Throughout the last century, the discipline of industrial design has refined an understanding of how to design physical products for people. More recently, as computation and network connectivity extend beyond the screen, interaction designers and UX professionals also find themselves addressing design problems in the physical world. Smart products, connected devices, the Internet of Things—these terms address a new class of product that is both physical and digital, one that speaks to the need for design disciplines to leave their silos and find productive overlap. For designers who built their careers on the nuances of screen-based interactions, it can be disorienting to address broader UX challenges with a substantial physical component. Although the context is new, much can be learned from the long-standing history and principles of industrial design. Technology evolves rapidly, but the underlying qualities that define the products we love have not changed.
In the past, one could often draw a clean line between hardware and software. As that edge blurs, industrial and interaction designers need to combine their expertise and learn from each other. In the 1990s, the emergence of the Web led designers to develop new interaction patterns for an entirely new medium. A similar definition of best practices is needed for this era, drawing from expertise embedded across multiple disciplines to create an integrative set of practices. Intertwining physical and digital experiences into a unified and coherent whole requires designers of all types to stretch and learn. Industrial designers need new sensitivities toward complex system states, remote interactions, privacy considerations, and the open-ended potential of how input can map to output. Interaction designers need to embrace physical and spatial possibilities, consider a person’s whole body, and use new forms of feedback less reliant on a screen.
The goal is not that interaction designers should all become industrial designers, or vice versa, but that these two design disciplines should find an overlap of skills and approaches appropriate to a world where the traditional distinctions between physical and virtual are increasingly blurred. Effective collaboration and professional overlap requires respect and understanding of each other’s disciplines. Because the UX community includes people of such richly varied backgrounds, a grounding in the field of industrial design is often lacking. This book aims to bridge that divide using tangible examples, organized into seven design principles, to illustrate processes, products, and points of view from industrial design practice. Through these case studies, interaction designers and UX professionals can find inspiration for how to approach, frame, and evaluate their work as it extends beyond the screen and into the physical world.
Who Should Read This Book?
The primary audience for this book is interaction designers and UX professionals who find themselves in the overlap between physical and digital products, or foresee their practice involving more collaboration and integration with industrial design. It is written for the thoughtful practitioner, who wants to learn from practical examples and combine those approaches into their own point of view. We hope the reader will bring an open mind, and look for fruitful connections between disciplines while avoiding territorial definitions. The examples in this book may originate primarily from industrial design, but the reader should be prepared to view them through a broad lens of user experience.
Designers who intend to focus purely on screen-based products may find that the principles in this book still provide them with new ways to frame and approach their work. At times, examples from industrial design provide the possibility of relating a principle directly to a screen-based interaction, but translation of physical design solutions to screen-based alternatives is not a primary goal of this book.
Students studying industrial design will find a jumping-off point for further exploration of particular projects and principles, but should look to other texts for instructional or “how-to” approaches to their discipline.
Finally, anyone who simply wants to learn more about industrial design will also find value in the text. A basic familiarity with design professions in general is assumed, but no specific domain knowledge is expected or required of the reader.
How Is the Book Structured?
The book begins with an introductory chapter providing a history of industrial and interaction design. Each subsequent chapter focuses on a different principle, where the theme is explored through extensive examples drawn primarily from industrial design history and practice, but including relevant work from screen-based products, advertising, economics, and academia where appropriate. These chapters can be read in any order, so you can return to and review relevant principles when starting a new project. The concluding chapter summarizes the thesis and points to changes in academic and corporate environments that signal an evolving landscape for the design disciplines.
Chapter 1, A Brief History of Industrial and Interaction Design
The book begins with a history of industrial and interaction design, highlighting moments of both shared lineage and divergence. We describe how design emerged as a professional practice during the Industrial Revolution, and how the maturing discipline was shaped by the needs and possibilities of business, people, technology, context, and behavior. We use the computing and information revolutions of the late 20th century to discuss why interaction design splintered and grew as its own discipline, and how smartphones and connected products are causing industrial and interaction design to converge again.
