Reflections on design in hard times
We’ve just started a new decade, and it’s a doozy so far. Unlike the Roaring Twenties, this one feels like the “Jarring Twenties.” It’s starting out with a pandemic, massive unemployment, a collapsing economy, social unrest, a worsening environment, murder hornets, and bomb cyclones. How will this pessimistic start to the decade affect the industrial design profession, and what does the coming decade have in store for the business of design and its subject matter? Some good design and important technology transpired in the 2010s, but which innovations will flourish in the ’20s? More importantly, what new innovations need to materialize soon for the good of people and of the planet, and how can designers help to make that happen?
When times are tough and society seems to be coming unglued, we turn inwards. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that our anxiety will force us all to stop, take a deep breath, and reprioritize things in our lives. It should motivate society and individuals to change. It’s already a wake-up call for many people now realizing that quality of life is the ultimate aspiration. People are re-evaluating what makes them happy, healthy, secure, comfortable and content.
This is a perfect opportunity for design to shine because quality of life and quality of design go together like peanut butter and jelly. When people realize what they truly need in their lives, they always turn to quality over quantity, including quality time, quality experiences, and quality products. A quality design is an “optimal solution” where excellence permeates every single aspect of a product. It’s well made with good materials. It’s sensory-rich so it feels good to the touch and is pleasant to behold. It’s also a “timeless discovery,” as if it should have always existed, once a designer has found it, it always will. When quality of life matters more to you, so do these design qualities. Your consumption patterns and priorities get reset, and the overhyped inferior products, of which the world is full, become irrelevant.
Design flourishes not only because of economic motivation or national stability, but more so when a culture matures and discovers that its own core identity is built largely on its quality of life factors.
Countries with a high “quality of life index,” like Denmark, Norway, Italy and Japan, also happen to have a high quality of design in their cultures. Why is that? Design flourishes not only because of economic motivation or national stability, but more so when a culture matures and discovers that its own core identity is built largely on its quality of life factors. Values like beauty, simplicity and excellence take on more meaning and eventually become ingrained in that culture.
Design aims to deliver satisfaction and goodness on some level. Sometimes it’s a clever little innovation that eases your particular difficulty. Sometimes it’s a grand new way to solve a systemic problem. Sometimes it’s a poetic object or interface that just makes you smile. Designers love to create that goodness, but when they see how many of the world’s problems seem hugely insurmountable, (combined with a cacophony of nonsensical marketing gimmicks that flood our TVs and smartphones), it’s easy to get discouraged, especially for all those “fixer type” industrial designers. With all the stuff out there, you might begin questioning what satisfaction and goodness even means to people. It’s easy to think, “What can I possibly do?… I’m an artist and a craftsman.” That’s exactly the key.
The thoughtfulness, compassion and empathy that designers instinctively feel and create as “artists and craftspeople” is precisely what the world needs more of right now. Designers can make a difference by “death by a thousand cuts,” (i.e., by solving hundreds of small human problems that all add up). This is especially true when your design is mass-produced, delivering satisfaction in the world, and improving life quality, one end user at a time. After all, true product quality is universally valued and never goes out of style.
Not only was it okay, but it was encouraged to be inspired by feelings, moods and sensations when you were solving a serious design problem.
When I served as president of frogdesign, our slogan was “form follows emotion.” It was our simple way of saying design should appeal to the heart, not just the brain. Of course you need both, but what attracted me to this approach was that emotional inspiration was sanctioned in the process. Not only was it okay, but it was encouraged to be inspired by feelings, moods and sensations when you were solving a serious design problem. This freedom felt like design liberation, and it always raised the quality of work because you were internalizing what a deeper definition of quality meant to the people for whom you were designing. Whipsaw and a few other firms carried that torch forward into the new millennium. I expect and hope that design in the ’20s will further cultivate this kind of deeply human approach because quality of life will mean more to us all in the coming decade and beyond.
I’m writing this during the Coronavirus pandemic in which uncertainty dominates every moment. Doom-scrolling the news, you’d think Armageddon has arrived. New terms like social distancing, flattening the curve, and elbow bumps are suddenly part of our global dialect. The pandemic shattered our perception of safety and it’s forcing us to rethink many of the things we took for granted. Work, school, travel, fitness and entertainment are all affected and will need to change. This is where designers come in because crafting positive change to better life is what we do. Our immediate future mission because of the pandemic will be to solve design problems around protection, place and process.
Protection design is about innovating products that protect us from disease exposure. It will include personal protection equipment design, inventing new ways to operate things hands-free, creating new devices for disinfecting surfaces and touchpoints, and inventing proximity awareness tools. Little design attention has been devoted to protection up until now so there’s ample opportunity to innovate and make a difference, especially to the vulnerable people that deliver care. Protection designs don’t have to look like ugly N95 masks or those tacky acrylic panels we see at stores. It needs the same level of attention that designers put into consumer electronics, apparel or furniture. Protection is a new design application, but it’s really just an amplification of safety thinking, which industrial designers already practice.
