clueless

The guys made a depressed impression, or maybe clueless, when I joined them at the bar. They seemed to have all agreed on the fact that something was changing fundamentally – and that it would involve all of them.
But as much as they were in for change, like in all those endless debates with clients and commissioners, the change happening right now was quite something different, and they didn’t had a clue how to deal with the situation: it seemed that their very existence was at stake!

This group of deeply concerned professionals at the bar all were industrial designers, who had met-up for a beer after an event on ‘design thinking’, in order to reflect on what they just had heard. And since I am also an industrial designer, by origin, I went along with them, subsequently finding myself in the middle of an heated debate, which turned around the following main topics: will User-Experience and Service Designers take over, claim creative leadership, and thus leave the crumbles left for the industrial designers? Will ‘ID’ turn into an activity that large agencies will out-source to some specialists, as if it were a side-line activity? Will the good old industrial design become a commoditised expertise, and then eventually die off?!

Obviously upset and quite irritated one ‘colleague’ did report that lately he had received more project requests from ‘non-ID’ agencies  than from direct clients. Until two year ago he had never heard of these agencies, nor did he ever knew what they were doing for a living! As it turned out they receive huge orders from multi-nationals, are spending unbelievable budgets and turn-over millions! “If eventually there is some ‘industrial design’ to be done, they sub-contract this work to some local designer who has the appropriate experience. For little money of course!”, he closed off with a deep sigh.

Then another victim did report a reduction in the amount of projects he was getting, but also he noted that the budgets constantly were under hardest pressure. “All the time I hear that they need more budget for the design of the User-Interface. Lately a client asked me whether I could also do some wire-frames and experience flows!”, he continued his ordeal. “Fellows, where will this end if they cannot afford a decent product design?! The tail wags the dog here!” he closed off, clearly dissatisfied with the situation at hand.

Upon my reply, that maybe product design did end up in the tail and now is being wagged, there was no stopping anymore, and the two loudest of the pack started to fire arguments to me; like whether I had forgotten that the product is still the core of a relationship between a company and client; that in fact everybody is talking about the iPhone, not about some OS-gobbledegook, iTunes or whatever there is in the realm of ‘user experience’; and also that Apple became what it is due to its product design, or not?!
“Might be true”, another replied, much to my relief, “but it’s also a fact that the effort for software development is huge these days, even bigger than for hardware, so it’s no surprise that more is happening on that front! Core or not core: the biggest effort to design an experience involving hard and software lies in the latter, mate.”
Unfortunately this analysis did not help to cheer up the mood either.

By stating that we, the product designers, might just need to embrace the UX-designers a bit more, also my next attempt to improve the situation did not result in the hoped-for effect yet: “Do you want to imply that I have to listen to some UX-design-punk on how to do my designs?” – one designer reacted, quite agitated – “or maybe even to one of these Design Management-dudes?! Man, they all have no clue what good product design is all about!”

In the end the whole situation made me think of a group of artisan typesetters, who, for the first time, are collectively reviewing a software for desktop publishing: fascinated and horrified at the same time, in the awareness that they have to adopt if they want to remain in business.

Eventually the discussion came to a consensus, by which we all could agree that product design is as relevant to create an experience as all the other design expertise around – you just have to align all of them to create a larger effect and value.
“In the end it’s all about design thinking versus business thinking, so we better get our priorities right!”, was on of the conclusions formulated. Well, and this would require all designers to embrace the other ‘race’ and to leave the respective expert-silos behind: yes, also us, the product designers…

And in embracing the other design expertise lies on of the biggest challenges for design at large: most of the design specialists around do not really comprehend what the various ‘colleagues’ do and what their contribution might be – most of the time all those ‘designers’ are not ‘connected’ by some sort of ‘sense making’. Likewise there are hardly any agencies around that can deliver an ‘integrated design’, that can cope with all the design demands resulting from the development of a customer experience or service themselves, and then execute these design demands as well.
To create an holistic customer experience it always requires an interplay of all designers involved – something like an ‘symphonic design orchestra’. And obviously it needs somebody who starts to orchestrate all those designers and make them play together.
Who will pick up the baton? My fellows from the bar think it’s them!

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