The Future of Industrial Design

A conversation with Dan Harden on the future of Industrial Design

Dan Harden
June 15, 2016

Where do you see the future of industrial design going?

Industrial Design is becoming more complex and has a much wider definition than it did in the past. On one end of the spectrum, design is returning to its roots where craft, materials, and product quality are the primary focus. For example, designers at Apple start with a block of aluminum and experiment with what to do with it, the same way Charles Eames did when he experimented with laminated plywood 70 years ago. Similar to this approach, I will often go into the shop and experiment with foam or clay when trying to solve a design problem. This intimacy with the problem is still one of the most gratifying and effective ways to discover a solution. For a while it seemed like an outdated process considering all the CAD and rapid prototyping available today but I’m happy to see more designers embracing design as a craft.

On the other end of the spectrum design is being transformed by technology where ID will continue to be tasked with creating our digital experience, which is decidedly not like the above description. Industrial designers are great at digital UX because we relate to a material world where reflected light paints a surface, tactility is tangible, and buttons actually go “click”. In the future this rich dynamic one has with an analog experience will be better replicated in the digital experience, making them more integrated and therefore more intuitive.

The scope and reach of design will grow in the future too. I’ve seen design go from styling a product, to styling an experience, to styling a business, to styling infrastructures. I am very interested to see where this goes, especially where design is applied to social problems. This will force industrial designers to work with a wider variety of disciplines including architects, government officials, policy makers, etc. and this will surely expand the definition of ID.

Industrial designers (and the world) must soon figure out what it really means to be sustainable and this must become a mantra of the profession in the future. People will always need things, and industrial designers will always be asked to create them in as great a quantity as possible in order to “feed the machine”. That’s the paradox for ID. We help to create millions of good things that take energy to produce and that fill space.

“Industrial designers (and the world) must soon figure out what it really means to be sustainable and this must become a mantra of the profession…”

We’re likely not going to change the construct of our consumption focused capitalist society. However, in the future, designers can influence how people feel about their products by building in sustainability values. I think there are two parts to this. The first are the more obvious external things we can do to make products more responsible for example using less material, reducing manufacturing energy consumption and making products recyclable. You should be doing this already. Thanks to technology we will be able to come closer to achieving these goals on a much larger scale. Things are getting smaller and more efficient all the time. Designers need to keep the pressure on the technologists and engineers to continue this reductionist trend. We do this by making sure that less being more is a most desirable trait to consumers. We make sure that sleek, slim, minimal design remains cool. We beautify simplicity.

The second part of the sustainability solution is harder. It’s internal to what users and their societies believe about material wealth and conservation. The biggest sustainability problem by far is the shear quantity of things humans make, consume and desire, and its only getting worse. Developing a global positive attitude about conservation is the key. To make and consume less opposes capitalism but that’s what we have to do in the long run. We have to accept that no economic growth or even negative growth is OK. We all seek peace of mind and fulfillment on some level, but that does not have to mean more stuff. Is it possible for designers to help change attitudes about conservation? Absolutely. Design is a communication tool that needs to express quality of experience, not quantity of experience, and although marketers may disagree, timeless high quality/high value design is the most sustainable in the long run.

“Design is a communication tool that needs to express quality of experience, not quantity of experience…”

Finally, in the future I think design and business will eventually extinct cultural diversity. At the beginning of my career I noticed way more cultural diversity. It was easy to see the difference between Japanese design, German design, French design, Italian design and American design. Now, if you didn’t see a logo on a product you’d be hard pressed to tell me where it comes from. I once mimicked the tri-bar K’un elements from the Korean flag into the ventilation pattern of a Korean computer called Trigem, and it took over the number one market position because their customers said it looked “distinctly Korean and that makes me proud”. I miss that differentiation and pride of place that comes from designing products with cultural expression. However if better design is being produced all around, and if a global style built on common values is more effective at bringing us together, should cultural diversity even matter?

You asked George Nelson what’s it like being a designer, so now I’m going to ask you the same question: What’s it like being a designer?

Being a designer is fun. I get to be creative all day long and I get paid for what I love to do most. Design is such an integral part of my life that I don’t see it as work or my profession but rather as my purpose. I do it because it feels right. If you don’t feel design in your bones don’t pursue it as a profession.

Being a designer entails wearing lots of hats, especially a design consultant. Every day I assign about fifty percent of my time to solve design problems, where I sometimes work individually, sometimes with our team, and sometimes with our client partners. The other fifty percent of my day is spent running a design firm, which involves strategic planning, business development, accounting reviews, recruiting, public relations and more.

Working effectively with clients is an art form. You have to be pragmatic when working with their engineers, ebullient when working with their marketing, and visionary when working with their CEO. To be a successful consultant one needs to be able to empathize with a wide range of perspectives. I find it helps to be real honest about the issues, telling a client your sincerest opinion, and also expressing enthusiasm and passion of course. People build trust when they witness your honest belief and see competence in action.

Dan Harden interviewed at the Whipsaw studio by Amina Horozic (part 2/2)
As published in the book “Breaking In – Product Design”

Interested in being part of designing the world around you? We’d love to meet you.

Check out our open positions.

Dan Harden

Dan is CEO, Founder and Principal Designer of Whipsaw, an acclaimed product design and experience innovation company in Silicon Valley that has introduced 1000 products to market over the past 20 years for the world’s top companies. Dan is a highly active creative force and luminary in the design world. Dan’s passion and experience combined with his personal philosophies about art, culture, psychology, and technology permeate the work.

Share this article