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Are digital devices killing industrial design?

I spoke last week at the Future Trends conference in Miami and afterwards one of the attendees came up to me with a really interesting question – do I think digital devices are killing industrial design?

I love great industrial design and think the changes in that field over the past few years have been fascinating.  You have seen retailers like Target and brands like OXO position items with good industrial design as an added value proposition. Meaning that you can buy a radio at Target but unlike Walmart theirs will have better design and cost a little more for it. So on one hand we are placing a higher value and higher dollar amount on items that are designed which elevates the role of the industrial designer.

On the other hand , getting back to the original question, we see that things like the iPhone and other smart phones combine multiple physical items like a cell phone, camera, day planner, Gameboy and more into a single device. This consolidation obviously means that each of us are buying fewer items to help run and organize our lives and from that point of view these digital devices are eliminating products and thus in some way killing industrial design. That being said I’ve seen a strong trend in digital design that proves that just because things are moving more to digital expressions of previously physical objects doesn’t mean consumers want to disconnect with the physical world. I was very surprised to find that when I started to design experiences for large digital multi-touch displays like Microsoft Surface that since consumers were manipulating an interface with near life sized objects they expected them to act like real objects. This means thinking in a very different way because things like physics and physical object manipulation come into play where they never have in online or even mobile user experience design.

If you really think about it this dance between industrial design and digital experience design is a logical one.  Both fields are trying to create the best possible experience for the end consumer and do it in new and innovative ways using psychology, usability and design. So the truth is that the shift into digital versions of previously physical objects may shrink the profession in one way. But I see a growing need for their expertise in helping to create large format digital interfaces as it requires their unique insights into making physical style interactions unique but intuitive.  I’m curious to hear you thoughts on the subject so leave them in the comments.

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