Ever since the introduction of iPhone featuring a flat multi-touch screen that replaced physical keyboards, the scope of traditional industrial design on new product developments has been shrinking. Instead of providing physical interface, many companies opted to offer software-defined functions that make the product flexible and reprogrammable. For a typical smart phone, the work of industrial design is largely limited to the design of the frame, few buttons, back cover and some accessories like battery chargers and earphones. Compared to feature phones where industrial design defined the look and feel of the product, software now mainly define how smart phones look and feel. This led to the massive expansion of the role of UX design over the last 10 years.
However, with the emergence of “smart” devices, wearables and Internet of Things, we are likely to see the return of industrial design as one of the key differentiators of products. In fact, we are likely to see a massive convergence of different design domains including product, fashion, and UX together with different domains of engineering including mechanical, material, electrical, and software to form a new foundation of new product development. In the past, a successful product development meant a tight collaboration between industrial design and mechanical engineering. Recently, this has been replaced with a collaboration between UX design and software engineering. In the emerging field of wearables and smart devices, however, companies will need tight collaborations among these six domains. So, from a design standpoint, it is not just whether design will lead the innovation process, but which design domain will lead the process. Some companies will be led by physical domain team (industrial design + mechanical engineering + material engineering), whiles others will be led by digital domain team (UX design + software engineering + electrical engineering). Eventually, some companies might find more harmonious relationship between the two domains. Subtle differences among these options are likely to produce fairly substantive differences in the way firms approach to emerging market of smart products and their ultimate fate in the market.
Apple’s recent hire of Marc Newson or its invitation of fashion editors, together with the fact that Jon Ives is an industrial designer (and the departure of Scott Forstall), all seem to indicate that Apple lets the physical domain design lead the digital domain. This is a stark contrast to companies like Google and Samsung where physical domain seems to take a back seat. It is likely that, however, these other companies will be forced to take industrial design seriously once again.
Another interesting case is the recent announcement by LG about the circular plastic slim OLED panel. This clearly is an engineering innovation led by the demand created by physical design, which will provide an opportunity implement clever UX options. As digital technology continues to penetrate deeply into the physical world, the crash between these two domains of design will only continue to rise. We will see this type of convergent design-engieering collaboration that encompasses both physical and digital domains as companies continue struggle to figure out exactly how to design these “smart” and wearable devices and what the hell they actually are.