The world of product design has changed profoundly in the last two decades ─ and it keeps on changing.
Technological developments ─ such as increased mobile connectivity, the smartphone and the inherent paradigm of ubiquitous computing ─ have created a new, more complex type of material things.
The experiences that users have with objects that were formerly consumed for their core functionalities now transcend their material manifestations in our homes. Doorknobs are connected to the internet, electric toothbrushes are gamified and we can tell our speakers what music we want to hear.
At the same time, pressured by the next generation of conscious consumers, sustainability is finally beginning to attract the kind of relevance in industrialized product development that it should have had from the beginning. Our clients started asking about it, then began to establish internal KPIs that will hopefully lead to tangible societal responsibility for them.
These are developments, or trends, born from metatrends that have been brewing for decades – science fiction has been formulating a variety of utopias about self-driving cars and dystopias about an uninhabitable world since at least the middle of the 20th century.
Why then talk about it now?
Well, I personally believe that design comes with a responsibility to, first and foremost, perceive life thoroughly with one’s own eyes. Based on a broad, humanistic and democratic education – and motivated by the individual potential in society – those perceptions should then inform our decisions. These decisions can then be put in place as the foundation of meaningful acts of design.
In short, you can’t design if you don’t look closely at the world around you. Trends are one way of doing this.
Let’s begin with an observation rather than a fully-fledged trend. In recent years, a formal style has emerged in motion graphics that uses three-dimensional abstract forms, with materials consisting of colorful palettes rendered with synthetic finishes. These forms would usually be animated in mostly floating or surreal ways. The style is fun, sweet and approachable ─ let’s call it “Candy Pop” for now. Its bright, artificial look can be found all over inspirational image boards – but how exactly is it relevant for product design?
If we contemplate the state of design, the “international style” of contemporary product design could be described as an evolved formal Braun canon, heavily influenced by Asian and Scandinavian minimalism.
The industry leaders’ designs in consumer products are usually clean, minimalistic artefacts ─ aspiring to “super-normalcy” (as per Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa’s eponymous exhibition of designs) through reduction, simplicity and unobtrusiveness.
This new Modernism no longer adheres to the functional dogma of the Fifties, so we can observe more approachable products. Ergonomic factors have now been implemented as well and an industry-standard user-centered design approach has ensured that these products don’t manifest themselves as antagonists to human bodies. However, monochrome palettes and geometric base bodies dominate the status quo of how products are routinely designed these days.
I believe that, in every aspect of life, it is highly interesting to look for movements that diametrically oppose the status quo. As an example, let’s use “Candy Pop” as an anti-statement to our clean “international” style and discuss where it came from and where it might go…
“Candy Pop” was born in 3D-modelling and rendering software. Its look and “feel” is inherited from material libraries of said software. Its surreal nature of formal hyper precision, MC Escher-esque compositions and brighter-than-nature colors ─ all composed in photo-realistic lighting ─ are what intrigue the viewer. At the same time these same software capabilities are being used to design, visualize and market everyday products to customers. Almost every product picture or animation in advertising today is CGI (computer-generated imagery). One could go as far as to say that products exist almost exclusively in the virtual world until we, as consumers, unpack them from the cardboard box that was delivered to our doorstep via a series of digital interactions. This virtualization is only going to become more and more prevalent.
Digital twins of our physical lives will be born: products will not sit on shelves for us to buy but rather be conceived via generative design through individualized interaction with brands. What makes “Candy Pop” possible sits right at the interface of these developments. And it taps right into the technological possibilities to show us what one extreme of our future’s consumable-style spectrum might look like. Today’s simultaneity of design disciplines, driven by digital tools, is what makes small developments like “Candy Pop” even more interesting.
These explorational trends also reinforce the designer’s obligation to look beyond the obvious when trying to consult clients strategically on future business.
When I began studying industrial design in 2010, sustainability had only just became a topic that people were getting invested in. It certainly wasn’t something that was taught at university. Instead, most of our bachelor theses revolved around the topic of “making the world better” in one way or another.
Today, we have IDEO’s circular-design guide, festivals, conferences, books and sometimes even political action focusing on sustainability. Back then, sustainability meant using wood, textiles and the color green. We talked about holistic product-life cycles, cradle-to-cradle principles and other factors of societal sustainability like quality of labor. Then we graduated and found out that the industry didn’t really care about these things ─ or was only doing them for public relations purposes. I am especially excited by how far sustainability as a core element of design has come since then, even if we’ve sometimes followed its progress with great cynicism.
Let’s now discuss a striking example of how and why we’re going in the right direction ─ and what other interesting developments are happening around this topic.
