Design for the new Industrial Age

For the Dutch Design Week of 2012 (20 – 28 October) I was invited to share my vision on the changing role of the designer in our post digital age we are entering fast. I did a long version on the convention floor twice and a shorter one at the conference.


In my long version I first sketched how our life is influenced by the digital context. We are used to the availability of digital content. We have the world of knowledge at our fingertips all the time with our smartphone, we choose media more and more on demand and we customise our physical products like we do with digital ones. The concept of code/space is inspiring in that. In a lot of situations the digital context is crucial for the functioning. No connection means no function. Think of an airport.

Products can not live without the services that are integrated. Apple is learning that hard lesson with their Map-gate where the poor quality of the map is defining the quality perception of the iPhone more than ever.

Digital as default. We see that the Internet is not only connecting services and people, but also things. With the new IPv6 standard we have enough addresses to connect all products to the Internet. Interesting new products emerge.
The interesting products are those that are designed from a valuable usage. Things with internet will be smarter and get new interaction principles, like the Nest thermostat. Learning from the behaviour and using contextual data from as well within the home with sensors as from outside with the connection to the latest weather reports.

Interesting are also products that are more mundane, or even ‘crappy’. Like the fridge magnet pizza button. A connected button that delivers you a pizza by pushing the button.
Simply adding connectivity can deliver a lot of value. Like with Asthmapolis where every puff of an asthma patient contributes to a map of dirty-air places.

Digital as default and ubiquitous virtuality has lead to a new romantic feeling for the real. Making the data tangible again is happening more and more. The makers movement is hot. We like printing your own old-fashioned newspaper or creating beautiful installations around our virtual presence.

3D printing fits this development. We see a rapid democratizing of 3D printing. Now as a gadget for the high brow at the Bijenkorf Dol Dwaze Dagen, next year just a couple of hunderds of euro for printing simple stuff. And very accessible service providers for more complex stuff. New types of products are emerging, with hard to make forms and with personalised scripted products, products that are designed but also leave a lot open for the end buyer to make its own.

With digital default we see that services become predictive using big data. Like Google Now, where the service knows more (or at least earlier) about you than you self do.
Products will be always the part of an ecosystem. A cloud system like Bergcloud introduces with their Little Printer. Not the printer is the product, but the Bergcloud you build in your home wil be the product you buy and use for all kind of connected output devices.

The ultimate personalised one fits just one product will happen more and more. Made possible by kits that we as designers will be making for users, like the Homesense Kit.

Products will be hackable by default. Remixing IKEA as example is now something for a niche group of users. It will be part of the service IKEA offers.
And products will adapt the use. Like the dashboard of the new Volvo V40 that fits your driving style.

And so we will see that new capabilities of designers are addressed. We cannot design for all, we need to design for remix, for adaption. Scripted products like the example made by Soundcloud and Shapeways – The Vibe – where a case is designed around the forms of waveforms. Waveforms the user can choose himself.

This does not mean that the role of the designer is played out. It changes. We will see especially places like Etsy emerge within big manufactures where the designers will be connected to the users, and manufacturing will be like Kickstarter, pitching the products ideas to the buyer before producing and starting a dialogue.

So the new designer should be prepared for the new Industrial Revolution as Chris Andersen puts it so right. The principles of the Long Tail will be part of all our products we buy and use.
As designer you should start changing your behaviour to make very personal products, both personal with a story as personalised by the buyer.
And the designer should design open products. Products that are hackable or are ready for personal extensions.
And products should be smart. The Big Data that is produced by the connected products is not meant for big infrastructures, but is used to create tiny services for just that one user.


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I am a design director at Structural. I curate and organize ThingsCon Netherlands and I am chairman of the Cities of Things Foundation. Before I was innovation and strategy director at tech and innovation agency INFO, visiting researcher and lab director at the Delft University of Technology coordinating Cities of Things Delft Design Lab.

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