What's Next For Design?

How we as designers have evaluated work, is subjective, and has continued to change over time.  The core reasoning pushing us through the design process can be categorized into two waves, with a third looming on the horizon.  Our field faces an identity issue because of changes in our global culture largely driven by technology.  The distrust in institutions and tribalism that many fields are already facing is coming for our industry too.  Can we be honest with ourselves about what we've done and how we can move forward?  We all are driven to improve our surroundings, but will we come to a consensus on how we will get there?

I want to push the way we define design practice and discuss the two mindsets that form the first two waves of industrial design, as well as a third wave, looming on the horizon.

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Let's take a step back, and get some greater context, because, in the span of human history, industrial design is a relatively young field.

Before mass manufacturing craftsmen determined the form of an object, according to their own manual skill and experience.

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If we think about all the different craftsmen making all the different types of any given object, we see that there were a lot of different designs on the market for a very long time.

If you wanted to buy, say, a chair, you had to walk or maybe take your horse to the nearest carpenter and ask him to put something together for you.

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For the most part, what was available to you was directly defined by where you lived. Different regions of the world had different material cultures.

Your context, where you lived, directly affected your material culture. What you, the purchaser, were exposed to informed your taste.

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The industrial revolution changed how people made and purchased goods and shifted populations from rural to urban.

The rise of manufacturing changed the way objects were made and advances in transportation brought these objects to larger markets.

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Because so many of the same object could be made at once, the variety of objects being made went down. In less than a century, we went from a culture of personal to one of industrialization, of mass.

When the same products could reach more and more people, the stakes were raised to get the design of an object right.

Out of this need, emerged a new kind of craftsmen, and the First Wave of Industrial Design.

Early industrial designers did not identify as industrial designers. They studied fine art or architecture and applied that style of thinking to their work.

Out of this need, emerged a new kind of craftsmen, and the First Wave of Industrial Design.

Early industrial designers did not identify as industrial designers. They studied fine art or architecture and applied that style of thinking to their work.

1st Wave!

1st Wave!

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First Wave designers like Mackintosh, experimented with form, though often at the cost of usability. The chair shown here is reported to be uncomfortable to sit in and is weak in construction.

Mackintosh’s work was not popular in Scotland, his homeland,  but he gained more notoriety in Britain and Germany. Because after all, everyone has a different perspective of what looks good.

Form-focused defined the first wave emerging field as designers sought to create a new aesthetic for the modern era.

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As markets competitive, designers began to shift their thinking beyond form, now considering the needs of the consumers they vied for.

This included Human-factors pioneer, Henry Dreyfuss, who focused on ergonomics, and wrote the book, "The Measure of Man and Women."

User-focused gradually grew more common and is the driving force behind the Second Wave of Industrial Design.

2nd Wave!

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Professors preached Human-Centered Design thinking at schools and firms like IDEO brought design thinking lessons to the broader business community.

Now when designers present concepts, we use language that focuses on the consumer’s perspective. Our arguments to clients shifted between "you hired me because I know beauty" to "you hired because I know people."

 

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Design thinking is a step in the right direction. Rather than prescribe a solution we like, we earnestly try to learn and listen as we design.

This is where we are today.

But consumer research and empathetic modeling do not take us far enough.

 

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I had a peer who in school, earned some extra credit by spending a week using a wheelchair. Through that exercise, he obviously realized how little of the world was designed for those who use wheelchairs.

And he may consider these challenges as he designs for wheelchair users, which is valuable, but a designer who has lived her whole life using a wheelchair will be the better designer for the job.

 

This isn’t just about physical ability. We make assumptions about all facets of identity, and how they inform preferences. We take "deep dives" and try to live the "consumer's journey" but how can we compare one phase of a project to life’s worth of experience?

None of us actively choose where we were born, when we were born, or which chromosomes were given to us at birth.

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And yet, that is the information we are usually given at the beginning of a project. 

Demographics, after all, are the data we can most quickly gather about people at first glance. But recently that information has been stripped away from our first impressions.

 

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Technology is completely breaking old heuristics and contexts. People can connect with each other based on common interests, rather than geography or outward appearance.

 

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Thanks to the computers in our pockets it is infinitely easier to see something you’ve never seen before. Our culture is no longer dictated by the region we live in.

The context that affects material culture shifted from regional to digital.

 

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Music is an excellent example of this. I’m willing to bet you know someone, who in his spare time, puts out albums on Spotify.

My cousin and a friends' fiancé both publish music online, gaining the attention of only 200 or so monthly listeners.

It isn’t risky for either of them to pursue music, because the cost of reproducing it has dwindled to nearly nothing. 

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Creation is becoming cheaper. Information on growing creative skills is easily accessible.

Many industries are slowly being democratized. Anyone can publish music, anyone can selling clothing, anyone can publish an article, anyone can brew up a micro-brew.

The Third Wave of Industrial Design will be about everyone designing, not just industrial designers.

The Third Wave of Industrial Design will be about everyone designing, not just industrial designers.

3rd Wave!

3rd Wave!

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When everyone is designing the number of products on the market goes up again.

But, the biggest difference between before the industrial revolution and from now onward is a given individual’s accessibility to the world’s options.

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This red line represents the options you as a consumer can actually see. In the beginning, a consumer only knew of a few carpenters who made a few chairs, now you can head online and evaluate a sea of options until you land one that best suits your tastes, perhaps finding that one craftsperson on Etsy who specializes in exactly what you want.

This shift in our culture has opened the door to a huge outpouring of creativity.

So where do the professionals fit into all this change? We have to make sure we view our creative process through today’s lens, not yesterday's.

Our community has already begun facing an identity issue because of these changes. And we have to be honest with ourselves about the mental leaps we make about our consumers to get the project done on time.

With so many options at their fingertips, people will choose an option made by someone in the community they trust, whether that’s skincare addicts or Pokémon enthusiasts. Because what’s good is relative. What’s true is relative. Distrust in institutions like the corporate entities we work for is high.

 

I want to propose 2 paths forward:

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Firstly, when taking on new work, you need to acknowledge who you are, and how you relate a project’s end-user, and be comfortable saying no to projects you don’t identify with. Leave room for creatives who do. I personally have never been camping, so I will not design a tent for the advanced camper. I am more likely to accept a project designing a tent for novices.

Use your life’s experiences to specialize in people who share your perspectives. You will create more meaningful solutions that way, that rise above the noise.

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Secondly, become a design facilitator. Whether that’s helping build the tools that empower novices to start creating, or teaching them skills that help them bring their ideas to life, let every interested person into the design club, degree or no degree.

By specializing, we are making room for ideas that are currently going unheard.

By facilitating, we empower people to create stronger, more nuanced solutions to their problems.

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We’re coming very close to how it was before industrialization, except today’s artisan has not only has access to more tools to make everything cheaper and faster, but he has a huge audience in a globalized world. His online market is so much more than the people in his town.

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As we make room for diversity of thought, the demands of the market will become more niche, more nuanced and create more opportunities for all of us.

The way I see it, this is a counterforce to the westernization of stuff. We are at the emergence of a new world of cultures.

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This page was written and illustrated by

Kat Reiser

Do you agree?

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These ideas were originally discussed at the Industrial Designer's Society of America's International Design Conference in 2019.

You can check out the original version of this presentation here:

© Kat Reiser 2019