The skills required to be a successful industrial designer now resemble more than ever the skills needed to be a good engineer.
That’s the view of Frank Tyneski, who took over in October as the new executive director of the Industrial Designers Society of America. With a long track record of award-winning designs at such companies as Motorola, RIM Blackberry and Kyocera, Tyneski has a unique vantage point on the future of design and the essential role it plays in product development.
In an interview with Design News, he discusses the major forces that are driving the design world, and how designers and engineers must work together to achieve success.
Design News: How would you assess the overall image of the industrial design profession?
Frank Tyneski: You won’t hear me complaining. Industrial designers today are often a celebrated species, with a lot of favorable press. But perhaps, it can be argued that industrial designers have had their guitar solo, and it is time for others involved in the product development process to have a go at it. Certainly, I have seen lots of changes in the profession during my career, from marker sketches and 2D drafting on computers to sketching with tablet PCs and 3D computing. The skills now required to become an industrial designer now resemble more than ever the skills required to be a design engineer.
DN: How important is it for design engineers and industrial engineers to forge closer working relationships in product development?
FT: It’s more than important; it’s absolutely necessary. Certainly, the two professions are wired a bit differently. Designers traditionally place a greater value on the look and feel of products, whereas engineers focus more on pragmatic design. But smart companies make bridging this gap a priority, and it turns out best when industrial designers and design engineers can work together on an equal footing. There will always be a creative abrasion between industrial designers and engineers, and that’s a good thing.
DN: To what extent are manufacturers relying on industrial design in their product development efforts?
FT: There’s no question that industrial designers are playing a greater role in product development. CEOs keep saying that design and creativity are a cornerstone of their business objectives. However, most companies still have not recognized that industrial design is worthy of being a stand-alone department that reports to the CEO or COO, which is something that I hope I can influence as IDSA’s executive director. I would love to see companies with a CCO – chief creative officer. I saw the benefits of such a setup firsthand at RIM (Research in Motion) Blackberry. I am also concerned about the difficulty many young designers have getting grass roots experience. Today, most industrial designers are not co-located with manufacturing, which prevents them from getting practical hands-on experience. You can learn a lot over coffee with tool and die makers, mold operators or packaging people.
DN: Industrial design has made its mark particularly in such categories as consumer electronics. But is the profession also making its mark in the business-to- business sector?
FT: Products in the business-to-business sector traditionally have been based on function rather than aesthetics, and that focus always continues to be very important. I had some experience in this area myself while at Motorola, where I worked on the design of the TalkAbout two-radio for police, fire and military use. Bruce Claxton, head of industrial design at Motorola, always emphasized that we were designing mission critical products, and he challenged industrial designers to come up with elegant solutions without compromising important functions. If you do a bad job of designing a two-way radio for police and fire, in the worse case a user could take a bullet.
DN: So there is a really balancing act in designing for business-to-business —
FT: Yes. The best commercial products couple pragmatic qualities with a design aesthetic that effectively communicates the product’s function. There’s a real honesty that is essential in these commercial products, and you really have to understand the work flow of the person who uses the product you are designing. In the case of the two-way radio for police, for example, the user needs a control knob that he can find and manipulate without ever having to take his eyes off a suspect in a dangerous situation. Because of this need to insure that the design is sound from a functional standpoint, it’s fortunate that design competitions increasingly have separate categories for industrial products, where the accent is on safety, reliability and productivity, versus consumer products, which tend to be more revolutionary from an aesthetic standpoint.
DN: What do you see as some of the biggest overriding trends in industrial design?
FT: Speaking from the consumer side, where I have had most of my experience in recent years, I really believe that the simplicity, ease-of-use trend will continue. In the consumer electronics area, for example, it is time that we made early adopters an endangered species. We really ought to be designing first generation products that regular consumers will be able to readily use without a Ph.D. in engineering. In my opinion, Apple achieved that objective with the iPhone. I believe that manufacturers are coming to realize that they were becoming too dependant on early adopters. Perhaps we are at last coming into the age of the go-getters, where, if you see something you want, you can go out and buy it and use it with ease.
DN: How about some other major trends?
FT: Green design certainly has become more important. Material sustainability, for example, has become a very hot topic among designers today. However, we have a long way to go in that area. For example, watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s film, “The 11th Hour,”I can’t help feeling some designer guilt. The designers and engineers that I know enter their professions with the highest of intentions. But we live by our calendars and are under tight deadlines. As a result, it is often impossible to introduce a new material that meets sustainability goals and still stay on schedule. You often must go through several levels of certification when you switch to a new material that takes a multi-faceted commitment, rounds of testing and other resources. The upshot is that we tend to take the easy way out and go with what we know. It can almost be argued that when it comes to sustainable materials, we are in some respects moving backwards because of the high consumer demand for decorated products, which require more post-processing that can reduce yields and add to scrap.
DN: Is there also more emphasis today in design on anthropology – or learning more about basic human needs and behavior?
FT: Absolutely. This is part of a trend that we call design integration, which involves extending the design team beyond industrial design. It involves understanding cultural differences, design psychologies, human factors, cognitive learning and more. This is what I meant earlier about the need to allow other areas of expertise to influence design. So design now is becoming more of a collective effort, and the goal is to create in a product a more holistic experience.
DN: In mid-October, San Francisco hosted a World Design Conference. But in this age of the Internet and instant communications, are you seeing a decline in regional design differences?
FT: Unfortunately, yes. With the Internet, we are seeing everything today in real time. Years ago, if one of our colleagues traveled to Japan, we would all wait anxiously to see suitcases loaded to the gills with Japanese products. We tore into the stuff because it was so interesting and different. Now, we have lost that element of surprise because we now have a virtual global talent show going on all the time. In fact, it is much more difficult to even guard a proprietary design. So it is much more difficult for corporate design centers to maintain a unique and distinctive design language. We are to a large extent looking at each other’s papers. As a result, we are seeing a mellowing of regional differences.
DN: Which product categories seem to be leading the way in design excellence?
FT: Most industrial designers and design engineers seem to be moved most by transportation design, if you’ll pardon the pun. It tends to be very forward-thinking, because of the longer product-development cycles. That said, with the exception of personal aviation, transportation is a mature industry. By contrast, handheld wireless products are in their frontier stage and are a very interesting category to watch. The advances we see in wireless consumer electronics products, for example, will influence other applications downstream. Hospitals are already going wireless, and you’re going to see wireless diagnostics with remote monitoring. A digital wallet is also on the horizon, as broadband comes to more wireless devices.