As part of our efforts to Redefine Design, and leading up to World Industrial Design Day on 29 June, Icsid continues to seek the thoughts and opinions of members of the design community on what it means to be an industrial designer.
For June, Icsid reached out to Dr. Mark Evans, Reader in Industrial Design and leader of the Design Research Group at Loughborough Design School, Loughborough University (UK). In addition to Dr. Evans’ early experience as an in-house industrial designer in the corporate sector, his wealth of academic research collaborations have, among other achievements, led to over 100 publications. He provides us with his thoughts on industrial design today and where he thinks the profession is headed.
Q: Why did you become an industrial designer? Did you always know that is what you wanted to do? Did you know what industrial design was growing up?
A: In the mid to late 1970’s, UK secondary schools were going through a transition from teaching the traditional craft subjects of woodwork and metalwork to a design-based approach that encouraged exploration and visual creativity. From the age of 11, I was lucky enough to go to a school that was pioneering this approach and really enjoyed designing and making things in wood and metal. Of the three subjects that I studied from 16 to 18 as university entrance examinations, one of these was a new advanced level subject of ‘Design and Technology’. I was completely hooked on what I later realised was a basic industrial design course and found myself spending more and more time in the school’s workshops (undoubtedly to the detriment of my other two subjects). In exploring options for undergraduate study, I still remember my meeting with the school’s career advisor who, having input my interests and the three subjects that I was studying into a first generation school computer, the dot matrix printer came out with “industrial design”. After shared blank expressions between myself and the careers teacher, finding John Heskett’s recently published “Industrial Design” book in the school library made me realise that this was the perfect course and career for me. The integration of technically informed visual creativity, hands on workshop activity and an opportunity to design better/great products was the combination of everything I was looking for. It was just a shame that these activities were not immediately made obvious by the name industrial design. It sounded more like an occupation in which one might be designing factories.
Q: What was your first design job out of school?
A: During the second year of my masters degree in industrial design, I was fortunate to be sponsored by the UK’s leading manufacturer of powered garden equipment, Qualcast Garden Products that became Bosch Garden Tools. Having designed an ultra-compact lawnmower as my major project, a rapport developed with the company and in 1989 I was offered a job as their first in-house industrial designer. Needless to say, moving from an impoverished student studio space to my own office and a pretty much open cheque book with which to equip it was quite a transition (yes, I had wall to wall Magic Markers). The company had a long track record of using consultants and, being the in-house voice of industrial design, the job could at times be quite a challenge for a fresh-faced masters graduate. And I’m not referring to the actual design tasks here; it was the old chestnut of office politics. For example, as I was based in the engineering department, it took time for the marketing department – based at the opposite end of the site – to come to terms with the fact that there was an outsider who was visually literate and could empathise with users (“but that’s marketing’s job!”). There was also a need to convince the time-served prototype workshop technicians that I should be allowed to use ‘their’ resources which I guess was a classic blue collar/white collar type of dispute. These issues were, of course, amicably resolved, but it was an early and salient demonstration that industrial designers don’t work in isolation and, at times, social skills can be as important as creative design skills.
Q: What major changes in industrial design have you observed since you were a student?
A: I spent six years as a student industrial designer in the 1980’s, seeing the introduction of the Apple Macintosh during my undergraduate days and emergence of useable 3D CAD with Autodesk Autosolid as a masters student. From these early beginnings, the use of digital tools and associated methods have changed the way in which product form is generated and communicated beyond belief. This is well illustrated by going back to the previously mentioned ultra-compact lawnmower masters project for which I fabricated all of the individual parts as if they were injection moulded off-tool components. This was achieved by joining together numerous vacuum formings with polystyrene sheet and off-the-shelf extruded shapes. Needless to say, this was quite an undertaking. In contrast, I now see my own students getting the same results by creating a 3D CAD model and 3D printing the parts, many of which have far more complexity in form and detail than mine. And, by using engineering materials for the 3D printing, these parts can have the mechanical properties of off-tool components to enable prototype testing. However, what I find remarkable is that, aside from the digital revolution and contemporary add-ons such as sustainable design and the capacity to access a global market via crowd-funding, for example Kickstarter or Quirky, the core skills and knowledge required to be a great industrial designer are not fundamentally dissimilar from those of the pioneers of the profession back in the 1930’s. The challenges and capabilities required to produce beautiful, ingenious and charismatic products for the start of the 21st century are, in reality, not that different to what Raymond Loewy and Walter Dorwin Teague were doing at the start of the 20th century. It is just how it is done that has changed.
Q: What changes have you noticed in the way industrial design is taught?
