So What Is Industrial Design After All?

All of this is about wider mean­ing of design in the com­pany and its stra­tegic impact. Using indus­trial design, we can visu­ally explain what a pur­pose of product is and its func­tion, with great sim­pli­city. Design is really not about phys­ical shape – it is whole thought pro­cess, hid­ing behind all kinds of meanings.


This quote belongs to one of the mod­ern Finland’s designer. It really well reflects what is now hap­pen­ing in Finland’s indus­trial design scene. Ask any per­son what he thinks about indus­trial design. Answers prob­ably will involve such quotes as beau­ti­ful, styl­ish, ergo­nomic, comfy and mod­ern products and all of it prob­ably with fur­niture in mind. Art (that is beauty and style) is what Finland’s design star­ted from, and that was a long time ago. Ergonomics are over dis­cussed and famil­iar stage. So to any of Finland’s com­pan­ies this kind of answer would sound naïve and out­dated. At this time, concept of indus­trial design in this coun­try is a lot wider than that quote might imply. Everything widely spins around busi­ness – and design is like driv­ing force, cre­at­ing eco­nomic indic­at­ors. And it’s not neces­sary about the product, at least not mater­ial one. It’s all about deeper shape of dir­ec­tion in which strategy and product moves as a whole. But let’s start from beginning.

Jussi Ahola divides indus­trial design into two prac­tical fields of design’s effect: con­sumer design and invest­ment product. He also points out, that as an addi­tion to prac­tical work of design, indus­trial design also can be man­age­ment, edu­ca­tion or design explor­a­tion.

So, everything began dur­ing 1950-​s, when the point of design was to sup­port and cel­eb­rate nation. Designers cre­ated and par­ti­cip­ated in shows with art that was local and not resem­bling any­thing else. Main object­ive was to pro­duce some­thing that catches eye, some­thing that was beau­ti­ful, unique and exclus­ive. Typical quote from those times was „We got a prize in Milan”. Design’s sig­ni­fic­ance was in shape, style and aes­thetic. Does that remind you of any­thing? Designer was as cre­ator, “golden arms”, which could cre­ate shapes of yet unseen, for masses.

During 1960-​s Finland was flooded by strong wave of industry. Wood pro­duc­tion and pro­cessing deman­ded power­ful mech­an­isms and nice things were deemed sec­ond­ary. Designers also were search­ing for new oppor­tun­it­ies. And they found them. Every piece of big­ger equip­ment deman­ded some form of action, even more then smal­ler devices, so design­ers immersed them­selves in this mech­an­ical pro­duc­tion. Some even point this as the begin­ning of indus­trial design. Design became part of pro­cess of product devel­op­ment. The pro­cess wasn’t easy, so design­ers never worked alone. The team was made out of engin­eers, mech­an­ics and mar­ket­ing spe­cial­ists. The main dif­fer­ence is the fact that indus­trial designer never work alone, but rather in a team with other specialists.

During 1970-​s soci­ety worn by wars, turned back to domestic life and com­fort. Main sub­ject then were ergo­nom­ics and con­veni­ence. Consumer, be it child or aged per­son, became main sub­ject of design research. Designers ceased tak­ing interest in a product, and star­ted to dis­cuss what it is instead. Product’s defin­i­tion was the main point of interest. So ana­lysis and per­cep­tion of customer’s needs became things of focus.

<…> dis­cus­sion about respons­ib­il­ity gained polit­ical tone <…> Soviet and moral respons­ib­il­ity of designer got so wide and included third world and other coun­tries, which called for help. Restricting resources of the world as much as it was pos­sible became pur­pose of design. It was also desired for a cus­tomer to make his own designs. <…> Money, status and con­sumer­ism were enemies. Everyone could be a designer.

Later, about 1980-​s, from deep dis­cus­sion about very essence of product emerged new design field – design man­age­ment. It was strongly affected by big com­pany com­pet­i­tions and rapid growth. It was not enough to pro­duce product now, you had to reg­u­late its man­u­fac­tur­ing and flow. The new kind of designer had to make a con­tri­bu­tion to gen­eral stra­tegic accom­plish­ments; man­age design’s resources; super­vise design pro­cess; con­trol mesh of inform­a­tion and ideas.

