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Forays into the physical with thoughts on industrial design from frog's product design team.

Analog Form

“Industrial design is dying”. In the past couple of years I’ve been hearing this proclamation, and it is usually blamed on the rampant growth of smart devices and their habit of rendering some stand-alone products obsolete. Alarm clocks, calculators, and cameras are some of these disappearing products. The smart devices themselves are shrinking so much that they don’t offer a lot of opportunity for formal expression either - especially since most of their physicality happens to be a screen.

In an era of simpler technology, devices were defined by bulky, analog components and their distinctive shapes. An industrial designers job was seemingly easier then, as a products form was largely dictated by its characteristic internals. Think of the cathode ray tube’s bump on the back of a TV, a reel-to-reel player’s two discs, or the a rotary phone’s dial. No matter how elegant a skin a designer pulled over these mechanical assemblies, each type of product still retained its unique identity.

Compare that with today’s devices: a rectangular screen, tight bezel, flat back. This description can be applied to any number of devices: TVs, phones, media players (themselves endangered species), tablets. How is a device supposed to assert its identity, its soul?

I prefer to look at this trend in a more playful and opportunistic way, however. Technology really can set us free. Whereas designers in the past had no choice but to work with the bulk they’ve been given, we can now selectively build around some devices. Technology is getting small enough where a little extra physicality can go long way.

Last summer I had some fun with my iPad, and built a wooden housing for it that was shaped like an old cathode-ray tube TV set, complete with the bump in the back. It found a nice following online, and also served as inspiration for a two other objects like it, rounding out my ‘Analog Group’. I use Pandora on my iPhone to listen to music, but I am not convinced by today’s many iPhone docks – none of them say “music player” in the iconic way that radio-cassette players and boom boxes did back in their heyday. Thus the next object in the series became a dock capitalizing on a form language used decades ago, complete with leather carrying strap. The smallest object in the series takes after the humble alarm clock. Remember those faux wood grain GE flip clocks that sat on every bedside table? Made obsolete a while ago by fancy designer LED clocks, and more recently by the iPhone, of course. These iPhones serving as alarm clocks now could use a dock that expresses “alarm clock” as well as those flip clocks did years ago. Like the feeling of a phantom limb, there is a form that feels right and like it has always been there. Augmented by a flip clock app, this dock made by Areaware returns meaningful form to the sliver of a device that will wake you up.