The Future of Product Design(ers)

This is more of a philosophical contemplation I’ve been having recently.

I come from a fairly practical background as a woodworker (10 yrs). Recently, after my graduation from design school, I made a big change and started a company with a few others that is now developing a new office chair. I knew this would require me to learn completely new skills and knowledge, but I never felt discouraged about that. On the contrary, I know this feels right because in some way this kind of project represents to me a kind of pinnacle of traditional, practical industrial design, and that is a very interesting prospect to me. It’s the perfect blend of physical design work and user research.

I’ve only begun to understand the magnitude of what we’re up against in our venture. It seems I have to learn so much in a very small timeframe only about business… But I try to convince myself and others to keep it simple and focus on the product. We don’t have to, and shouldn’t, do everything ourselves.

The primary reason I gave up my woodworking career was that the whole industry here in Finland has pretty much gone the way of the Dodo and is now just barely getting by. I compare it to the car industry in the States, because back in the days, as some of you may know, furniture used to be a big chuck of our GNP. No more. When the industry can’t provide, it’s time to move on.

So after my “career move”, I’ve been thinking alot about the state of Product Design now and in the future. Like the woodworking industry, it seems there aren’t many experienced ergonomic chair designers here either. Most of them seem to be in the States or Central Europe. And I’m wondering how this will affect our ability to create a genuinely good product. Eventually we will need professional help as none of us have the knowledge and experience to design and build this chair to our standards. But I also want a tight partnership that I can learn from and improve on a personal level.

I read [too much] alot of articles and books about design, and most of them tend to focus on the more abstract concepts, like service design, design leadership, -thinking, -research etc. They are interesting and big segments, but as more and more designers pivot to them, are we losing valuable traditional product design knowledge along the way?
There’s a lot of talk of other global markets catching up and even surpassing western design capabilities. How will AI affect the product designer profession? I remember reading about how Apple is struggling to find talented product designers. You know, the ones who not only make cool sketches and renderings but also understand the materials and how to manipulate them to their will, physically. Is the practical designer going extinct?

I think I’d like to do this for as long as I can but given my track record, I’m a bit worried what the future will hold. I guess I’m not a very dynamic person and I’m just not very enthusiastic about the idea of splitting my career up in 10 year intervals. Call it old school, but I’d rather focus on perfecting my skills.

What do you think?

I couldn’t agree more.

You can also liken it to outsourcing any manufacturing. The politicians will continually talk about jobs lost. But the real loss, more so than any job, is the knowledge. Once that is gone, it take a tremendous amount of resources to gain it back. So much so I doubt you can be competitive.

Case in point. One of my bosses has a side project. He was pushing his wife around in a wheelchair and got tired. And like e-bikes, he wants to develop an electric-assisted wheelchair. He seems to be overly obsessed with weight and wants the frame to be a carbon layup. 5-7 years ago, I knew of a local place in Chicago that offered the service. They are gone. While there are places closer, the best at it are in Taiwan and that is where the boss is going for prototypes.

So before any jobs can be brought back, the knowledge needs to be brought back. And I highly recommend looking at employment at companies that emphasize an “innovation center”. Those are the ones that are interested in the knowledge and won’t go the way of the dinosaur.

I think the NA auto industry is quite healthy. However, look at how many furniture factories were scuttled in Tennessee. They probably layed off the population of Finland over the last 20 years.

To the core of your thoughts though, you are absolutely right. I spent 5 years working in a factory and it gave me knowledge that I could never find in a book. That’s why I suggest designers visit their suppliers ASAP, wherever in the world they are. Preferably, visit annually.

Are western designers going to suffer because of proximity? I don’t think so. Western designers will be challenged by their lack of factory knowledge, but Eastern designers will be challenged by their lack of market knowledge. We definitely take for granted all the knowledge that we absorb through living a Western life. That is the spark of any of our creative solutions and it can’t be exported easily.

Lastly, since you are starting an enterprise, I suggest reading the book “The Mousedriver Chronicles”. That book was a business started by business man who had no clue about design, engineering, sourcing and only a theoretical knowledge of logistics, sales and marketing. It’s equally valuable for a designer to understand the more global environment and demands that are required to run a successful business.

Thanks for your insights, and book recommendations. I will definitely have a look!

Maybe I should have referred to Detroit specifically… anyway you seem to understand my concern, which is proximity.

The way I see it, it could go two ways:

“Western” (I wonder if there’s a better description?) design culture will continue on its increasingly, service and market based path, displacing know-how of physical product development to where ever it is seemingly more profitable. I say seemingly, because I assume proximity does have an impact on the bottom line. But these expenses are much more unpredictable and harder to evaluate.
From a pragmatic point of view, things like quality control become much more complex the further you go. This may not be such a big deal for bigger companies who can have one or more engineers on-site at all times. But for smaller businesses, all the “small things” like travel expenses can quickly mount up to unsustainable numbers. Even still, very simple things like language barriers can lead to tremendous $$$ mistakes.
As Mr-914 said, our knowledge will become more market based. That, in turn, will drive physical product development and product designers to where ever production is happening.

