Blurring boundaries

I was in New York recently for a short, winter break and whilst  in town took the opportunity to catch up with my old industrial designer friend Gina. She invited me along to an interesting panel discussion hosted by Ford and IDSA New York. The advertised subject for discussion was ‘Designing Innovation,’ which anyone in the industry of course knows, is broad enough for more or less anything to be on topic!

What followed was an interesting deliberation between senior creative leaders from Ford, various US consultancies and universities, an excerpt from which you can see here. Much of the talk focused on changes in the automobile industry and upcoming innovations at Ford – in particular how self-driving technologies are likely to drastically change what we think of as a car. Our hosts were very confident that this was the direction things are headed, and pondered what the experience might be for us consumers when there’s little need for a bucket seat, steering wheel and pedals. New models being sculpted in Ford’s development studios, we’re told, are different enough to the norm to be almost unrecognisable as cars. In years to come, should confidence in these developments continue to grow, might we be sat on a sofa, drinking with friends whilst our ‘car’ takes us into town, cruising at top speed just inches behind another vehicle? Whilst some of the discourse covered well-worn subjects such as how much time we spend looking at our phones, and the need for designers to stop making so much landfill, the discussion on particular digital innovations were worrth attending for. Special mention should go to Allan Chochinov from the School of Visual Arts, NYC, for some challenging points of view that kept things entertaining.

The more events like this I attend, the more I notice trends in the topics discussed. Most purtinent for me, as someone who’s moved from industrial design to UX, was that the innovations which really got our panel animated were all digital in nature: Beacons, UberDisney MagicBands… For a group of very senior and knowledgeable industrial designers, skilled in the creation of physical products, I was surprised how much of their discussion was centered on screen experiences and mobile services. The hot topics for discussion all involved software.

MagicBands are particularly interesting in that the ‘product’ is effectively a more exclusive experience for families attending Disneyworld parks. It’s based on personal RFID wristbands, which beyond an initial unboxing and delighter moment are soon forgotten as quite deliberately there isn’t need for so much as a screen or speaker to interact with. The design here is purely about the experience and interaction with park rides, staff and facilities, making families feel special and the day go smoother, hence the enabler device is intended to disappear and the focus be on that which really matters. Creating this would have been very much a UX project – requiring a holistic view of the experience independent of individual design disciplines.

Conversely, when I attend formal UX discussions – such as the recent Collaborate Bristol – I’m often reminded that it’s not as mature a discipline as industrial design, and is still finding it’s feet in terms of language, sophistication and  integration with the work of developers. Whilst many of the speakers on the day had impressive and interesting projects behind them, their delivery often left me a little underwhelmed, and felt a little basic considering everyone in the room was a practicing professional. The best of the day was a refreshingly candid talk on the successful redesign of the UK government’s web presence by Joshua Marshall of the Paciello Group. Avoiding decorative jargon and assuming (rightly) that the audience knew their stuff, he gave a confident and refreshingly direct talk about a project that amazingly, got the often bureaucratic UK government to use design shrewdly and effectively at scale.

Whilst UX has emerged from the software development world, and industrial design from (the longer established) mass manufacturing, they appear to be colliding head-on today. Modern designers are required to build broad, experiential services encompassing mobile, web, product and service design elements. The internet and mobile devices have permeated so many facets of our lives now, that the digital layer is more often than not, critical to any product or service offering. Part of the reason for my move to UX is being unable to ignore the rise in importance of this, and recognising the need to get broaden my skillset as well, the times they are a changing.

The holistic approach seems to be way we’re headed, focused on the design of consumer experiences and managed by creatives with a broader skillset than in years past. Designers working in this way are facilitating a blurring of boundaries between the traditional disciplines. I expect in years to come, to see industrial designers with more experience in software, and UX designers comfortable with product and service design, as well the confidence and communication skills to match. Most of all I’m pleased to see the industry adapting to the changing environment, inferring that whilst job titles and project briefs will change, we will always need designers who understand the needs of people first and foremost.

Photo credits

Matt Corrall