A: I have visited many design schools around the world and, of course, digital tools and methods quite rightly play a significant part in teaching and learning. And, in line with recent comments by James Dyson (Sunday Times Magazine, 30 November 2014) and Jonathan Ive (speech given at the UK Design Museum, 12 November 2014), I note the negative effects from a decline in workshop facilities for industrial design students as rationalisation (or should it be irrationalisation?) of resources in favour of computer labs takes place i.e. industrial designer students need to learn by (hands-on) doing. However, from my perspective, the most fundamental change in how industrial design is taught arises from the fact that, since the mid-1990’s, there has been a major push for design schools to move up the academic food chain by undertaking scholarly research and supervision of PhD students. Please don’t get me wrong, I most definitely see this as a good thing because industrial design needs to catch-up with the likes of mechanical engineering and manufacturing engineering in becoming a profession underpinned by a sound theoretical knowledge base and culture of scholarly enquiry. However, many design schools now require new members of teaching staff to have a PhD, so they can undertake research and supervise PhD students, as opposed to a portfolio of professional practice, demonstrating the highest level of industrial design capability that can be communicated to students. As the teaching staff at some design schools are dominated by researchers, this represents a fundamental shift in the capacity to teach core skills that are essential for effective practice and required by graduating students when applying for jobs. So, in noting a change in the way that industrial design teaching can become dominated by academic researchers, it is necessary to acknowledge the need for balance and flexibility in the recruitment of staff.
Q: Does the term industrial design properly describe the profession today?
A: One of my pet topics is the difference between industrial design and product design. Yes, at a dinner party there is an increasing likelihood that guests will have a more immediate idea of what someone does for a living if they refer to themselves as a product designer. But, as a phrase, it is just too vague and, in the UK, product design can be anything from the industrial design of consumer products to the engineering science applied in the manufacture of any artefact. So, for me, the profession that takes primary responsibility for form-giving but with expertise in meeting user wants/needs and specifying the manufacturing processes required to mass produce (INDUSTRIAL) beautiful, ingenious and charismatic products (DESIGN), is ‘industrial design’. I’m not saying it is a perfect definition but, as with architecture, it is steeped in tradition with countless design history books citing industrial design as a clearly identified profession. It is also aligned with dedicated societies/organsations such as the Industrial Designers Society of America and International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. Whilst there is much talk of broadening the role of industrial design to include the design of services and systems through use of the much overused term, ‘design thinking’, at a fundamental level the continuing need for well designed physical products means that the education and professional practice of industrial design will be here for the foreseeable future.
Q: How did you come up with the 32 design representations to describe the industrial design process? Have you received any feedback that contradicts? Or are there different schools of thought? Does that help you define what industrial design is?
A: It was a real honour when the Industrial Designers Society of America asked if they could use content from the iD Cards design communication tool to help define the nature of the profession on their re-launched website. The iD Cards have their origins in a PhD undertaken by Dr. Eujin Pei (now a lecturer at Brunel University in the UK) that explored the problematic nature of collaboration between industrial designers and engineering designers. The PhD was supervised by myself and Dr. Ian Campbell who had practitioner backgrounds in industrial design and engineering design respectively. One of the outcomes from the PhD was a card-based collaboration tool called CoLab and, whilst this proved to be too expensive to commercialise, the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK provided financial support for its translation into a web-based resource. Having reflected on the content of the CoLab tool and desire to make it available in a physical format, I took the raw data from the PhD that identified 32 types of sketch, drawing, model and prototype used by industrial designers, when they were used and for what types of information. Having immediate access to this information was shown to support communication during product development and I produced a graphic design solution for a fold-out card format with support from Dr. Pei. Five thousand of the fold-out iD Cards were distributed by the Industrial Designers Society of America to its members and, having received nothing but positive feedback from educators and practitioners plus requests to make more available, the Higher Education Funding Council for England provided funding for translation into a free smartphone app. With unlimited access and a proven format, the iD Cards app was launched on the Industrial Designers Society of America website along with a link to a short video introduction. These can also be found on my research group website. To date, there have been over 6 000 downloads of the iD Cards app and, in addition to the Industrial Designers Society of America, it has been promoted by organisations such as the German Design Council, Design Institute of Australia, British Industrial Design Association, Design Denmark, Brazilian Association of Designers and Finnish Association of Designers. The app does not provide a definition of industrial design in the classic academic sense, but it succinctly defines ways in which industrial designers work and how they use an extensive range of sketches, drawings, models and prototypes.
Q: What should we expect of the future industrial designers?
A: There is emerging opinion that the distinct design disciplines of industrial/interior/graphic/fashion/textile should be disbanded and multi-disciplinarity is the future. There are also those who believe that the breadth of commercial applications for service design means that industrial designers can add value beyond the physical artefact and this should be explored as an opportunity for diversification. But, the fact remains that to be a capable industrial designer takes at least three years of intensive undergraduate education and those with passion and capability to create beautiful, desirable and cool things have little interest in spending the majority of their working week on ‘touch-points’ and ‘meaningful connections’ with services. That is not to say that the profession is not changing. Whilst the implementation of sustainable design principles can be challenging, particularly in smaller manufacturing organisations, government legislation and human morality mean that broader perspectives on manufacturing solutions are increasingly being taken. And, in the context of the ‘internet of things’, these things/products generally require some form of interaction design solution. Interaction design may not become core business for industrial designers, but evidence suggests that a natural flair for graphic design and embedded awareness of how to effectively understand user wants/needs means that the profession is increasingly operating in this area. We should therefore expect an increasing appreciation and sensitivity towards sustainable design plus a degree of diversification of ways in which industrial designers apply their visual literacy. Industrial design has a bright and challenging future. As an educator and researcher, I am enormously proud to be a part of it.