Industrial Design in a Flat World (Globalization)

I’m part way through The World is Flat The World Is Flat - Wikipedia by Thomas Friedman, and it has me really pondering what globalization’s effects on ID will be over the next 10 to 15 years. As designers, especially young ones (like myself), I think it’s vital that we really consider what long term employment strategies will pay dividends, and which won’t.

This of course will vary greatly from region to region. A designer in India will need to adopt different strategies than one in the U.S. I see plenty of room for cooperation and increasingly specialized design services, which could increase the general quality and quantity of well designed, well thought out products and systems.

Of course, there is plenty of room for conflict and lost jobs. If designers in one part of the world try to directly compete with designers in another part of the world who can do their job cheaper or better (or both), then they’ll lose out.

I’m eager to hear from those more experienced than me, and other young designer’s as well. Where do you see things going in the industry (wherever in the world you are), and how should designers in various regions adapt?


Its a great question, and something we all need to be thinking about and planning for. I see a lot of “generic” design moving close to the factory source. Simple objects where the design doesn’t really matter as long as it is nice, simple, and contemporary don’t really need expensive designers.

On the other hand, objects that are culturally relevant to a specific consumer type in a specific market will need designers embedded in that culture more than ever. Brands will continue to be impactful, and where there are strong brands, designers will continue to be key to those organizations and need to be co located at the brand’s center and not at the manufacturing source.

Another factor will be if rapid prototyping techniques can really transform into rapid production techniques, obliterating the need for centralized factory sources and exorbitant tooling fees that cause risk averse organizations. In utopia like solution, rapid manufacture sources are available locally, and designers work independently, contracting the manufacturing of their ideas to these source. The reality of this will be something much more akin to corporations having the dollars to invest in the rapid manufacturing techniques and as such controlling it, but it could evolve into some version of the other solution.

I’m glad you mentioned rapid prototyping turning into rapid production. This is something I’ve been thinking about lately with a fair degree of excitement. I agree with you that a future where designers source their products at a rapid manufacturer is certainly a possibility. It can be taken much further though. The price of some rapid prototyping machine’s are already down in the thousands of dollars (I believe), well within the purchasing power of many people. Continued advances in the materials these machines can print with and the tolerances they are capable of will soon mean that most anyone can have direct access and/or control of some very advance printing facilities.

I foresee some individual designer’s and firms incorporating rapid manufacturing into their business. This would allow them to produce many different designs for short production runs, and very quickly distribute them. In these cases, the manufacturer and designer would be one and the same.

This is also a good point, but I have my doubts that being embedded in a culture provides an overpowering advantage in designing for that culture…at least when it comes to digital cultures like ours (the developing world is a whole other deal). Through the internet, air travel, television, and video conferencing, designers in one part of the world can access a treasure trove of information about other parts of the world…constantly. Nowadays, it’s quite possible to keep a pretty steady eye on what’s happening in a culture without living in that culture (occasional visits are probably necessary).

What I see as near impossible to outsource are many forms of user-research. The physical development (through CAD, sketches, etc.) of a product can easily be digitized and sent anywhere, but research must always be conducted where the target users live and work. For example, you can’t design medical equipment for use in British hospitals without first visiting those hospitals, studying the staff, doctors, setting, and tasks. You can certainly send the acquired info to another country for physical development though.

The really relevant question in this case is at what point does the value of having research and design under one roof out-way the potential benefit of sourcing the design to cheaper locals? I’m not sure…