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October 12, 2009

WSJ Reviews Industrial Design Books

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I entered college as an Industrial Design major (later switching to Commercial Art), but don't follow the field especially closely. Its exciting days of legitimacy-seeking and eventual acceptance are long past.

Even so, I was interested when I spied "The Shape of Things to Come," a book review article by David A. Price in the 9 October edition of The Wall Street Journal (a link is here).

Price covers three books dealing with industrial design and product innovation. The first is by Tim Brown (the CEO of the IDEO firm) with the title "Change by Design". Among Price's comments are:

Mr. Brown also argues for companies to become more designer-like by increasing their use of prototypes to test ideas. Prototypes, even quick-and-dirty ones, shed light on how a concept will meet real-world needs. He recounts IDEO going so far as to mock-up an entire hotel lobby and guest suite to help Marriott ponder the needs of extended-stay business travelers.

Mr. Brown argues even more emphatically for the close observation of users in their natural habitats. Traditional market-research tools—focus groups, surveys -- rarely produce breakthrough findings, he claims. IDEO and others follow users around -- making video recordings of them as they go about their routines, recording conversations with them—to build an understanding of what they really need.

Hate to mention it, but these practices are nearly as old as the industrial design hills. I happen to be re-reading industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss' classic book "Designing for People" (first published in 1955) and he deals with these very topics of prototyping and field research in chapters three and four.

The second book reviewed is by Hartmut Esslinger, founder of frog design (yes, that's "frog design" -- all lower case) whose book is "A Fine Line". The frog design firm is perhaps best known for its work for Apple and its design perfectionist leader Steve Jobs. Price dismisses much of the book as self-promotion, but allows that:

Eventually, though, Mr. Esslinger sets out some provocative ideas. He thinks electronics products like mobile phones, cameras and medical sensors should have modular, open architectures -- like the cards that plug into desktop personal computers -- allowing customers to pick the sub-assemblies they need.

Agreed, that is an interesting idea. My cell phone and digital camera each have scads of features I'll never use, a factor in complicating their operation.

The third review deals with Roberto Verganti's "Design-Driven Innovation" .

Roberto Verganti holds that product development should be grounded not in the data of survey-takers or the observations of anthropologists but in the judgment of executives. "We have experienced years of hype about user-centered design," he says. But breakthrough innovations, in Mr. Verganti's view, do not represent what customers knew they wanted. Rather, the most profitable innovations are those that create a radically new meaning for a product. ...

Mr. Verganti suggests that companies form relationships with "interpreters" -- individuals and organizations looking at settings similar to the one in which the company's products would be used. A maker of furniture, for example, might tap the insights of architects, design professors, retailers and hotel designers.

This also seems right. Customers can be very good at evaluating existing products and services but, as a group, are not good at identifying new needs. Inventors and innovators historically have tended to be a subset of the population. But when a truly important new product or product improvement does appear, the public (or enough of the public to support a successful launch) will accept it with enthusiasm, having recognized its worth. (Think Walkman, iPod, cell phone).

Nothing here on aesthetics, however. I suppose that must be a topic for another day.



posted by Donald at October 12, 2009


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