Why Industrial Design is important to me- ‘Thinking about Things’

This was my entry into the Embody 3D Australian Student Industrial Design Writing Competition:

Why Industrial Design is important to me

Why Industrial Design is important to me- ‘Thinking about Things’

For me, Industrial Design is fundamentally ‘thinking about things’. At face value Industrial Design is about making things -making things at an industrial level, so it is about mass manufacturing -big noisy machines with lots of white-gloved hands on sticks placing things in boxes onto conveyor belts to the tune of Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse”. This means it is also about materials, technologies, process, marketing, branding, distribution and anything else concerned with transforming product X from an idea into something that can be seen hanging in the shops by the dozen alongside fifty almost identical items.
Don’t get me wrong, Industrial Design isn’t just ‘mass-manufacturing’; Industrial Design overlaps into art and craft, and so it should. The language of Industrial Design is predominately graphic and sculptural-the sketch and the model, it has a natural connection to art and craft. When most people define design they mean styling, and Industrial Design is about beautiful objects as well, bespoke ‘designer’ pieces, limited edition fancy-pants concepts that will be shown in galleries and fill countless blogs that specialise in  ‘looks cool but could not work in real life’ ideas. This type of Industrial Design is also important because ideas are important, they demonstrate ‘thinking about things’. Beautiful Objects work better because they make you feel good. Donald A. Norman points out that when you use something that makes you feel good you are more likely to be creative and find a solution. This is why beautiful cars drive better than ugly cars.


To make things well requires ‘thinking about things’ and this is really what Industrial Design is about. Industrial Design doesn’t just ask the questions to get an answer to a problem; it looks at the problem itself. This can appear incredibly arrogant-the stereotyped black turtle neck wearing auteur decrying that the public is ‘le stoopid’, but it is fundamental to ‘thinking about things’. A manufacturing company makes product X but is losing market share. They frame the problem as “we  need to make a better product X”. An ordinary approach is to design a new product X. This is why there are countless mobile phones on the market and every mobile phone pretty much does the same things in the same way. An industrial designer will look at the problem and reframe it-do you need to make a better product X? Are consumers not buying your product because it doesn’t perform its function well or other reasons? What are these other reasons? What do consumers really want? This is ‘thinking about things’. Many innovative products show this approach. The success of the iPhone greatly stems from Apple’s Industrial Design led approach. You can tell when you pick it up and use it how much thought has gone into its every aspect-they had a real good think about phones.
Now this is where it gets sticky. If you ask someone what they want, they can’t really tell you. I don’t mean they won’t tell you, I mean quite often they can’t. This is why we have doctors and mechanics and physicists-we tell professionals some details, they interpret and analyse those details and tell us what really is going on. Otherwise every time we felt sick we’d take Prozac, no matter what we had, because it makes you feel better-Head cold? Prozac. Broken leg? Prozac. Prozac addiction? Prozac. Car maker Henry Ford is attributed to have said “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me they wanted a faster horse.” I don’t wish to imply that in the design and manufacture of products there isn’t a place for market research. Market research however is only part of the picture. Market research is asking about things, not thinking about things. Over reliance on market research is why every mobile phone is pretty much the same.
Industrial Design uncovers what users want, but not only by asking them. It is human nature to not know that you don’t know something. Industrial Design tries to remove the ‘unknown unknowns’ by reframing the problem, by observation of behaviour to determine what the actual problem is, by putting themselves in the users place. A good example is the television remote control. They are the most unnecessarily complicated pieces of equipment. I had a relative housesit recently so I wrote down instructions on how to use the four (yes four) remote controls to watch TV. It took one A3 sheet of instructions with diagrams, and then permanent pen on the remotes themselves. Press one wrong button on the remotes and you can’t watch anything except a snowy analogue community station.
The Industrial Design approach is to observe how remote controls are actually used. This approach puts the designer in the shoes of the user in order to empathise with the user. This is ‘thinking about things’. I bet you are thinking about your remotes now, those little bastards with hundreds of buttons, yet you only use five. Now think about a child with small hands using it and someone with enormous hands using it. What about someone who has to hold it with both hands, and someone who wants to use it with one hand without looking. Now don’t be arrogant, you can’t even begin to think of every way they are used-go and observe people using them.
Now it seems really easy to make a good remote control-it is so obvious. Now think about every other thing in your life which irritates you and how it could be improved with just a moments thought. Why is the ticket validating machine on the bus beyond the driver, so if your ticket doesn’t work you have to push against everyone else getting on the bus? What about more serious issues? Not just trivial issues of convenience that rich industrialized societies suffer, but the life and death issues facing the majority of the world’s population? Clean water, health care, education, birth control? Industrial Design is important because when you start ‘thinking about things’ in this way, all sorts of issues can be confronted. In most developing countries, the majority of the illiterate are women who have had to leave school in order to provide water for domestic use.The Hippo Roller (http://www.hipporoller.org ) allows water to be carried safely and easily and so frees up time allowing less trips to water sources The Hippo Roller not only allows more time to plant crops and take children to be immunized, it allows women to get an education, increases their earning potential, gives women control over their fertility. It has the potential to lift a generation out of poverty. Not bad for one designed object.

‘Thinking about things’ is not limited to production. The world economy is set up for every manufactured item to be consumed, but you should think about what you are buying. What do you want your new shiny trinket for? What will it actually do? Are you buying a specific tool do a specific job or are you really buying a feeling to fulfil a psychological need? Nothing wrong with that but ask yourself: Do I really need it? All things considered, when you purchase something you are really just renting future landfill.

This is not an argument against consumption – history shows humans turn inputs into better outputs. A minority of the world’s population lives longer, healthier, happier lives because of science and technology. This freedom from drudgery and subsistence has given society a time surplus so we can be creative and reflective and think. It is why we have art and religion and philosophy. Without this time surplus could we even consider the rest of the world? Could we consider the poorer living conditions of the majority? Could we do anything about it? On the other hand consumption isn’t all that great either. The next time you want to buy something, maybe take time out to really think about it. A well designed product that shows ‘thinking about things’ takes issues such as ethics, sustainability and quality into account, but this costs money, and this is why well designed products cost more. If you buy the right product and it does what you want it to do, you forget about the price you paid. If you buy the wrong product, it doesn’t matter what you paid for it, you will always remember the price you paid. And if you buy good design, there will be more good design.
Industrial Design is important because it is fundamentally ‘thinking about things’. To be a good industrial designer you need to think a lot, which means you need to know a lot. Read, listen to the radio, draw, be interested in the world, read some more, ask questions, sketch, talk to those who’ve done it before, contribute, copy, share. Never stop trying to fill your head and you will be a good designer. If you have thought about what you have designed, you can defend your design. If you conscionably can’t defend your design then don’t do it. There are plenty of problems in the world, trivial and serious, that industrial design can address. Have a think about them then have a crack at solving them.

1 Norman, Donald A. Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, (New York, Basic Books, 2004).
2 Mjoli, Nozibele, “Gender-Balanced Policy in Water Delivery”, Agenda, No. 38, 1998.

Figure 1 -http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Karmann-Ghia-coupe.jpg

Figure 2 -http://www.apple.com/iphone/gallery/

Figure 3 -http://www.hipporoller.org/gallery.html


One response to “Why Industrial Design is important to me- ‘Thinking about Things’

  1. Pingback: Steven Johnson: “Where Good Ideas Come From” « idintern·

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