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Navigating Complex Waters: Product Design s Perfect Storm (Part 1 of 2)


By Valerie Casey

It wouldn t feel like the proper end to 2005 without some sort of dramatic, sensational prediction. So I ve taken it upon myself to declare the following:

Product design, as we know it, is finished.

An audience of product fetishists might find this assertion unthinkable, given all the pop-business literature declaring "design" as the new black. Yet despite the most glowing laudations about the growing importance of design by business gurus (and even some of our favorite bloggers), the fact remains that professional designers are responsible for less than 2% of our constructed environment.* That means that most of the products you surround yourself with are not designed: the user experience is not crafted purposefully, the aesthetics are often haphazard, and the functionality is less well thought out. (This is not to say that designers always execute well on these fronts—think: Windows—but with designed products, there is a greater likelihood that you ll experience some sort of organizing logic.)

So why should you be worried about the deteriorating state of product design? Design is a measure of cultural evolution; it manages the chaos that naturally surrounds us; and it provides an emotional benefit to those who interact with it. But more than representing aesthetics and utility, design is truly an expression of the social climate of the times—the proliferation of PDAs and cell phones, for example, highlights the era of the mobility, and the boom of gaming marks our national fixation with identity-, context-, and reality- shifting. Design is also a critical competitive advantage for the U.S.; since we can't compete in quality manufacturing and economic efficiencies of scale, design is our sole competitive edge. To say that we are in the midst of a crisis in design is to draw attention to a larger cultural crisis. This is a crisis of creativity.

A confluence of three cultural factors is transforming how we think about and design products:

Manufacturing Pressures First, there s a greater rush to market for products than ever before. Many times, the key directive is to get product on the shelf before competitors. When the marketplace revolves around time rather than innovation, "to-market" pressures trump creativity. The end-result is a landslide of sameness—clearly illustrated in the proliferation of the iPod s ugly stepchildren (not to mention the clones-gone-awry from Tekram Systems and Luxpro).

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The push to get products into stores also often leaves critical decisions to be made by non-designers. The more designers skills are bypassed, the less likely products will evolve functionally, aesthetically, and creatively. We need only to look at our architectural landscape of big-box stores and suburban sprawl to gauge the destructive force of "non-design" design. The ubiquitous metal-painted plastics and semi-curved rectilinear form factors indicate a potentially similar fate for consumer products.

It's a vicious cycle. While bringing "me-too" products to market rather than something innovative may feel safer to developers, those products ultimately can compete only on price. As a result, their audiences are more demanding, less forgiving, and often more jaded. While eliminating creative design may save pennies and minutes, its cost is a loss of market share and a diminished reputation for the brand. The success of B&O and Sony certainly demonstrate that consumers are willing to pay for good design. And truly artistic designs can command especially high prices as evidenced by the limited edition Sidekick by tattoo artist Mister Cartoon, and Bas Koster s Bugaboo.

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The China Syndrome Next, the burgeoning non-Western design industry is transforming the design world in subtle but powerful ways. The growth of design schools in China—450+ at last count—has designers bemoaning the end of American design as they predict a future of creative outsourcing. But what s more interesting is the light this movement sheds on the state of Western design. While there are sporadic innovations, the industry norm is largely deterministic designers follow their predecessors rather than creating something new. Take, for example, the monotony of the consumer electronics simulacra in a Best Buy or mobile phone store.

Our fear should not be of China s mobility, but of our own stasis.

Our Beautiful Mashed-Up Culture The final factor is the increasing sophistication of consumers. As end-users have greater access to creative tools and continue to generate more of their own content, the role of product design is not to structure the experience but to open it up. Our remix culture aggressively alters its wares: a Unix hack of the Nano enables video play; installation of a hard drive in an Xbox permits a user to save games; and the PSP homebrew movement transforms a mobile gaming gadget into a communication and creation platform.


Creating smart convergent products is well within the designer's purview, but imagining "off-label" uses requires new thinking. Designers need to imagine the relationships across, among, and between products, and recognize their use not form creates meaning: for example, thinking about how a podcast can re-shape perception of a museum exhibit by exposing non-sanctioned content, envisioning how a group text message can spawn a political action, or planning the way a wireless hub can create community among modern-day nomads.

The fundamental notion of the (closed) design object is defunct: the "thingness" of a product no longer determines its value. Extreme product manufacturing pressures, the new profile of the design community, and the increasing sophistication of end-users are shaping the future of design. In this perfect storm, product designers are on a trajectory to irrelevance and ultimately, invisibility. The diminishing commitment to creativity and the changing habits of consumers are creating this new world where design will be in the mind, not the eyes or hands, of the user.

* Saunders, William. Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture: A Harvard Design Magazine Reader. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Valerie Casey is Creative Director of frog design in New York.

The frog Design Mind column appears every Monday on Gizmodo. Read more frog Design Mind.