The current model of Industrial Design is broken.
Originally moored by a sense of purpose and an intent to improve quality of life on a mass scale, industrial design has long since broken free of its foundations and is wildly adrift on a sea of irresponsibility and waste. It exists now as a byproduct of the industrial revolution and as a tool for marketing teams to create ever increasing profit margins for the companies they represent, by forcing new and ‘innovative’ consumer products into the market.
Industrialisation defines not just our built environment and consumption of mass produced items from clothes pegs to laptops, but also the food we eat and the air we breathe. From a ten-thousand foot view we appear to have a symbiotic relationship with this industrial system: it creates and we pay to consume, fueling each other’s existence. In fact it’s parasitic: industrialization destroys nature and depletes unrenewable resources in order to reconfigure, repackage and resell them to us. The machine prospers and though it seems we do too, it’s the environment we live in that’s being pulled out from under us like the proverbial rug.
The real question is if this power can be wrangled to improve the quality of life for more than a privileged few. The benefits of design for mass production need to extend beyond first-world technological toys engineered to be obsolete, and disposable 4-blade razors. The value industrial design has is in closed-loop systems where products would not designed to disappear into the ether (i.e. populate landfills), and this comes down to both the responsibility of the designer and the company producing the product. As it exists now, industrial design serves marketable wants instead of actual needs via a brand driven approach instead of a holistic view of what the actual effects to society and the environment are. This requires an over-arching ethos and ability to break down walls and open up collaboration beyond the discipline of design, instead of waging wars over IP and design patent infringements in order to protect market dominance, or focus on product-driven solutions.
As Victor Papanek pointed out in Design for the Real World, “the dominance of the marketplace has so far delayed the emergence of a rational design strategy”.
The ability to make anything and everything is fast arriving, but without a unified vision as to what we do with this ability we will likely bury ourselves beneath our own cleverness.
This is not a condemnation of the past but a critical view of the present, and a future we’re blindly accelerating towards. It’s one thing to acknowledge mistakes we’ve made and ways that things could have been done better, and it’s another to perpetuate them. The past has gotten us here, and the technology we have developed puts us on the precipice of unlimited human potential.
It’s time for us as designers to step up and take responsibility for what we’ve done, to be open, critical and constructive about the state of a truly unsustainable industry. Forget about design festivals and conferences, awards and praise that simply perpetuate the same cycle. Let’s take a radical departure and engage the issue on a higher level; government, policy and education. The future demands that those who know have a responsibility to do something now, instead of looking back at what could have been done differently. Compassion and optimism will be valuable tools in the fight against apathetic consumerism.