We need a new understanding of ‘industrial design’

BIDA chairman Gus Desbarats says industrial design can bring key benefits to organisations and businesses.

Gus Desbarats

The new UK National Occupational Standard for Industrial Design has just been formally ratified. It has been developed in workshops and consultations across the UK managed by BIDA (The trade body representing industrial design in the UK) with Creative & Cultural Skills.

The aim is to align the formal definition of industrial design with modern best-practice and clarify the contribution of industrial designers to innovation. As part of this clarity drive, at our last AGM we voted to change our name from British Design Innovation (BDI) to British Industrial Design Association (BIDA).   

The term industrial design is well recognised globally and applied to the work of innovation leaders like Jonathan Ive at Apple or the consultancy IDEO, but in the UK, industrial design gets lost inside a design ‘big tent’ covering everything from gas turbines to high heels.

Apple's Jonathan Ive - industrial designer?
Apple’s Jonathan Ive – industrial designer?

The common purpose of industrial designers is to help organisations plan complex innovation in their core products and services in ways that fully account for the rich complexity of human behaviour. This hasn’t changed since the birth of industrial design in the 1920s. Our creativity is still inspired as much by the brand, culture and purpose of organisations as by deep, well-informed empathy with their audience. Our professionalism is still determined by how well we engage with detailed technical and operational specialists and master constantly evolving technologies and processes.  

What has changed is that in a modern world where business excellence is all about creating rich and well-coordinated experiences, industrial design’s experience-mapping techniques have strategic value in their own right.  If the modern innovation question is ‘what can our organisation do to serve its purpose better’, modern technology has made it impossible to pin down, at the outset, what ‘touchpoints’ might be involved: human resources, physical devices, new materials, software or communications. This challenge is tailor-made for industrial designers.

In my 30 years of professional practice in the UK I’ve seen hundreds of naming fads come and go: User Led, Sustainable, Design Thinking, Experience Design. These are all part of a legitimate conversation about approaches to the profession, but they aren’t new professions.

We aren’t all engineering designers as well, our priorities and methods are totally different. We do need to collaborate deeply with engineers, so technical knowledge is an essential part of industrial design professionalism, but isn’t to be confused with the respected professional practice of engineering.

New Samuel Adams beer can, developed by Ideo
New Samuel Adams beer can, developed by Ideo

We also often share common brand experience goals with colleagues in graphic communications or interior design, but we face different collective professional issues, from our stronger desire for professional accreditation, to our urgent need to fix the severely damaged relationship between industrial design professionals in practice in the university sector.

There are of course different sub-categories within industrial design, and the exact ‘sub codes’ are undergoing their own review, but in BIDA, we believe that in modern industrial design there are really 3 clear subsets that matter: Services (people and complex systems), Interaction (software) and Products (physical objects).  Many professionals (like me and the The Alloy team) move freely between them and all share a common purpose of controlling experience-led innovation at the operational heart of an organisation, be it an airline check-in experience, the look and feel of a complex software application or the look of a car or phone.

At this time, when technical and organisational innovation is so important to the UK’s future industrial designers need to stand up and be heard so everyone can get on with smarter thinking about how to accelerate real growth.

Gus Desbarats is chairman of BIDA and The Alloy.

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  • Nicholas Rhodes November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I’m in agreement with Gus’ position here. Industrial Design has proven to be a peculiarly robust discipline providing it’s practitioners with remarkable flexibility and range. These practices are now being recognised more widely. Central Saint Martins have just been awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize which recognises the far-reaching contributions to the UK’s economy and social wellbeing made by our product and industrial designers. Our alumni and lecturers continue to shape the designed environment internationally, crossing all sectors from consumer electronics to furniture, transport systems to domestic appliances, services to social enterprise. So it is absolutely fantastic to be recognised for this work and the profound impact of our discipline on the creative economy of the United Kingdom and beyond.
    Nick Rhodes, Programme Director, Product Ceramic & Industrial Design.

  • Lloyd Pennington November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Such a shame that ‘industrial design’ is demarcated from engineering. Such attitudes errode the prospect of greater profit for clients. Afterall, engineering, graphic design and many other disciplines form part of many successful businesses. Indeed it seems somewhat ironic that the author refers to Apple and Sir Johnathan Ive, a company that has embraced engineering, manufacturing, marketing, graphic design et.al. as components within a holistic and homogeneous system including industrial design.

    I for one am not sure industrial design needs a new understanding and if this is to be it, then I am bitterly disapointed.

    It reads to my interpretation of ‘selling what you know’ rather than embracing what you don’t.

    In this the ‘team’ at Buff Industrial Design and me, agree and is what we practice.

    It concerns me the dissonance that appears the BIDA is creating, in that I am lending an ear on occasion to members who are discontent with the management and direction of the BIDA. It seems to some that the messages may be shaped to fit a convienient predefined box.

    Still, I may join them and see for myself what all the fuss is about.

  • Michael Smythe November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    “This hasn’t changed since the birth of industrial design in the 1920s.” New Zealander (working the the US) may have been the first to print the term ‘Industrial Design’ on his letterhead in 1920 but the process of designing products to be made by industrial processes began with the industrial revolution – eg: “1759, when Josiah Wedgwood, aged just twenty-nine, started as an independent potter in Burslem, Staffordshire, England. He began to experiment avidly with clay, exploring its many possibilities.” (Quoted from the Wedgwood website.)

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