On the other hand, our design disciplines may (and probably will) split even more distinctly.
There will be even bigger demand for sourcing knowledge, and this will become an integral part of a product designers skills. Likewise, product design will become an integral part of sourcing companies skills. Sourcing and product design will blend progressively and these businesses will become very profitable.

Mind you, I have absolutely no experience in how the big world really works. I just believe that good product design will always require production knowledge, which requires intense collaboration, which requires proximity. So will product designers have to choose to pivot to market based design work or move to the other side of the world to practice their skills?

And returning to the Finnish furniture industry. We have not been able to truly innovate anything since the greats like Aalto, Kukkapuro and Tapiovaara to name a few. There’s now a very unhealthy polarisation between designers and makers. Neither one really understands what the others skills are and this has lead to sad, generic work. And this is all happening within 50-mile vicinities.
Aalto got most of the credit of his iconic works, but really they were the result of a very close-knit collaboration with woodworker Otto Korhonen. Same goes for the others. They had a very hands on approach to their work and I believe that skill lead to superior products.

I completely agree with this. Nothing is more helpful for a small company than being able to easily go to in-house or local factories to discuss production techniques with the people who live and breathe it day in and out. You’re in a tough spot if you get all the way to the finalisation stage of your amazing new product if it isn’t able to be produced, to budget, with its design intent intact. As you’ve pointed out, it can be very expensive up-front for a small business to manage the logistics of manufacturing offshore.

Product designers will have to be flexible.

For example, a local electronics factory that employed 15 or so designers in 1995 now only employs 3, because they now offshore most of their manufacturing and with it went a a huge amount of the production level detail design workload and knowledge. Now theres a high supply and a low demand for designers, meaning that they have to be flexible with location and job choice so they can find an opportunity to use their skills.

A little off topic, but potentially helpful for you. The QC industry has boomed in the last 10-20 years. Asia Inspection, Bureau Veritas, SGS, even certification bodies like UL and CSA offer QC inspections in addition to safety compliance inspections. Mind you, the value of these services is limited by the amount of information that can be supplied (for example, specific QC tests to be performed, detailed drawings with tolerances, material specifications, etc.).

I don’t know if this is universal, but speaking to sales reps, I get the feeling that QC is becoming a big differentiator in consumer products because of the situation that you describe. More and more development decisions are being made by suppliers. In some companies, this process is well documented and controlled. In others, it’s a cluster f.

Not for larger companies.

They will have their own sourcing group, usually affiliated with the QA (for validation). While it is preferred NPD uses a qualified vendor, we do occasionally come up with something new (go figure), and we throw a wrench into the system. Those folks are really difficult to qualify a new vendor.

The company I work for recently brok sourcing out as a separate discipline with a VP that reports to the CEO. My last trip to China I traveled with the VP of sourcing and the SVP of engineering. The three of us together traveling around China and seeing potential new partners was really great and it made me appreciate what that function can do… essentially a walking Rolodex of connections. Having an entire department like that is really important so they are not beholden to QA or engineerings (how we did things yesterday with a focus on repeatability) and instead are focused on always finding a partner who can do something more and coaching existing partners on what needs to be done to be competitive. Could a designer do this? Sure, I know some that do, but it is nice to have someone you can trust to do it for you so you can focus on designing the best solution possible. The power of working together was really obvious. On that trip we designed 3 products from scratch as well as working on existing programs. One was debuted at CES and will be available for sale in the coming weeks. 7 month sketch to shelf for a product of medium level complication I’d say, but we found the right factory partner.

Sorry, I’ve gone a little OT. I’ve never really had the opportunity to work with local manufacturing, and as was stated, a lot f the knowledge has moved. You would be surprised how many Asian shoe factories had a at least a couple of Italian shoe experts on staff to help design production lines and make changes for production. In some cases the knowledge is actually physically relocating.

I think for most mid-to-large sized companies they have found that narrowly separating the tasks of ‘designing’ and ‘making’, creates products of higher quality that go to market faster with fewer problems. Often these companies will have ‘front end’ and ‘back end’ designers, half of them where the product’s target market lives, and the other half on-site where the things are made. Most auto companies are like this.

Even SRAM (bicycle components) has its design groups in Chicago and someplace in Germany, and the production designers on-site in Taiwan. Each set of designers contributes their knowledge and talents to the overall goal of making products to the cost and quality standards needed.

I read in the Economist that Jaguar/Land Rover doesn’t even own its own logistics team, outsourcing everything to DHL. That probably carries over into some of the sourcing decisions too. Its easier, cheaper, and usually works better.