The future of the Industrial Design Discipline

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Every once a while I like to look back to see what sort of trend predictions research companies made, that have come true. In 2002, some clever researches from British Telecom published in BTexec that in 5 years time, ie 2007, lifestyle brands will dominate. I must say unlike many other predictions these researchers were right on the money.
Just look around you at the worlds more popular brands and products. Apple has dancing silhouettes, Nike is always doing it, and BMW gives you sheer pleasure. The power of branding is not dead, it has evolved into a whole new animal as beautifully described by Kevin Roberts. Consumer lifestyle brands dominate and as far as I am concern will continue to dominate into the near future.
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What about the Design Discipline, the organisations and people behind those wonder products? My thoughts will be that it will continue to be more and more difficult to survive if the Design Discipline does not find itself in a strong relationship with branding.
Before we go on, lets now take a quick look at the design discipline, in particular industrial design. It seems these days everyone is talking about design management and creative thinking in business, especially in consumer electronics. Designers, non-designers, engineers, CEOs, management consultants, etc. are all talking, however as Seinfeld always says, not that its anything wrong with that. Not only that, it is also becoming more and more difficult to NOT do good design. Everywhere we go, shops and the media, we are bombarded with fairly good if not great products to buy. Designers are well equip these days with all the right skills and know how to do things right, and the power and speed of the internet just facilitates it.
It is not surprising to see that a recent AIGA symposium focused on defining Designers in 2015, though targeted more towards Graphic Designers, it did give a route map of great skills and roles designers will play in organizations in the coming years. However in my humble opinion, the viewpoint seems pretty narrow focusing on technical aspects rather than the bigger picture. The successful companies of today (both in design and buyers of design circa 2007) have already begun to apply or use such design strategies and management tools. Personally I did not think that the boundaries of the discussion stretched far enough to include leading design management companies such as IDEO (though the symposium did proposed one of IDEO’s “T” shape characteristics of successful creatives and their management), and even management guru Tom Peters as they are in the forefront of such design + creativity management techniques. And these guys have been on their soap box for a very long time. Perhaps Tom and some chaps from IDEO would have been a great addition to the “drivers” to this discussion.
So if the future is much about continuing about what the best companies are doing now but better, and it seems every one else can eventually catch up and also do an equally good job in design, then what’s going to happen to the design discipline? In particular what is going to happen to people who’s job is focused on actual design and designing?
If we extrapolate this a little more, if good design is good business from China, Korea and to the USA and then Europe, then how can design consultancies and designers be different and rise to the top? On one hand this is a good thing as this means that design has been accepted mainstream as a true strategic competitive advantage for an organization, designers can now rejoice. But the bad thing is good design will now be a given, a commodity. Just like TQM (Total Quality Management) or customer service, good design will become a baseline and expected by consumer as everyone will be doing some form of it.


Industrial design agencies need branding skills to succeed
In the near future, not only will product development be more competitive, uber consumers will rule. From our time on, consumer product companies will start to realise that branding and more specifically industrial design for brand will become more and more important if companies want to be able to communicate to their consumers their brand promise and product experience both efficiently and effectively.

So welcome to HYGIENIA: a marketplace inhabited by mature consumers from South Korea to Brazil, from Australia to Canada, who can instantly and expertly point out the various hygiene factors for each and every good, service and experience on offer. They base their knowledge on many years of self-training in hyper-consumption, and on the now almost biblical flood of new-style, readily available information sources and filters helping them to track down the Best of the Best, the Cheapest of the Cheapest, the First of the First.
~ Trendspotting, Hygienia

The design agencies supporting these companies will need to speak that same language. Not only that conscious form creation will overrule traditional styling techniques, as companies will want to communicate to their customers on another level. The ability to create compelling design languages that is a reflection of a brand will be the key of such successful consultancies.

Industrial design agencies need to brand themselves.
As the future is lifestyle brands and their products, consultancies who create such products will need to show that they can play that same branding game as well. It is only logical in a world of good design skill, self branding will play a major part in differentiation. In other words consultancies will need to brand themselves for a particular market, design methodology, perhaps even a design philosophy. Certain elements of the strengths of such agencies will need to be communicated.
Furthermore, on the other end of the “food chain”, brand focused companies will logically look to related branded design consultancies to partner up. Again its only logical. Would you see Bang & Olufsen working with Philip Starck? Branded ID agencies will use their brand image as one of the main means going forward for new client business. The goodwill of the brand baggage (good or bad) will be a strong deciding factor in hiring a consultant.
The era of a just “do it all and all kinds of design” consultancy is over as well. Not that there is no space for a “do it all”, in fact consultancies such as IDEO have successfully branded their design process as the reason to hire them. In reality the design process is more of less the same, thus other smaller agencies might find it easier to niche market or move into areas that they are more well-known instead of following the leaders.
Wow this article has gone for long enough and it has already taken me more that 3 days to write, but I like to leave you with some example of companies and how they have played the branding game.

