious that few other professions in the world has such a disputed definition. There are a few reasons for that of course. First of all some might argue that industrial design does not have a well-known and agreed-on reason d’etre. Is it safe to say that ‘making things beautiful’ is a good enough reason for a whole profession to exist? Or does this profession exist to make things work well for the human beings that use them? If so, doesn’t that part of the mission intersect painfully with other professions like engineering and human factors? How about idea generation? Can’t we at least own that? Probably not. Product managers, product planners and the like are a marking that territory for years now and they’re ready to own it. So what is it really that makes industrial design so special?
At its best, ID cares about all of the above – aesthetics, function, ideation and much more – all at the same time. And since it cares about all of it at the same time, it cannot care for any of them enough. Aesthetics, is probably the easiest part of the whole equation to explain, since there rarely is need for an explanation when something looks beautiful. It is the easiest to sell, too. It is also the unique part of the craft that cannot be owned by anybody else. A unique angle is great but should it really be the only angle?
INDUSTRIAL DESIGN SHOULD CARE ABOUT USERS MORE
Interaction Design, Service Design, User Experience Design are all breeds of this hundred-year old behemoth, one way or the other. Embarrassingly though, somehow all these new kids on the block suddenly seem more interested in the well-being of the end user than ID has ever been. How did that happen? Weren’t we the sole advocate of the user in any given conference room? Maybe the proverbial student beats the master every time.
HAVE WE BECOME VISUAL DESIGNERS OF PRODUCTS?
It is curious that there is a distinction between a Visual Designer and an Interaction Designer in the digital world. A distinction that has never been established within ID. A Visual Designer is concerned mostly with the appearance of the screens, the transitions, the icons, the visual quality of the overall interface. Where as interaction designer is the person who mostly cares about how the product is going to be used, utilized, misused, abused. One can ask the question of whether this distinction is completely necessary or not. The better question that I am curious about is did we, as industrial designers, become the visual designers of the product world? Did we forget about the part of our profession that really, and deeply cares about the user?
I have been the witness and the participant of many incidents where industrial designers were defending aesthetic details that had nothing to do with actual user benefits. Full disclosure, I have been also an active participant of this mis-prioritization in some instances. I have also seen these type of discussions hurting not only the end users but also the reputation of ID within an organization or in the society in general. Many times, I also tried to protect what little has left of the respect for the end user during design processes. But why is it so hard for a designer to focus on what is actually important?