Industrial Design – the Future


Predicting the future is not a perfect science. Orwell’s “1984” was published in 1949. “2001: Space Odyssey” by Kubrick and Clarke was released in 1968. The dates have come and gone. Sometimes the future is just a convenient stage set for our own current concerns and neuroses.

In the late 1800s experts were predicting that Manhattan would come to a halt as the streets would be so deep in horse poop, carriages could not move. The development of the car was the solution and here we are, just over a century later, our existence as a species now threatened by car poop. No doubt, by the time the Jetsons’ flying car becomes the norm, a new existential crisis will confront us with nickel and lithium pollution. Perhaps Nuclear Fusion will be perfected, blessing the human population with vast amounts of cheap energy. Since energy release and heat release usually go hand in hand, perhaps the future lies in boatbuilding!

The future is hard to predict. The future of industrial design is equally difficult but what we can do is look for the constants in the industrial design process and project a future from them.

Industrial design can be broadly defined as an artform using technology as its medium, with the goal of making that technology accessible to the end user. It is restricted by the limits of the technology but masks those limits by pushing the opportunities the technology does provide, with look and feel and function.

Being more specific, industrial design comprises a number of activities. These include: Aesthetics, Identity, Human Interaction and Function. All will be impacted by various aspects of technology as it evolves.


Industrial design is sometimes seen as a styling exercise, implying a superficial nature to the business. Appearance, though, has always been critical in human nature, whether it is in personal appearance or the products we surround ourselves with. A lawyer’s office will have bookshelves covering walls not because he has read the books, but because he is implying to a client that, with all those words behind him, he has to be smart.

In past years, the Control Center at NASA was shown to the whole world as manned rockets left for the moon. They showed engineers operating in the canyons between banks of computers and CRTs. They defined the leading edge of technology.

Today we look at the launch of SpaceX spaceships and we see a Control Room that looks more like an Apple store, with an open plan, simple desks and flat screen displays, and with barely a wire showing. The appearance has changed from one of technology, to one of information. The aesthetic change is undeniable evidence. (Movie sets from Minority Report and Avatar have shown how future information displays can evolve to be more fluid and three dimensional).

It is a constant that the aesthetic will evolve to redefine what new technology represents. Dyson’s cyclonic vacuum cleaners used novel technology as a foundation. The products were specifically designed to stand apart from the standard vacuum cleaners of the day, choosing not to compete in the existing market with a similar look, but defining its own market with radical designs, and leaving Hoover etc. in the dust! In the UK, Hoover’s market dominance once made the word “Hoover” synonymous with vacuum cleaner. Today, more than three times as many use a Dyson as a Hoover.


Electric cars have also been designed to stand apart from the gas-powered equivalents for the same reason. First the Prius defined the market, and then Tesla followed with its own look. The tall stance, simple lines, un-macho image and the limited (or non-existent) grill separates these cars from the crowd and makes them noticed.

It is also a constant that aesthetics will be used to make existing technology look new. Steam engines were iconic in their day, with the cylindrical boiler tank, funnel and cab, but in the 1930s, towards the end of the steam engine era, Raymond Loewy was able to redefine the image of the steam engine with his S1 train, giving it excitement and a streamlined look. Its new iconic image gave glamor to a dirty industry and would influence countless other designs of the day.

Some of the fastest sailing ships ever built, the clipper ships of the nineteenth century, were designed specifically to prove sail technology was relevant in an age where steam ships were taking over. Future industrial designers will be challenged to generate products which create a paradigm shift in a particular market, using advances in technology. They will also be asked by the manufactures of the old technology to create products which can compete with the new.

Beyond the technology, the purely aesthetic aspects of industrial design are deeply rooted in the values of the broader society. The Arts and Crafts movement was a direct reaction to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, and Bauhaus and Modern a reaction to the excesses of the Classic. We are fortunate to have had superstars like Raymond Loewy, Dieter Rams and Luigi Colani to excite the design world with what is possible. Industrial design in the new world will continue to require the artform to question what is currently accepted, and redefine the normal. The expansion of the fine art media to include digital and virtual is a sign of times to come for the industrial designers, who have been creating products virtually for years as part of the CAD design process. Perhaps their end product may end up not as mechanical parts, but purely virtual, designed to interact in a virtual world, emerging as real parts only when their operation is required.


There are many reasons for identity to be part of a design. The chief of these is that many of us have tribal tendencies! Whether you are a Ford or a Chevy man (or woman), whether you buy Sony or Samsung, support the Giants or the Patriots, Apple or Windows, there are many areas where you do not need to be sold on a product. Generating the reputation can take years, but once you have it, you have a market. People with Apple phones will line up outside the store to get the latest version. Android users, not so much.

Maintaining the reputation is not easy, though, as there are others comfortable in appropriating your designs to take market share. For companies with a big logo this is not always easy. To maintain their base, they have to incorporate enough of their existing design iconography to remain recognized, adding enough advanced features and details which will take it beyond the designs of the competition. Go too far and the connection is lost. Not far enough and the customer will be bored and the designer fired (BMW 3 Series 2005).

