The Next Industrial Design Evolution

You start with the light blue frame and move towards the dark blue frame which represents a completed product.
I have been pondering over the new Macbook Pro’s “Unibody”, with my thoughts often sliding from sheer audacity of execution, to disbelieve, to the wonderment of who got threaten at gun point, and then finally going back full circle.
But as I thought more about it, I suddenly realized that this was probably one of the best examples of a new school of thought of Industrial Design that I observed about 5 or more years ago. First finding its roots in the furniture/interiors industry (those guys can really experiment!), it has now finally come to main stream consumer electronics with the new Macbook. In short Industrial Design has evolved into a holistic expression of “everything” that is required to create the product. Expanding on this, the Industrial Design of these products were inspired by the product’s manufacturing processes or materials and specifically designed to express it as much as possible.
But wait, there’s more!

Hey did somebody at Apple not say: “There’s a story behind each part.” ?
In the past, what was practiced and taught to us at school was that Industrial Design was a process that was essentially a liner step by step process. As my top graphic explains, first we start with the components or archetype. Next we create and stretch “a skin (or aesthetic) over the components”. After that we figured out what sort of materials and manufacturing processes to use. Finally after all that, we did color studies. Essentially what we were doing here was building a product by layering the different steps over it in a funnel like manner.
The problem we this sort of approach we found out, was that people started to treat our product “layers” as they would budgets. It there was a lack of budget they would “logically” start to “cut” back these layers. Some examples of common discussions designers have include “Oh no money? Ok lets toss that metal housing and turn it into plastic…” or “Can’t afford that brush metal trim, lets turn it black instead?”. Does this sound familiar?
Anyway, as the world evolved and consumers got smarter, Industrial Design soon followed and evolved towards a “user-centered” approach. Industrial Design was now about creating an object that was a reflection of one’s needs and wants. Slight better then we were just considered as “stylists” as described in my previous paragraph above.
Industrial design, with the new Macbook, has now evolved again. This time into a communication tool that tells a story. As the right side of my graphic describes, Industrial Design now uses everything in its repertoire, the form, materials and manufacturing, and even color, to tell a story. Even a sustainable eco friendly one!
Now if you strategize the design of a product in such a manner, it is extremely hard to just “cut things” out based on someone’s whims and fancies (or even budgets). The trick here is ensuring a great story and how well your design reflects that.

  • tanie strony internetowe

    January 30, 2009 at 1:01 am Reply

    Thanks for this article, it’s great. So great that we’ve made it ‘sticky’ on The Webmaster Forums. Now we don’t have to repeat ourselves, just send people to this article!

  • Ken Archer

    January 21, 2009 at 5:35 am Reply

    Will do. I think we are advocating many of the same design values. I blog at

  • DT

    January 13, 2009 at 10:03 pm Reply

    Hi Ken,
    Thanks for sharing this perspective from an Architectural point of view. Please keep in touch?

  • Ken Archer

    January 12, 2009 at 2:25 am Reply

    Great post. The same changes are taking place in other areas of design. The legacy “step by step” approach you describe in industrial design is seen in architecture (the Design-Bid-Build approach) and software (the Waterfall approach). They are being replaced by the Design/Build and Agile approaches to design, both of which aim to treat all “layers” as expressions of a single conceptual design, just as you describe the future of industrial design.

  • DT

    January 9, 2009 at 2:26 pm Reply

    Hi Ben,
    Thanks for taking the time to ask this question.
    It is a 2 sided story and a very good one on how it is advantage to us designers.
    CnC is an amazing process. We as designers are allowed to create all kinds of forms that are not restricted to the injection molding process. But it is expensive process and time consuming.
    Now what they did instead, was to integrate this process centrally, and look at the entire development process including BOM and assembly costs. Having a CnC body allows the product to be made with less parts.
    Finally to add the gravy on top they created a marketing story that was inspired by this process.

  • Yang

    January 8, 2009 at 9:39 pm Reply

    On the process: Well, to a certain extent, how many companies have the capacity to be able to maintain control over all

  • js

    January 8, 2009 at 3:06 pm Reply

    Its all about the software i think. With apps like iLife, allowing you to feed all your fotos, videos etc i.e. MEMORIES into the mac so easily, the Unibody then becomes precious and personal. It sort of becomes apart for you, I think. (notice the word “body” in unibody)
    In terms of performace improvement, the single piece aluminium is lighter and stronger, parts are reduced, and Apple’s battery and power management allows the you to be more productive then ever, over a longer period of time then any other notebooks out there. (which makes most of other notebook makers look a bit like those companies that just source their parts from different vendors)
    So, the key to success is, do great software. haha.

  • Ben

    January 8, 2009 at 11:24 am Reply

    Hi DT,
    I don’t understand the whole ‘Unibody’ story – is it really an engineering breakthrough, and how does it improve the performance of the computer? (which hasn’t improved a lot)
    Or are you just saying apple is clever in using the manufacturing process as a marketing strategy?

  • csven

    January 4, 2009 at 4:45 am Reply

    “But it is time that the designer rise above and be the ones determining and creating the story, not helping articulate someone else story.”
    You’re sounding like Mark Rolston: clutching tight for control. It’s an illusion.

  • DT

    December 4, 2008 at 12:58 pm Reply

    hey csven,
    Sorry for the late reply. Have been caught up with work. Yes I remember the discussion we had and I fully agree, it is all about the “story”.
    I believe Superstruct was a great initiative especially for Industrial Designers. I am a little sad that I could not give it the time it deserved, (story fizzled out on twitter) But it is time that the designer rise above and be the ones determining and creating the story, not helping articulate someone else story.

  • csven

    November 28, 2008 at 8:26 pm Reply

    “This time into a communication tool that tells a story. … it is extremely hard to just

  • DT

    November 22, 2008 at 2:45 pm Reply

    Hi otc,
    thanks for your comments. I think you are looking at this a little too literally. When I use story here I mean it as communicating the content as you would telling a story. A communication tool perhaps. In other words you build the background, characters, scenarios and then create a design that is a result of this.
    So “function” can be a story or “eco-friendly” can be a story, it is all up to you really. Where it is relevant or not is the real issue, and the basis of strategic design. This would be a “story” for another day!

  • otc

    November 21, 2008 at 3:21 pm Reply

    and may i add that sony sells those look alikes as pretty entry level stuff. haha brilliant!

  • otc

    November 21, 2008 at 3:17 pm Reply

    well the form etc of this notebook hasn’t really been changed, what’s really changed is simply the manufacturing technique. This i’m not sure if they can pick up the idea of eco friendly pdt simply looking at the finished macbook. So i feel it is on one hand to appease critics (the few who actually knows a bit abt recycling) who constantly rant about apple’s eco unfriendliness while at the same time it provides an even less cluttering of unnecessary details to the user. the fact that no one else can do that provides them with a big advantage as well (as no one can copy them, if u noticed sony has been producing some look alikes) and no doubt give it an added edge of high techkiness.
    i’m not too sure if the word “story” is a right word to use. it sounds too gimmicky! i prefer the word “function” be it physical or psychological. I’m glad u pick up the book “blink” in ur previous post. (the right) design to me communicates to the sub conscious mind, the trained eyes can spot them but normal consumers simply feel them. Good designers communicate through the use of detailing,form, colours and materials.

Post a Comment