First published for the IDSA Spring Issue of the Innovation Magazine. May 25 2019

A New Era For Industrial Design

Maximillian Philip Burton


You could say design has finally arrived. It’s now taken seri­ously by big business, leading companies have included designers at their executive levels, and design has become the driving force for innovation behind some of the leading companies in existence today. For those of us in the design field, there is much to look forward to, because the profes­sion is booming. Unfortunately, not everyone is feeling the love. Those who think of themselves as traditional industrial designers have reason to be concerned.

According to a report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which Core77 reported on last summer, 1,800 new ID jobs will be created in the US by 2026. That’s a growth rate of only 4 percent, whereas the average job growth rate for other designers is 7 percent. Also, when you compare the earning power of an industrial designer versus a UX designer, you will find that on average UX designers earn 40 percent more.

Clearly, the industrial design profession is experienc­ing headwinds. In my 30 years working as a designer in both the US and Europe, and in the consultancy and the corporate worlds, I’ve seen how significantly the job of the industrial designer has changed, and I can tell you that what’s happening now is neither a fluke nor a temporary shift. The industry isn’t the same as it used to be. In order to succeed in the future, you’ll have to change how you think about the job of industrial designer. The good news is that once you do, you’ll be able to take advantage of all the positive trends we’re seeing.

Below are my top 10 key learnings and takeaways that I hope you can use to evolve your career and contribute to the profession in a meaningful way.

1. Learn to love business.

Design thinking has now been embraced at the executive levels of corporations around the world, and with that, designers have been elevated to more strategic positions within companies. While this is great for the profession and our influence, we are now also expected to take on board the working methodologies of big business. Unfortunately, industrial designers have not and do not get trained in business management, leadership or administration. This has to change.

Key question: Can you be a success in business without losing your creative soul?

2. Consulting vs. corporate?

Once, industrial design consultancies were the first option for aspiring young professionals, offering a breadth of projects and creative opportunities. Today, the trend is for corporations to build their own internal multidisciplinary design teams that work closely alongside technologists, engineers and strategists to develop advanced product systems. Apple led the way, and now other corporations have followed suit. Interestingly, though, we’re also seeing management consultancies like Accenture, Deloitte and McKinsey building design teams, often through acquisi­tions. In 2015 McKinsey bought LUNAR, a product design consulting agency. In 2013 Accenture bought Fjord. These large business consultancies combine traditional manage­ment consulting with design and delivery. The growth of design in management consulting and corporations rein­forces how central design is to business today.

Key question: What offers the greatest opportunity to design the most exciting products and have a fulfilling career?

3. Industrial design is now experience design.

Instead of designing the form and function of things, we are increasingly being asked to design the experience of products and services. That’s because experience-driven design is more important than ever to business success. According to Forbes, “Every dollar invested in UX brings 100 in return”. That’s a gigantic ROI of 9,900 percent. The adage “form follows function” could easily evolve to “form follows experience.” It’s no longer enough to look at design challenges through the narrow lens of aesthetics and functionality. Instead, all designers need to consider the entire experience of a product and service where the relationship between company and cus­tomer is extended over time and space.

Key question: Are you thinking about the experience of a product when you design?

4. Stop worrying about how things look and start thinking about what things do.

Before the digital age, industrial designers were in charge of design groups. Now, most innovative products are driven by software. In that shift, industrial designers have often lost their leadership role to UX designers. To keep up, industrial designers must recognize the new digital reality and be concerned less about how things look and more about what things do. In practical terms, this means having a passion for blending physical design with digital design.

Key question: What would be more strategic for you: to understand and contribute to the creation of digital prod­ucts and systems or to stick with physical only?

5. Promote and embrace diversity.

It’s alarming that industrial design is still mostly filled with white middle-class males. The world is a diverse place, and people come in all shapes, sizes, colors and genders. So it makes no sense that a small subsection of society should decide what other people like and buy.

Key question: Are you actively seeking to broaden your thinking about design by inviting diversity into your design teams?

6. Skill vs. creativity.

With all the changes in our profession and with UX design taking the lead, many industrial designers have begun to question their purpose and direction. I have witnessed a retraction from leadership and creative direction and a focus on skills and expertise. At its core, industrial design is about creativity and problem-solving. I have seen many industrial designers who become perplexed at the new world of digital or have fallen into believing their profes­sion is a mish mash of skills and knowledge. Yes, a good designer can sketch like a pro, make stunning renderings and know manufacturing like an engineer, but a great designer is one who can imagine and create something completely new that people love.

Key question: What inspires you to think differently and truly innovate?

7. Consider making fewer products.

As the economy shifts from private ownership to a shar­ing economy, we’re starting to see a more efficient use of resources and hopefully less impact on the planet. But designers still make products through the old lens, leading with styling as opposed to function and use. How do we design a bike or car for multiple users, or a smartphone that you only hold onto for a year? Solve that very real problem and we will be on our way to a greener planet.

Key question: Can you help save our planet by reshaping consumer perceptions and values?

8. Product development is getting faster than you think.

It used to take two to three years to bring an innovative product to market, so a company and its design team were essentially placing a bet on the future. Today, manu­facturing processes have become fast and flexible. It’s now possible to put a product into the market, see how it does and then adjust. Physical products are following the agile software methodology. As physical and digital worlds blend, we are seeing a new process that integrates hard­ware/waterfall with software/agile methodologies.

Key question: What processes are you using to move more swiftly and with flexibility?

9. We are moving from mass-market solutions to a new era of personalization.

Industrial designers are trained to design products for the mass market, which means a lot of the same things for everyone. Data and advanced recommendation engines are now enabling increased levels of personalization in software, and we are beginning to see personalization in the physical world. Flexible manufacturing processes and advanced algorithms permit far greater variety and indi­vidualized fit and function. How will industrial designers fare in this new model? In the old model, we were the purvey­ors of good taste, and we dictated what the world would look like. What happens to designers when consumers are able to contribute to the design of their own products and experiences?

Key question: How will your role shift as a creative when the end user gets involved in the creative process?

10. Promote sustainability.

Capitalism is based on consumers buying new products every year. We now know from a scientific basis that this addiction to the new is damaging our planet and all living species. It’s time to rethink the economic model and how people consume. Designers can play a role.

Key question: Do you consider sustainability as core to your creative process?

Industrial designers can continue to have a significant impact, but to do so, we can’t stand still, and we can’t look at the future through the rearview mirror. We have to constantly reinvent ourselves and the profession. The bottom line is that opportunity will always lie in the compli­cated, difficult spaces. There’s no longer value in just mak­ing an object look pretty. The new challenge is being able to design meaningful human-centered experiences out of very complex problems.

The future industrial designer will be fluent in traversing from physical to digital and back. They will be exceptionally creative with deep craftsmanship, but they will also be able to speak the language of MBAs and the C-suite. The indus­trial designer of tomorrow will not look like you and me.