As previously mentioned, “sustainability” was usually associated with a crude, almost naive, semantic dogma of natural materials, symbolic colors and even more symbolic names. Our general understanding was that “wood is good” and recycled plastics or paper were the pinnacle of marginalizing resource consumption in the Anthropocene. But then we learned that recycling often just reuses a part of the waste material; that compostable plastics can still take centuries to dissolve in nature, and that just because a piece of furniture came with an eco seal doesn’t mean the workers were paid a fair wage for their labor.
All in all, greater levels of knowledge and publically available information have created a more holistic view of product life cycles.
Naturally, this can now be seen reflected in product-design trends driven by manufacturing techniques, materials and, subsequently, the colors, forms and narratives around them.
Take for instance the footwear industry ─ a market that changes fast, is turbocharged by marketing and whose products draw their excitement partly from their diversity and short life cycles. These factors are inherently unsustainable ─ the vast majority of sneakers, for example, are manufactured conventionally with mixed materials, glues, appalling labor conditions and a general disregard for recyclability, repairability or general longevity.
Even though there are countless exciting student and competition projects regarding sustainability, it’s worth looking at what big players like Nike and Adidas have actually done in reality to showcase what an alternative could look like. Be it sneakers made from ocean plastic or shoe-factory waste materials, these isolated products will not generate the kind of impact required to save the world. An ongoing examination of what can be done, however, can result in design styles that give us a glimpse of a much better future.
In Nike’s case, we see soles made from shredded plastics. The colorful speckles, considered impurities yesterday, are today the vehicle to tell customers: “I am deliberately made from many materials, not just sourced from one perfect, pristine plastic compound.” The sneaker uppers tell a similar story, showcasing an earthy textile from many undyed fibers woven together in Nike’s proprietary 3D-knitting technology. The ultimate paradigm shift from “wood is good” to high-tech enabled, industrialized sustainable materials becomes tangible ─ this brave new world is being built on the detritus of the old one.
They key here is that rougher, upcycled materials begin to be used more confidently, leaving behind the sustainability stigma of inferior quality or esoteric naturalism. This creates looks that users desire.
If we can make sustainable products desirable, we can live up to design’s promise to make peoples’ lives better through great products.
Computer-aided design (CAD) has come a long way.
The promise of the fourth industrial revolution – the decentralization of mass production and maximum efficiency by employing technologies colloquially called 3D printing ─ has yet to be fulfilled on broad scale. But using algorithms to automatically design specific objects is already an industry standard. Designer and engineers in all fields of expertise now employ code to do their work for them. These exercises have created a vast pool of new aesthetics ─ some already exposed to mainstream eyes through science fiction, others still limited to their respective realms of architecture, medicine or fashion.
Expanding further upon the development of digitalization in design, we understand that product design is no longer only concerned about the physical form alone. Physical products are usually embedded in one holistic design effort that encompasses brand, advertising, purchase, delivery, etc. Many products are the result of, and/or the access point for, digital services. The smartphone and the access it provides to virtually any brand offering in the world via the internet, is still the most comprehensible example of that. Smart Homes, Smart Wearables, Smart Mobilty, Smart Anything ─ all are reliant on having interactive and connective tech embedded in their respective products.
Generatively designing products with interactive technology that can communicate to other entities in the cloud are the logical next step. The result of this development will be physical interfaces ─ not displays as such, but rather sentient materials. Advancing the ability to make virtually every material “sentient” ─ via 3D printing, 3D knitting or combined manufacturing techniques ─ will naturally lend itself to be leveraged as a more immediate active and reactive layer between technology and users.
Harnessing code and advanced automated knitting machines have massively driven textile performance in the footwear industry.
Using the same machine, we can now simultaneously knit breathability, stability, colorways and other features into a single piece. The addition of memory materials, actuators and sensors into this process is not only logical, it’s already happening. Consequently, this process will drastically increase efficiency of environments and products that are dependent on space and weight. Imagine reducing automotive interiors to bare surfaces that can ─ when necessary ─ become tangible and interactive or measure the passengers’ vital functions. Taking human proximity one step further, fashion will increasingly overlap with value propositions that were formerly exclusive to consumer electronics. We can already get a glimpse of what ubiquitous interaction will look like in recent concept cars that mix functional textiles and advanced visualization techniques. Our understanding that a high-performance interactive product is a physical thing with an attached touchscreen will shift towards goods that are inherently interactive, and even responsive, to many more factors than today. As we have seen, the colorful gradients and algorithmic patterns of 3D-knitted footwear design have already permeated contemporary fashion and furniture design. The uniform shapes and gradient material changes that become possible through generative design will obscure the product’s function. Increasingly blurring the lines between physical objects and interfaces in a virtual world, we will see new product archetypes.
Personally, I expect to see more of this style, driven by manufacturing and connective technologies coming literally to life in a new age of interactive products that will surround us.