Chapter 2, Sensorial
The first principle is focused on the senses and how physicality affords a richer means of engaging people through design. Beyond the sound and vision common to screen-based design, we look at how combinations of color, materials, and finishes can create luxurious, multisensorial experiences. We show how information and state can be physically embodied without relying on a screen, and discuss new frontiers for sensorial design to enhance taste and smell.
Chapter 3, Simple
Simplicity is often confused with minimalism, but true simplicity comes not from a reduction of elements but from a design’s overall clarity in relation to its purpose. This chapter looks at examples of simple products and deconstructs what gives them that elusive quality. Some designers have found simplicity through tiny tweaks to a standard form, while others use physicality as a means to reduce complexity. We look at examples that appear complex but are simple in practice, and those for which technical innovation enables an almost magical simplicity.
Chapter 4, Enduring
As the pace of technology accelerates, creating products with longevity is more complicated than ever before. This chapter looks at various strategies to design enduring products, from those that improve when worn in, to quintessential designs that live on as classics. Some examples are highly tailored to a particular person, while others adapt over time to address changing needs. Many products today are made of numerous layers, each of which needs to evolve at a different rate for the product as a whole to endure.
Chapter 5, Playful
This chapter looks at how products can be playful, not to turn them into games, but to accomplish their function with levity. We look at how playfulness can elevate everyday actions, from making tea to cleaning the toilet, and offer an emotional boost when we need it most. Perhaps most importantly, we look at how playfulness can encourage positive behavior change, where people choose to recycle or drive safely not because they’ve been told to but because it’s the most enjoyable choice.
Chapter 6, Thoughtful
Design is inherently about making something for other people, which requires an empathy and understanding of their needs and desires. This chapter looks at examples of how designers have embedded thoughtful consideration into products by observing people’s struggles and anticipating their context of use. It looks at design through the lens of comfort, both physical and psychological, and at thoughtful details that include everyone, regardless of their abilities.
Chapter 7, Sustainable
In this chapter, we look at various ways that design decisions can contribute to sustainable futures. Industrial designers have explored this principle for decades, as represented by examples of reducing waste, promoting reuse, and making recycling easier. Other approaches take advantage of new technology, such as maximizing resources by building upon smartphone platforms that people already own. Whether baked into the production process or by continually promoting sustainable behaviors, designers have a responsibility for both a product’s user experience and its broader impact on the planet.
Chapter 8, Beautiful
Beauty is perhaps the most obvious yet misunderstood principle on this list. While industrial designers generally embrace the goal of making something beautiful, many UX professionals purposefully avoid discussions of aesthetics, preferring to focus on usability, functionality, or strategy. But beauty is a core part of design that can elevate the experience of everyday products. It can provide dignity and acceptance to underserved audiences and honestly represent the qualities of a material. This chapter doesn’t seek to find a single definition for beauty, but aims to demonstrate the need for including it within the scope of all design.
Chapter 9, Conclusion
In this short concluding chapter, we reiterate the need for disciplinary overlap as designers find themselves at the intersection of the digital and physical. We look at how design education is changing to support these hybrid designers, and how corporate strategy is driving demand for people who can bridge that divide.
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We would like to thank Nick Lombardi and Mary Treseler at O’Reilly Media for supporting this book and guiding us through the process. Thanks also to Jason Mesut, Martin Charlier, and Tom Metcalfe for reviewing the manuscript draft and generously offering their valuable input.
Molly Steenson—much of this book was written on buses and planes, inevitably traveling to see you. I’m so glad that I’m typing these final paragraphs while sitting in our new home together. This year had so many milestones: a dog and a job, a house and a wedding, moving and joy, sadness and love. Everything that’s happened makes completing a book feel like a footnote. Thank you so much for all of your support and faith in me. I couldn’t have done it without you.
Ivo Gasparotto—thank you for your input and advice throughout the writing process. Knowing that you were there to review each chapter as it was written was so encouraging and motivating.
Mom, Dad, Grandpa—from each of you I’ve inherited the drive to tackle big new projects. Thank you for the work ethic, and for always supporting me.
Jin Ko—you are my best friend, inspiration, and love of my life. I could not have done this project without your endless support, patience, and encouragement. Thank you!