Examples of well branded design agancies
1) Companies that are centred around branded superstar designers who sell their particular style or ideology:
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2) Companies with very strong consumer brands, that eventually spin-off their know how as a gun for hire:




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3) Boutique design studios that focus on doing less mainstream boutique design work:
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4) Design consultancies that have branded their business around their process:

8 Comments
  • PY

    August 27, 2007 at 12:35 pm Reply

    Hey this is indeed a very good article! I like how you break down the different design houses.
    There is also another emerging design trend, related to consumers – the art of customization. In recent years, more and more design companies like Frietag and Tagger are getting successful, by customising designer products to cater for growing consumer needs for identity.

  • Design Translator

    August 28, 2007 at 3:45 pm Reply

    Hi PY,
    Thanks for your comments and the links to those design companies. Please do keep in touch!

  • csven

    August 29, 2007 at 1:31 am Reply

    I think as a profession we need to stop thinking vertically. The design professions – including architecture – tend to produce more soloists than conductors. From my perspective, that’s a problem in an increasingly connected, horizontal world. In more concrete terms, it’s a problem for any designer who wants to move up the corporate ladder since managers are, by definition, conductors.
    To that end, and for the sake of everyone in the profession, I believe we should stop thinking of Brand as something distinct from Design. The future of design isn’t in tools or role definitions, it’s in understanding how systems fit together, businesses function and markets operate; and where we can contribute our expertise and talent to improve those systems/businesses/markets for the benefit of everyone. For the benefit of the Brand. Not just for those brands whose products we help design, but for our collective professional brand.

  • DT

    September 1, 2007 at 5:04 pm Reply

    csven, great and insightful comments as always. You are absolutely correct, and design in organisation has a great opportunity to spread laterally. It is all interconnected, branding, marketing, logistics, even corporate strategy. Effective designers understand this and can move between each element with ease.
    But the problem is the media plays up the “soloists” or super stars if you like. Its cool and sexy apparently. Fortunately we can learn from this, as the main thing these superstars have is “branding”. That’s what was one of the inspiration of this post. If we can use the communication advantages and power of branding, the Industrial Design profession will have so much leverage and longevity in time to come. This is evident when we go back and look at the successful consumer brands have with consumers.

  • csven

    September 7, 2007 at 10:08 am Reply

    My answer to that is: who cares what the media promotes? As professionals, we should be concerned about how the profession is viewed by those who utilize our services. If the media is impacting their perception, then that’s an issue which needs to be addressed. And to some degree, I have to imagine that wouldn’t be too difficult. For every flamboyant design wunderkind there are a hundred not-so-flamboyant designers doing excellent and notable work but not getting the attention.
    Interestingly, I just read Frank Tyneski took over as head of the IDSA. Frank and I were friends at CIA, so I’ll be interested to see how he resolves the IDSA brand and perhaps addresses these larger issues. Of course, because I know him, if he screws up I’ll be just that much more critical (even though I’m not a member).

  • […] out some of my other thoughts on this issue as well: 1) The future of the Industrial Design Discipline 2) Starck says Design is Dead, yet […]

  • […] Before we go on, you might like to take a look at the basics of “self-branding” or what Tom Peters calls “Brand you“. Smart guy that Tom, he has been talking about it since 1997. Briefly, in a world where the consumer product market is so saturated and most products are essentially the same, the only proven way to get ahead is by branding. Not only just about branding of products but a holistic 360 degree effort including everyone else in the process including the design agencies used to create such products. […]

  • […] Before we go on, you might like to take a look at the basics of “self-branding” or what Tom Peters calls “Brand you“. Smart guy that Tom, he has been talking about it since 1997. Briefly, in a world where the consumer product market is so saturated and most products are essentially the same, the only proven way to get ahead is by branding. Not only just about branding of products but a holistic 360 degree effort including everyone else in the processincluding the design agencies used to create such products. […]

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