Q&A: Who Needs Industrial Design?

“Early Industrial Designer” Joseph G. Brin © 2012“Fluid, intuitive, plug and play, out-of-the-box” – all characteristics of user friendly experience endlessly hyped by many companies these days. However, they remain elusive – an industrial designer is one person actually trained to deliver them to us in our daily encounter with objects and information.A Conversation With […]

“Early Industrial Designer”
Joseph G. Brin © 2012

“Fluid, intuitive, plug and play, out-of-the-box” – all characteristics of user friendly experience endlessly hyped by many companies these days. However, they remain elusive – an industrial designer is one person actually trained to deliver them to us in our daily encounter with objects and information.

A Conversation With Stephan Clambaneva, North East District, V.P. Elect, Industrial Design Society of America, IDSA

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M2_WHO NEEDS ID_Conference

Joseph G. Brin: When you all arrive in Philadelphia in April will your attendees somehow showcase what ID thinking can do for the City of Philadelphia? That’s something I’d really like to see.

Stephan Clambaneva: We are working on trying to pull this off, still in the initial planning stages.  The workshop is called a “Sense of Philadelphia.” We intend to conduct a workshop to develop a “sensual” map of Philadelphia…

Participants will split into groups and explore how to make the intangible tangible by using the five senses and the Great City of Philadelphia as inspiration. Using their sense kits each participant will capture his or her sense in a bottle, or in this case, a petri dish and in about two hours, the teams will manage to use these to generate a variety of potential new products or services that highlight, showcase, help experience or, in some cases, illuminate those quintessential sensual experiences only Philadelphia can offer!

JGB: Why Philadelphia for the IDSA conference?

SC: Innovation has been as big a part of Philadelphia as it has been responsible for the growth and prosperity of the country. Philadelphia’s firsts are many including the first zoo, banks and insurance companies, first botanical garden, art museum and hospital. And including ENIAC, the first computer, the first international style skyscraper (now the Lowes hotel), to more recent breakthroughs in bio-tech, nano-tech, mapping parts of the human genome, and more.

But firsts in education have driven all of these outcomes including the first library in 1731, first university — Penn in 1779, the first art school, PAFA in 1805, and the growth of over 100 colleges and universities. In past centuries, those institutions made Philadelphia the “workshop of the world.” And while heavy manufacturing has given way to knowledge-based businesses and the creative economy, the foundation that supported the intellectual drivers of the economy remain.

The city boasts four formal product design programs including U Arts, Philadelphia University, University of Pennsylvania Integrative Product Development program, and the Art Institute. Additional world-class science and engineering programs can be found at University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Temple, and other near neighboring universities.

So the tradition of innovation in Philly is still with us today and the educators and institutions in place, along with dedicated practitioners, will continue to inspire and train generations to come.

JGB: Stepping back, what is the face of industrial design today for the lay public?

SC: The face for the lay public is the Apple success story and how design was a major contribution to Apple’s success as a company. Industrial design (ID) is very broad today with two recurring themes: how design is helping business to succeed and how design is helping to solve problems way beyond the traditional limits of mass produced products. Whereas perhaps in the middle of the last century the face of industrial design was more likely to have been expensive high-end products, I believe the face of industrial design today is widely distributed across the man made world. That is major progress – the profession desires to provide good design for all.

JGB: Who is the face of ID today? Mostly IDEO, Bressler, etc.?

SC: The face of ID today for the lay public, if you wanted to choose one person, was Steve Jobs.

In the US there are many others. This is what is unique about the US industrial design profession; the field is wide and deep compared to many other countries. I would also say the response could contain a generational variation (names like Charles Eames, Eliot Noyes, Teague, etc.).

When you look for these faces, they are all strong personalities such as Tim Brown at IDEO, Yves Behar of fuseproject, Karim Rashid, and firms like Ziba, Smart Design, Teague, Lunar, Frog and many specialist and smaller groups that are less well known outside of the industrial design profession but have good visibility within.

JGB: If Steve Jobs is the hero of industrial design to the public, how would you address his major betrayal of the public/environment? He could have come out for sustainable design, clever recycling of the noxious materials in all those sexy products, but he didn’t. How do we deal with this part of his legacy?


