A major takeaway of the recent Samsung/Apple patent dispute: Physical objects have retained their power in the digital age. The battle wasn’t centered so much on technical innovations but design patents--specifically, the physical look of the iPad versus that of the Samsung Galaxy Tab.
Smartphones, laptops, and tablets are very much like ships from the colonial days of the past. Then, the countries with the best merchant navies dominated the seas and, as a result, became the richest and most powerful nations in the world. Today, we have shifted from shipping physical goods to digitally transmitting services and media, and companies with the best vessels control the digital trade.
Yet smartphones, tablets, and laptops are more than just vessels and delivery mechanisms for digital content. In the digital age, physical devices also serve as emblems of the complex, software-based goods and services they bring to life. In a world of ever-shifting software and application development, these symbols offer a sense of permanence and consistency. For many technology firms, iconic physical devices have replaced corporate logos as the primary representations of brand identity. Familiar artifacts, like Apple’s iPhone, serve as functional, usable, three-dimensional trademarks, simultaneously expressing the ecosystem, content, and brand values in one powerful statement.
Form Follows Meaning
Those with an understanding of history will know that the power of symbolic objects is not new. Complex ideas such as religion, nationhood, and even love are often expressed through the use of objects to help make complicated and abstract ideas simpler to relate to. A cross stands for Christianity, a flag conveys national identity, and a wedding band represents a marriage.
Similarly, as tangible, real-world experiences increasingly become digital and virtual, industrial design, through the embodiment of meaning in concrete form, has reemerged as a critical component of a company’s success. Companies with vast digital ecosystems need simple, straightforward ways to express their brands, and it just so happens that physical devices, which serve both a functional and symbolic purpose, perform this task exceptionally well.
Apple was the first to understand that as the world becomes virtualized, there arises a parallel need for impeccably designed and masterfully engineered physical products. Fast on Apple’s heels, many other companies have followed suit, especially in Silicon Valley. Amazon’s Lab 126 has produced some great hardware, including commercially successful products like the Kindle Fire. Google has staked its claim in the hardware space with the Nexus Q and the public unveiling of its groundbreaking Project Glass. In June 2012, Colin Gillis, an Internet analyst at BGC Partners, told the New York Times: "Google is a hardware company now. Hardware is becoming the doorway to products and services. If you’re going to use the Internet, you are going to have to use a device. Whoever makes that device controls what services and products are offered to you, and those nickels and dimes add up over time."
Microsoft, the world’s most successful “pure software” company, is now seeking to develop equally enticing physical products such as the new Surface RT tablet, a move that threatens to disrupt permanently the conventional division between companies that make software and those that supply the hardware to run it. If Microsoft produces both the software and the hardware, what will that mean for Dell, HP, and the other hardware suppliers that have spent the past decade focusing on efficient engineering and cost reduction at the expense of innovation? In a recent New York Times article, Microsoft Windows President Steven Sinofsky is quoted saying, "We decided to do Surface because it is the ultimate expression of Windows. It’s a stage."
Even Nike (where I worked as a creative director of Tech Lab) is moving into the realm of digital experience and ecosystem design, while maintaining a stronghold on the physical object. For example, Nike Fuel could simply have been an app on a smartphone, but the system is brought alive by the powerful symbolism of a single wearable accessory.
From Product Design to Ecosystem Design
As we move from designing isolated, single-function products toward a world dominated by universal products, platforms, and ecosystems, the tools, processes, and approaches to industrial design must evolve. In this regard, there are two main factors for industrial designers to consider:
First, ecosystem design is about orchestrating an experience. Design in this context becomes closer to movie making and theater than conventional object design and engineering. We are, in effect, writing a script in which objects are the characters in a play. Most of the recent work I have done at Frog focuses on orchestrating an experience, with products and their functionality designed to fit that experience. Frog’s creative leadership tackles these complex ecosystem programs like a movie-making team with directors, producers, and animators. They work together to shape the narrative and make the production come alive for the audience.
The teams are interdisciplinary because the solutions to the new design challenges are rooted in multiple perspectives. Our industry places a high value on the so-called T-shaped designer, one with a core skill on the vertical axis combined with a generalist understanding of a series of contributing disciplines along the horizontal axis. This skill combination creates an overlap among designers and allows for better collaboration as we understand and build upon one another’s strengths and capabilities.
Second, think of the physical world as a giant supercomputer. As technological advances have made devices more portable and personal, networks and connected environments are becoming more prevalent. This creates new possibilities for designers to engineer the three-dimensional world we live in, as opposed to just three-dimensional objects. Technology is being dispersed into the environment, as networks, sensors, and the cloud replace many of the functions of a traditional, standalone computer. Links to the network through radios, sensors, and transceivers connect people in such a way that the physical environment itself is taking on the role of a supercomputer. We now talk about interactions that go beyond the screen and conventional input devices such as a mouse and stylus.
Taking the computer out of computing means physical product designers have a radically expanded space in which to play. When designing in a three-dimensional environment, we can take advantage of qualities like movement, gesture, gravity, and inertia. In this context, industrial designers have a new and exciting role to play, one where our expertise in designing for the three-dimensional world can be fully applied.
A New Era for Hardware
Right now is an incredible time to be an industrial designer in the tech industry. To take advantage of this pivotal moment, it is critical that designers develop an awareness of the new paradigm of the product ecosystem and realize their potential to shape the human environment.
Max Burton is an executive creative director at frog San Francisco. This post first appeared on FastCo.Design.
Image: LCD via Shutterstock