Place design will focus on the redesign of public spaces like restaurants, schools, gyms and stores. It will include new thinking about the overall layout, service affordances, furniture and fixtures. Place design will be a collaborative effort between architects, interior designers, and industrial designers. Place design will also include design for the home. After decades of hearing how technology will allow us to work from home, WFH is suddenly a new reality and many people prefer it. As we become more homebound, we’ll also invest more in our homes. Demand for home décor, appliance, and entertainment design will increase, especially as household travel budgets get reallocated to one’s home. Home Internet has also become simply indispensable. It’s our pipeline to everything. Any physical or digital product that facilitates our sheltered lifestyles will grow in popularity. Virtual everything will explode: learning, companionship, travel, fitness, etc. Remote productivity enhancement, including “shopstreaming,” telehealth, and new consumption fulfillment systems like robotic delivery, will also trend.
Demand for home décor, appliance, and entertainment design will increase, especially as household travel budgets get reallocated to one’s home.
Process design will focus on how things are done in order to stay safe. Every corner of life has activity processes that need complete reconsideration. Work, travel, education, entertainment, fitness, and shopping processes will all need to be adjusted for safety. Process design is a natural extension of UX and service design, and industrial designers have already been doing this so we have a good start. Furthermore, thanks to the last decade’s emphasis on design thinking, (which considers a user’s complete experience journey), industrial designers are well prepared for this process design challenge. Process design adds new layers to a design problem. In addition to typical form and function criteria, time and space criteria also become important. For example, in a gym, the workout flows of multiple individuals will need to be choreographed while also time-governing machine usage, classes, and locker rooms. It’s not just about equipment design anymore. Process design is more like writing a complex symphony where the interdependency of all elements and the timing of each element’s delivered utility is critical.
Process design is more like writing a complex symphony where the interdependency of all elements and the timing of each element’s delivered utility is critical.
The pandemic is a topical reminder that one of the most important fields of innovation opportunity that designers should be involved with is medical equipment, wellness devices and healthcare. Designers have been designing medical hardware and UX for decades, but they’ll be sought after more in the coming decade due to growing demand and emerging technological advancements. Demand for good healthcare is rising due to an aging population, greater awareness in all things health-related, and a rise in global healthcare spending. This demand will, in turn, drive design growth in the ’20s.
There are many breakthrough medical technologies on the near horizon that will be assimilated into services and products, like diagnostic, therapeutic, surgical, and personal wellness devices. All of these of course need to be figured out and designed. The most promising Medtech futures that will need industrial design and interaction design are robotic surgery, precision medicine based on personal genetics, A.I.-driven diagnostics and treatment, biometric sensor tech for wearables, living cells combined with manmade electronics (see Koniku), new approaches to healthcare services (like telehealth), and hundreds more. In every case, for these innovations to take hold and thrive, they need equal parts utility and usability–the very tenets of industrial and interaction design.
In the coming decade, medical design work will grow in complexity. As the medical field advances, most of the innovation is targeting finer and more granular solutions, including DNA-level manipulation and treatment, tiny nanotools, hyper-refined surgical processes, AI that examines tons of data to inform exact treatments, and personalized patient care software. Whether its tools, treatment or technology, the frontier is all about specificmedicine, and as these treatments get more specific so must the design. Nuance, subtlety, intricacy, and deeper understanding will need to accompany every medical design problem.
Medical design problems bring out the best in designers because their complete skillset is called into action. Research, strategy, human factors, UX, form, function, and the three pandemic-induced P’s (Protection, Place and Process), are all essential competencies when designing medical products. Designers also bring a unique contribution because they think outside the box. They aren’t encumbered by indoctrinated medical procedures and knowledge overload which can stifle creativity. This naïve free thinking can net amazing lifesaving results. For example, we’ve helped clients like Silk Road Medical and Avinger to conceptualize not just a device, but complete surgical processes, even though we are far from being surgeons.
We also helped Ceribell completely reinvent the electroencephalograph (EEG). In each case, fresh non-MD design thinking led to market disruption. Thinking three-dimensionally and inter-connectedly about how medical techniques, participants and tools can work together in harmony is how designers achieve excellence.
The medical field is truly one of the most rewarding areas for designers to be involved with, especially in the coming decade. The field is presently chock full of scientific discovery, and many innovations appear to be reaching a nexus point where each advancement is synergizing with others to create collective progress on a massive scale. It is likely that we will view the ’20s as a medical renaissance decade, especially if AI and precision medicine lead to major breakthroughs like significantly greater longevity, a cancer cure, or a universally agreed upon healthcare system. Designers have the opportunity to play a major role in how all this optimism and scientific progress gets channeled into good, intuitive and thoughtful product solutions. It will perhaps be our greatest challenge of the next decade.