SC: Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior VP of design, has had a significant influence on the materials and processes used to make Apple’s products. Furthermore, every generation of Apple product has shrunk in size and used less material. With the support of Jobs, Ive moved a significant proportion of their products from plastics to aluminum and glass. In addition, because these materials are natural, they are much easier to recycle than plastics. Because of the materials that Apple products use has a high intrinsic value and appeal, they probably aren’t thrown away or replaced as fast as other brands, which improves resource usage.

Furthermore with more than half a million apps for the iPhone and iPad, Apple has set up a technology platform for the dematerialization of many hundreds of traditional functions or products, such as notebooks, compasses, cameras, maps, etc. The net effect of this platform is a potential reduction of the amount of “stuff” we need and is a huge improvement for the environment versus where we were ten years ago. Could the actual “i” devices be more sustainable? Absolutely.  And, that will happen in time. The road to sustainability, as anyone who is part of the manufacturing process understands, is not going to consist of bad products one day and sustainable products the next. It is a journey that is accelerating.

For now, the fact that Apple’s platforms can replace literally hundreds of discreet devices constitutes a far more effective contribution than many other companies have been able to make. That doesn’t look like a betrayal but more like good solid progress on the sustainability journey and a big leap forward from the industrial to the information age.

JGB: What can an Industrial Designer do for me? Is it always through a manufacturer?

SC: I am assuming that you are referring to the consumer. Design. It is what makes your favorite products to use and why you want to use them. Industrial design as a profession came about from the efforts of designers who wanted to “do work for industry” as opposed to craftsmen producing individual products for patrons. Interestingly, we are starting to reach the point where the means of production are becoming more distributed with technologies such as 3D printing (see: makerbot), rapid prototyping, and the DIY movement.

Who knows, it may not be that long before your question could have a very different answer! Already there are examples such as Kickstarter and Quirky where you, the user can become involved as part of a community to have a far greater influence in the designs that get produced. We are, in some significant ways, at an inflection point.

JGB: What is it about ID training and perspective that the larger society needs?…or are industrial designers going to be crowded out in the battle for remaining slivers of the professional design “pie”?

SC: An industrial designer is the master of inductive reasoning. These are very powerful practical concepts that industrial design brings to the table. We see a lot of interest in the methodologies and tools that designers can contribute to business and society and feel sure that the scope and need for industrial designers is growing rather than shrinking.

Industrial design training stresses problem solving in three dimensions of often very complex issues involving new technologies, manufacturing processes and very broad target groups. Dealing with this level of complexity forces designers to learn the processes of design and to hold many options in their minds looking for the highest level of solution versus the logical thinker’s reductive processes of arriving at the common denominator.

The design process also stresses rapid prototyping and many iterations of ideas that ultimately define what the innovation process is all about. Messy experimentation. The more iterations that are made, the higher the potential quality of the solution. The more real world trial and error dealing with the parameters in 3-D versus manipulating mathematical models, the better the chances are that the solution will be optimized for the user.

JGB: Is IDSA, as an organization, important to graduating ID students or is it like the American Institute of Architects (AIA), less than unanimous participation?

SC: A general comment I would make is you get out what you put into an organization like IDSA.

It depends on what part you want to play in the design ecosystem. I believe that it takes an ecosystem of associations, corporations, firms, individuals, schools and media to make up the ecosystem of any profession.

In the ecosystem each participant has a role to play to support the others to help the whole succeed.  No one does networking like IDSA – globally for industrial design.

The IDSA website is the 3rd or 4th largest website for ID with 1.6 million visits and growing in traffic by about 20 percent a year.. Those visits come from many countries and many from the business world. Even digitally, IDSA is a great place to create awareness of who you are and what you do as a designer. We don’t hide behind aliases; all our members are identified by photograph and can be directly contacted, which keeps the communications professional.

JGB: To wrap up, if the public still perceives ID as being about elegant objects then how do you expand those skills into systems based design that can have a larger impact on planning, on society? Who needs industrial design?

SC: You can’t survive in business these days without it. When a company has design in their DNA [integrating multiple disciplines] you know it and it translates to their bottom line.

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and teacher based in Philadelphia, PA. He is writing a graphic novel on Al Capone to be published on Kindle.

Brin’s fine art rowing poster site: www.brushstrokesrowing.com/gallery

Art and strategic design for a bully-free Philadelphia (“B. Free.”) (http://bfreephiladelphia.wordpress.com).

Twitter: @AncientGlass


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