According to Blaich, design man­ager oper­ates on two levels: encour­aging and identi­fy­ing stra­tegic part of design in a cor­por­a­tion, at the same time coordin­at­ing day-​to-​day oper­a­tional inter­ac­tions between related colleagues.

Typical period state­ment was “Our pro­duc­tion port­fo­lio is con­sist­ent”. Most import­ant design pro­cess – paths of design devel­op­ment and deploy­ment. Designer became sort of coordin­ator, reg­u­lat­ing not only product dur­ing its early stage of man­u­fac­tur­ing, but also its pro­duc­tion and sale indic­at­ors. Very import­ant object­ive for design man­ager, from the begin­ning of pro­duc­tion of product – super­vise the product to meet the company’s concept, gen­eral product port­fo­lio; that it would be in the same note as other products in the cata­log, that it would be in standard.

Question is – should nation’s tasks be car­ried out by someone who has formal busi­ness mar­ket­ing edu­ca­tion – is dis­cussed in other pro­fes­sions as well <…>However, assump­tion now is that design mar­ket­ing should be done by one who was edu­cated as designer.

During 1990-​s, emerged another, com­mon build­ing need. Usual man­age­ment for products wasn’t enough any­more. Marketing was rising, where emphas­iz­ing val­ues of the com­pany were more import­ant than product con­sist­ency and brand recog­ni­tion. Designers had to rise even higher and con­trol not only product as a whole, but whole design exper­i­ence – from early con­cep­tions to man­u­fac­tur­ing and selling. New term was inven­ted – design strategy. Foresight of Consumer needs, stra­tegic plan­ning for future, company’s pur­pose­ful move­ment toward design – all of this and much more took in account most of dif­fer­ent cus­tomer exper­i­ences and cus­tomer expectations.

Time passed and indus­trial design’s mean­ing in Finland changed. Designer always tried to change his pos­i­tion from oper­a­tion level tasks to stra­tegic job.

2000-​s and present times – sphere of design innov­a­tion and com­pet­it­ive­ness. Rapidly rising threat from China forced com­pan­ies to seek new ways to com­pete. It star­ted to think more about product’s jour­ney to the con­sumer. Demand for new spheres of ser­vices emerged. Product now became not only a tool for man­u­fac­tur­ing, but more like amount of a whole lot of exper­i­ences involved. Consumer is not the mass any­more, but indi­vidual. Key words for com­pan­ies – innov­a­tions, engine, nov­elty, innov­at­ive drive and so on.

So I just drew you a pic­ture of how Scandinavians and other West Europe sees design. Designer’s job is not to draw pretty pic­tures, but rather it’s strategy shap­ing, set­ting up man­age­ment and com­pet­i­tion with strong visual expres­sion method. True, it doesn’t mean that all the earlier stages of design is obsol­ete and not used any­more. It’s just that design now, adjust­ing to world’s tend­en­cies, has exten­ded its activ­ity pos­sib­il­it­ies. It’s called improve­ment. Schools are adjust­ing to new things, too, and offer suit­able education.

If you want to know more about it, I recom­mend you to read Anna’s Valtonen PhD paper “Redefining Industrial Design. Changes in the Design Practice in Finland”.

[you­tube http://​www​.you​tube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​V​d​B​x​Y​T​4​h​Z​g​M​&​a​m​p​;​h​l​=​e​n​&​a​m​p​;​f​s=1]

[you­tube http://​www​.you​tube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​j​t​t​X​w​L​C​D​0​w​I​&​a​m​p​;​h​l​=​e​n​&​a​m​p​;​f​s=1]

Simona Racaite
About author:
Simona Racaite
Simona Račaitė is a periodic writer of Art Pit. The main focus of her interests covers all forms of movement, art technologies, creativity and other innovative approaches. At the moment, her main involvement lays under the huge organizational structures and their operating functions. After chewing roots of practical design perception in Vilniu... Read further >
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