The Industrial Design Value Problem

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22nd January 2024
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5 min read

Don't ever get three experienced designers in a room where the beer is [literally] on tap.

Two of my good designer mates (both good designers, and good mates) and I got together for some beers and brisket burgers a couple of weeks back. Aside from solving many of the world's problems (and creating some new ones along the way), the discussion at some point almost always turns existential.

One area of design we discussed is where the value resides within design. Industrial Design is so varied in it's breadth and depth, even three designers with 60 years of collective industry experience didn't have the same take on where the value lies.

Seeing the nuance of perspective was fascinating. It got me thinking.

Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

When most people think of Industrial Designers, they no doubt think of cool sketches, amazing renderings, and stylish product shots. We as designers think of these things.

This is of course the image that comes to mind because this is the image we as Industrial Designers present. We do this because sketches, renders and product shots are sexy. Sexy design imagery boosts our design cred. Look at any design studio landing page, it's full of it.

When we as designers use these things to identify as Industrial Designers, so too will the broader product industry use these things to identify Industrial Designers.

How do you think the "person that designs the pretty box around it" reputation came to be? We gave it to ourselves.

When the broader industry thinks this is what we do, then this is where they attach the value. This is where we attach the value.

While there is significant value in that, it's not where the most value is.

The Stack

With the exception of a small number of designers who provide value in one specific area, people like Marius Kindler (sketching) and Will Gibbons (product visualisation)*, when I refer to Industrial Design I mean the more traditional "full stack" design usually performed in-house or through a design studio. Discovery right through to production.

* As a side note, I've noticed that most designers that specialise in one specific area often turn inwards (in whole or in part) to service the design industry, rather than the product industry.

This broadly represents the product development lifecycle, comparing the value contributed by each stage, against the effort required of each stage. For the sake of illustration, it doesn't follow any design process verbatim (diamonds or circles).

To be clear about what I mean by value, I mean value added by an Industrial Designer to the product development. Effort is more self-explanatory; it's the time and energy investment required to achieve the desired outcome. And yes, this is extremely simplified.

At the foundation of the stack you have Inception. While Inception (and Production) may not explicitly be part of the Industrial Design value stack, it's important to include. The importance here is this:

Without the inception of the idea, you have nothing.

Million-dollar companies have been founded on an idea. An idea that may have occurred to someone in the shower. A million-dollar idea.

Of course, the company isn't a success just because of the idea. It is the stacking of value onto that idea throughout the entire development process. Each stage of the process contributes to and increases the value of the original idea, and lays the ground work necessary for the following stages.

As to why Production contributes the least value, the Atacama Desert clothing dump should be testament enough.

Between Inception and Production there is of course a great deal of value that must be contributed by many talented parties. It's well known Industrial Design can contribute significantly to product development, but the real value in Industrial Design isn't the sexy objects you see on the studio landing page.

They are the resultant embodiment of that value, not the value itself.

The Value

The most value is not in the sketches, or the CAD models, or the renderings. The things IDers usually identify with. These are only the tools used for communication.

The real value instead lies in the insights, the connections, the ideas, and the coalescence of all of those into a cohesive vision. The putting of two and two together.

Yet insights, ideas and inspiration are intangible. Things that only exist in the mind of the person having them.

One could argue the value is both the idea and the successful extraction of it. Successful communication of the vision is indeed paramount to the success of the idea. Yet without the idea you have nothing to extract.

Nobody can deny the value Jony Ive contributed to the iMac. But do you think he did the CAD models? The product renderings? The concept sketches? Of course not. He understood the market, the brand, the product, and had the vision of what the iMac could become. Yet his Industrial Design contribution, how we think of it, was likely nothing more than quick sketches necessary to communicate his design intent to the rest of his team.

Marc Newson's sketches for the Ford 021C.

Think of it this way;

Which slices of the value stack will AI replace? Image synthesis is already replacing sketches and renderings. We already 3D print most of our prototypes, and use generative design to optimise for strength or geometry. When everyone can generate these things semi-automatically, the value floor will drop out completely. That is, of course, except for the few that turn inwards to teach it to other designers.

Which parts will be left? You already know.

The Problem

But insights, ideas, and inspiration aren't sexy.

Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

Photos full of serious people with whiteboards and Post-It notes can't make design thinking look anything but quaint.

A webpage that only says "We create designs that meet stakeholder needs in considered, meaningful ways" isn't going to raise anyone's heart rate. Even if that is what is needed and they're the best in the world at it.

Even if that's where the most value is.

So Industrial Design remains stuck perpetuating the 'pretty boxes' reputation. Because the real value doesn't look half as sexy.


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Tagged: business · concepts · consulting · design · design studio · renderings · value