What Do Industrial Designers Do?

As an industrial designer (of many types of products, including cameras) and a photographer, I get asked this question often so I thought I should write it down.

In popular culture, designers wear black. They seem a little smug. (Well, at least some of the designers I know do, including me.)

Industrial design (ID) is now front-and-centre in the world of business. It is a massive force in public perception. It's part of the cultural zeitgeist. Think of a by gone era, such as the sixties. The cars, products, fashion — they all have the 'look' of the sixties. Design is part of the cultural fabric as much as today's much-talked-about 'mirrorless' cameras are. (Don't get me started on the term 'mirrorless' — why call a type of camera by what's missing? See this post for more on this rant.)

It's also a valuable business tool to differentiate, add value and generate growth. Apple, BMW, Leica and co have demonstrated time and time again that design works wonders for the balance sheet. But there’s a lot of confusion about industrial design:

What is it?
How is it done?
Why is it valuable?
What's this got to do with photography, anyway?

This article will attempt to explain it in everyday terms. But first, we need to know what design isn’t.

What Industrial Design Isn't

Industrial design isn’t a veneer — exterior superficial beauty.
We do care about how things look — it’s important, but design is definitely more than skin deep. In fact, aesthetic consideration is one of the last things we do on a design project.

It isn’t about what feels good.
We do obsess about materials, fit and finish in order to highlight the design and manufacturability but design is definitely more than feeling good.

Nor is it simply problem-solving.
If design was just problem-solving, which no doubt is important, we’ll be concentrating on utility. How boring is that? It goes way beyond.

What you hear about design in popular culture is wrong. Design isn’t about being fancy. It doesn’t exist to add glitz. It’s not about instilling buyer’s lust. And it certainly isn’t about making a mediocre product seem ‘better’. (No amount of design lipstick can make your pig product lust-worthy, with apologies to pigs everywhere.)

So what is ID?

If you think about it, products are made by people (okay, companies but they have people in it) for people. 

And people, wherever they’re from and whatever they do in this world, have needs.

They want to take pictures. They want to make phone calls. They want to drill a 1/4” hole in the wall. They have to vacuum the floor. They want to cool their room when it’s freaking hot outside.

You get the picture. People have needs.

And people buy products in order to satisfy those particular needs. (It should be pointed out that people are very picky about which product will satisfy their needs.) Design, at its core, is all about people. There really wouldn’t be a point otherwise.

So, is that it? Designers design stuff for other people? Well, yes and no (typical, I know). Yes, in that we do design products with people foremost in mind. And no, in that that’s not all there is to it. It goes way deeper. But don’t worry, it’s approachable.

Products can be confusing for people because a product has many attributes, such as features, specifications, different materials, price points and so on, in addition to its design. So when someone says product A is better than product B, what, exactly, is better? It can get very muddy indeed.

Let’s break it down, nice and easy, and take a look at what industrial design actually is.

Ready? (Get on with it already!)


What Industrial Design Is

Design is about curiosity. Curiosity is the single most important trait a designer can have.

We’re curious about everything.
Why do you do what you do? Why did you press that button first? Why do you sit down before using the product? Oh, you don’t like how it fits in your pocket? Why do you do that in the mornings only? Why don’t you like your current product?

We question everything.
Design is based on curiosity - a decidedly anthropological and empathetical quest. (Go on, ask any anthropologist nearby - they’ll tell you that their discipline is based on curiosity.) We pique our curiosity by carefully observing and noticing things.

We observe everything.
We take notes, take pictures, record videos. We come up with measuring devices if none can be had. It really depends on what we’re observing/timing/measuring.

We listen to what people say.
What people say in context is very important. But most importantly, we listen to what they don’t say.

When we notice things we think we can improve, or notice things that can take things to the next level, it's called an opportunity.

What people don’t say but we notice is called an unarticulated and unmet need. This stuff is gold. Literally. It’s the stuff of new products, of better products and promises of greater revenue. But most importantly, it’s deeply personal (to the buyer) and therefore emotional.

You could say that design is the sublime art of noticing.

We identify opportunities in a myriad of ways:

We shadow people (creepy but effective and we only do this with permission).
We ask people a lot of questions.
We observe people (single and crowd, depending) doing things.
We try to understand things contextually.
We take pictures, videos and write everything down. (We love pencil and paper.)

(There’s a lot more than this but I think you get the picture - we observe and question and take notes.)

We then take the identified opportunities and work with the boss or client to design products that fulfil people’s needs (spoken needs or unspoken and unmet needs).

Designers take into account not only business constraints (financial, time, operational, manufacturing ability and capacity) but also trends in the market (globally when necessary) when studying opportunities.

The opportunities designers identify, especially the unarticulated and unmet needs, leads to innovation. Because innovations are high-quality opportunities successfully seized.

Opportunities come from many places — sales, research, technology and so on. Industrial design is another — and it is based on curiosity and a lot of skill. In other words, design is a serious business tool. In fact, you could say that designers are the people closest to consumers because design is an anthropological and empathetical process. I often say, smugly, that the “designer’s mandate is to be the closest to the consumer”. Please don’t sneer.

Industrial designers ultimately design how the product looks and functions based on all of the above. We often opt to go for simplification — simplifying shapes, creating interfaces that are as frictionless as possible, choosing durable but attractive materials. This is hard work because simplicity is deceptive. It's easy to make complex products but terribly difficult to create simple ones.

That said, business as usual gets in the way. Time and budget constraints, management egos, overly loud sales and marketing departments are some of the obstacles industrial designers have to face before the product design is finalised and manufactured. The final product may not be what we envisioned most of the time but we do put in the effort to get it as close as possible to the authenticity of the original conceptual design.

Industrial design differentiates, creates emotional relevance, adds value and enhances a brand when done correctly. Oh, and it delivers joy when people use the products because they satisfy a need, whether it's a need that was known or unknown to them.

So the next time you buy a new camera, give some thought to the effort industrial designers put in. Chances are, they were thinking of you when they were designing the camera. It may or may not be the perfect camera for you but it was designed by the people who had you in mind the entire time.

When you hold the camera, it is the industrial design you are holding. The other bits like sensors and electronics and optics and other fiddly things are made by strange people who lock themselves up in labs. They bite if you get too near (just kidding folks).

This post isn't meant to be an exhaustive look at industrial design but I hope you understand a little more about industrial design and its value to business — and more importantly, its value you.

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