As indicated in the previous section, aesthetic novelty can become an identity when particular features, colors or a general look is repeated over multiple products. This has the advantage of maximizing a corporation’s presence in a market, even when its components and products are sourced from around the globe.

Identity and branding are foundational in product development and will continue to be in the future. While we have a choice in what we buy, identity will be a constant. Future designs will continue to be stepping stones from past products to the next generations. The surprises will come from the upstarts who will use new technology to redefine the market and make the old technology obsolete.

Human Interaction

One of the prime functions of the industrial designer is to provide access to technology, and to allow it to be used with maximum efficiency. Ergonomics has always been part of the responsibility of the industrial designer. The physical interaction of an operator with technology is a critical element in the success of a product.

Today, though, technology has advanced to where much of its interface with humans informational or diagnostic, not mechanical. An electrical car has no cylinders, pistons or exhaust fumes. What it still requires is a focus on the human experience of getting between two points. Designers can now venture beyond the simple operation of the go and stop pedals. GPS has allowed self-driving vehicles to be used extensively in mining. Tesla has self-driving cars regularly testing the incompetence of the man in the street. This has to be just the first step in the process where advances in technology can be integrated and focused more on improving the broader user experience. The machines should not define the process. The process should reveal the needs. The designer should meet them.

The development of flat screen technology has made the transfer to the information age possible, making it an integral component in the designer’s toolbox. The technology seems to have plateaued, though. At home we may have a large screen 60” TV and multiple smaller ones. In the office, we might have a 30” monitor, or two. Between them we have a 16” laptop and a 10” tablet. In our pockets we have a 6” or 7” phone. Where the functions of each are not duplicated, they broadly overlap. And we don’t make a choice between them – we have them all! This is incredibly wasteful and the opportunity for another technological leap.

It used to be that a good hi-fi system would include a record player and a cassette player to read the music information, a receiver to process the information, a mixer to modify the information and speakers to transfer the information to sound. Together, the products were the engine that created an industry. They were toys and jewelry. Choosing them was a decision that helped to define who we were. Today we can receive the information from Spotify on any of our devices with the touch of a key. What we get is the music. It should be possible to receive information as directly as we do music, with less of the machinery. This may mean less work for the industrial designer, but there will be openings in defining how the new technology can be expressed in the new world.

The future of product design will have to evolve beyond the development of parts and be founded in the study of the interaction between a user and a provider in achieving a specific goal. This will provide the fertile ground for new products to replace those that no longer needed.


The manufacture and shipping of new products has changed little over the last years and is currently showing a limited ability to respond to the current surge in product demand.

In industrial design, though, there has been a revolution. The processes of concept development, illustration, modelmaking, engineering and drafting were at one time all in the hands of different people, and different departments. Today all these functions can be handled from the same desktop computer with a limited number of accessory devices.

Since the designer is also the interface between business planning, marketing and manufacturing, it also allows a more direct transfer of information between these departments during the development process.

The speed of computers and the size of available memory has increased continually over the last years and this increase is not slowing. This has allowed design and engineering software to continue to improve, becoming more responsive and allowing a more seamless link between the constituent functions of industrial design.

The increasing use of the various forms of stereo-lithography has also allowed designs and engineering solutions to be tested in three dimensions. Traditionally, the materials used in the process have had limited mechanical properties, but the continued development of these materials will inevitably lead the process being used for production parts. This has the advantage of allowing custom parts, limited production runs of complex parts, and also the production of parts free from the constraints of injection molding –drafting, no variation in wall thickness, direct access to internal molded surfaces. The other main limitation to the SLA machines is currently their slow speed but this will also be overcome. Companies planning space travel are currently considering including SLA machines to make replacement parts in space. Who is to say a variation of the machine won’t be used for processing food into recognizable meals from a lengthy menu?

Any product or process that fails to meet market requirements will either fail or evolve to where it can meet those requirements. The current global manufacturing problems will be resolved over time, but the limitations of the status quo have become evident and changes will be made. Industrial design is currently geared towards the manufacture of parts using current processes. It will evolve to adapt to new techniques and new technologies, and these will provide opportunities to take the artform to another level.



Technology has put unprecedented capabilities in the hands of the industrial designer. These will only increase over the coming years, although, due to the nature of the new markets, there may be fewer opportunities to use those capabilities. It is likely that designers will have to evolve their responsibilities into more information-oriented subjects.

For years, presentations of the future have been made at events like the World Fairs and have excited the crowds with go-fast sketches of flying cars and sleek auto-everything kitchens. The movies have tended to be more dystopian. Providing access to new technology to improve lives has to be a worthy cause for the industrial designer. Doing it to benefit one billion people at the expense of the other seven billion has to be questioned.

There are endless opportunities to design products which will bring the bulk of the world’s population up to the standards expected in the West forty years ago, without making the same mistakes. There are idealists who do, but they are usually only seen in the final, feel-good clips on the news, and are not the headline. One would hope that the future of industrial design includes an education in the global impacts of the choices we make, allowing a social conscience to guide our decision making.