An inside look at the first profession the world invented when it began to have everything it needed. One finds individuals with a deep-rooted desire to anticipate the future, pursue aesthetic beauty for its own sake and are very, very competitive playing field.
For many centuries of human existence the profession of a person was pretty obvious. Farmers grew crops and reared livestock. Fishermen caught fish. A cobbler repaired and made shoes while a tailor hemmed, sewed and made clothes. A doctor cured disease and so on... Perhaps the most ambiguous profession one could find was that of a philosopher. But at the turn of the 20th century a new wave of professions emerged that became increasingly harder to explain to a common person (often defined as your parents) - the UX manager, the management consultant, the investment banker and the customer experience specialist. Of all the new fangled professions that have emerged over the past century however, none have perhaps received more adulation and fame as has the profession of industrial design.
But when did being an industrial designer become a thing?
It is hard to pinpoint the exact emergence of industrial design as a profession. By the late 19th and early 20th century, industrialization was making manufacturing of consumer products increasingly complex. Gone were the days when one local artisan could conceive a design, source materials, craft and execute the finished product. With economies of scope and increasing levels of specialization, there came a need for people who could act as go-betweens - a person who could translate what the sales rep was saying customers wanted into a workable engineering model with the correct materials specifications for manufacturers to execute. This person was to become the industrial designer of the future.
It was during the Great Depression that industrial design really came into its own. At a time when consumption essentially dried up, Raymond Loewy emerged as one of the first modern industrial designers and a proponent of the American Industrial Design movement. The underlying philosophy throughout this time was that the recession was not due to “over-production” but on “under-consumption”. People had everything they needed and therefore were not purchasing new products, thus stalling the economy. A new class of experts were needed that would anticipate the future and deliberately create product obsolescence by convincing people to spend money on new products. And thus industrial design was born. In those early days, furniture was often one of the categories industrial designers worked on and in many ways, it was quite fitting. Buying a chair is a form of artificially induced luxury. One can always sit on a ground or on the bed. But to buy a chair for the sake of buying a chair - now that shows one has passed the point of subsistence living and survival.
“A chair is the first thing you need when you don’t really need anything, and is therefore a peculiarly compelling symbol of civilization. For it is civilization, not survival, that requires design.”
— Ralph Caplan
Designing the future
Perhaps it is the fact that industrial design originated in the Great Depression with the stated objective of creating planned obsolescence. Or perhaps it is the fact that as the profession evolved, like with any other profession, the only way to make a mark was to create something new. But few professions embrace the future as much as industrial designers. It is as much an article of faith as it is a key skill-set, that a great industrial designer is able to look at a product that may have been used or made for centuries and is able to introduce new form or function into them based on unidentified consumer needs.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
— Henry Ford
This obsession with unidentified consumer needs is perhaps the most important characteristic industrial designers possess. When they look at a product, they are looking at it in a larger context in terms of how it is used, their surroundings and by the people who are using it. It is not a faster horse that people wanted in the early 20th century, they needed a faster way to get around. Enter the automobile. When Steve Jobs and Jony Ive conceived the iPhone, computers and mobile phones were separate products - one optimized to send text while stationary and the other optimized for mobile voice. In creating a ‘smartphone’, Apple recognized that what people wanted was a universal device for all communication. And that design philosophy continues today in everyday products that have been thoughtfully designed for every situation. A world where you can find new rocking chairs that add an overhead reading lamp, demonstrates that product development has reached the point where intense research is going into how consumers use the product and their true needs.
“Good designers must always be avant-gardists, always one step ahead of the times. They should – and must – question everything generally thought to be obvious. They must have an intuition for people’s changing attitudes. For the reality in which they live, for their dreams, their desires, their worries, their needs, their living habits. They must also be able to assess realistically the opportunities and bounds of technology.”
– Dieter Rams
An obsession with beauty
Perhaps no other profession, has had as much of an impact on our society’s love affair with beauty as has industrial design. Right from the very beginning, aesthetic beauty was deemed a prerequisite to a well designed product. The influential German industrial designer Dieter Rams, held that product aesthetic was one of the 10 principles of good design. The concept that aesthetic beauty is not superfluous to function and that a beautiful product brings joy and wonder into our everyday lives is a relatively new concept but one that was eagerly embraced by designers looking for ways to innovate.
“The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers, creative and holistic ‘right-brain’ thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.”
— Daniel Pink
This is the world industrial designers live in. A world where they are in constant demand to create something new, something beautiful, address some previously unmet product need. And it does not matter that the product may be highly niche and target a small segment of the population. If it is beautiful and original, it may suffice.
“I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares, as opposed to ugly things. That’s my intent.”
— Saul Bass
It gets competitive at the top
It should come therefore as no surprise that the upper echelons of industrial design are very competitive. Industrial design is going through a Golden Age where products across all categories are being redesigned as new entrants enter the market with innovative business and distribution models. At top design firms, great industrial design skills are just table stakes. The ability to sell ideas to clients, present and articulate compelling consumer stories and introduce innovations that are unheard of (bladeless fans, anyone?) are often the differentiators. And what drives many top designers is often a fear that their competitor may come up with a better idea instead. In some ways, industrial design is all too human and like any other profession.
“Good design is all about making other designers feel like idiots because that idea wasn’t theirs.” - Frank Chimero