Design’s time to shine

08 Oct 2012 6min read

The role of an industrial designer has evolved significantly since I started practicing in the mid-90s, and looking ahead it seems like it will continue to evolve, not just because of the tools and processes at our disposal but also because of its changing role in medical product development.

What is industrial design? In reality, it means different things to different people – including designers themselves – as definitions are affected by where people are from and the industry sector they work in.

I’ve spent the last 10 years working purely on medical products, which require their own brand of industrial design, so my opinion is radically different from somebody who designs consumer electronics, but to give the debate some context, let’s look at some history.

The origins of industrial design lie in the industrialisation of consumer products at the start of the last century. In Germany, the Deutscher Werkbund (a precursor to the Bauhaus) was a state-sponsored effort to integrate traditional crafts and industrial mass-production in order to put Germany on a competitive footing with England and the US. It was in the 50s and 60s, however, that the discipline became more prolific, with designers such as Raymond Loewy in the US and Dieter Rams in Germany helping to create products that many of us will still recognise today: from the Coca Cola bottle and the Greyhound bus to electric razors and home hi-fi for Braun.

The role of design continued to grow in significance in the US alongside the Silicon Valley technology boom. As functional products such as computers became more consumer-focused, desirability and usability became critical factors in their interface and aesthetics.

You can’t really write an article about design without the A word appearing. But Apple, and in particular Jonathan Ive, have both highlighted the impact that good design can have on the success of a global brand. Many corporations are now following suit and moving towards a design-led strategy, mixing well-designed products with innovative technology and services to win over customers.

The medical industry has been behind the curve in integrating design thinking into the development process but it is catching up. This is largely due to the lack of market pull as end users are often not responsible for the purchase decision, instead being prescribed devices and medication by medical professionals who base decisions on a much broader set of criteria. Given their role in saving lives or making sick people feel better, priorities are understandably those of safety and robustness. However, the role of design has become more important in the last few years since the FDA started to insist that evidence is provided on the usability of devices. This means that during the development process we at Team spend much of our time providing design solutions which meet the cognitive and physical abilities of users in order to ensure safety and compliance.

“Design should not dominate people. It should help people” Dieter Rams

The industry is also starting to see the benefits of using design to reinforce positive brand messages through the visual language of devices, helping to communicate quality and the efficiency of the therapy provided. This, in turn, helps to build trust and an emotional connection between device and patient/user.

One sub-sector that is really embracing design is ‘consumer medical’ – products sold directly to the public to help them manage their own healthcare. As these products are selected by consumers other aspects need to be considered such as promoting feelings of trust and confidence, or making a device intuitive and easy to use with little or no training. As consumers become more involved in managing their health and the market becomes more competitive, I believe that pharmaceutical companies will need to take a similar approach. Wal-Mart recently announced that its UK supermarket chain ASDA will begin selling asthma inhalers over their pharmacy counters, which is a step closer to giving consumers choice in their medical devices. The importance of choice will also see us move away from the ‘one size fits all’ approach to one where core technology is packaged differently to appeal to different market segments. Such a move is not without its challenges, however, and designers will need to use all their creative skills to provide platform solutions which are commercially viable within a highly regulated environment.

So how else will industrial design evolve? At one end of the spectrum it’s still about making things look appealing and ‘adding value’ through improved aesthetics, ergonomics or novel features. But the role of an industrial designer is already extending beyond just the product itself. These days we’re much more involved at the front-end, defining the user experience, the architecture of a product, and how the product fits within a client’s service, brand or technology offering. Now, the physical interface is often not the biggest part of a product as graphical user interfaces (GUIs) play a key role in user interaction. So we’ll stray towards information design, and design of the wider patient experience, embodied in apps, packaging and even instructions for use. The focus will be on creating a coherent experience from the first time a product is used to the point at which it is disposed of.

So with this crossover the role of the designer has inevitably become more complex but also more influential

The evolution of new design, manufacturing and prototyping technologies has resulted in closer integration between designers and engineers. The two disciplines now work hand in hand and have developed a much higher level of understanding and respect for each other. This is in addition to the ergonomists and human factors specialists who work alongside designers to help ensure the right questions are asked in the right way in order to reveal un-met needs and to give designers evidence on which to base decisions. So with this crossover the role of the designer has inevitably become more complex, but also more influential in the process.

I guess the way I look at industrial design is that our job is to ensure that user and client needs are understood, and then met through the experience that a product provides. It’s as much about deciding what features to leave out as what to include.

Designers are the members of the team who lose sleep over the shape of button, and who obsess about creating a product that people can and want to use, and that fit with their lifestyle.

And even though most of our end users would, in truth, prefer not to have to use the device they’ve been prescribed or bought, if it can both improve their health and is enjoyable to use and own, then our work is done.

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