In The Absence Of Industrial Design

When I first stumbled upon the new Sony Ericsson Xperia Pureness smart phone the other day during my morning coffee (image above), I was immediately struck with a feeling of spontaneous revulsion. The Xperia, in my humble opinion, has achieved the pinnacle of industrial design failure -a chamfered black box. Brilliant! Where can I get one of these ergonomically-obtuse smart phones?
I wonder, was the concept and inspiration behind this product design the science fiction movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact (the monolith; also in 2001: A Space Odyssey) or the 2001 Pontiac Aztek? Either way, the Xperia lacks any type of meaningful communicative form. Its ugly plastic shell trimmed with abrasively styled chamfered edges reflect a kind of inhumanity and artificial synthetic-ness. Precisely why you would want to put this odd rectangular shaped object to your ear, from an ergonomic perspective, in public to answer a call is beyond me. The enclosure housing design seems like it would be better suited to a container of motor oil.
Nevertheless I imagine the designers, engineers and perhaps brand managers over at Sony Ericsson, at some point in time during the Xperia’s inception, reached consensus on a compelling rationale for bringing to market such a cold and quintessentially austere-looking hand-held mobile device. Remove the Sony Ericsson logo and this object could, at first glance, be mistaken for a battery recharger or an electronic stud finder found at your local hardware store (Ironically, many of the current digital stud finders convey a more aesthetically inviting form and user interface than the Xperia).

Perhaps my critique is a little too harsh. Then again, I think when a mass produced consumer product like the Xperia makes its way to market, and by none other than global electronics powerhouse Sony Ericsson, I begin to think industrial design has died a miserable death and is no longer regarded as an essential step in the modern product development process.

Chasing The Minimalist Apple Aesthetic
The Xperia represents an inconsistently executed trend in product design that I believe has been going on for a long time now, ever since the first Apple iPod was introduced back in 2001. The trend toward simplicity through characteristically rectilinear product forms stripped of all but the essential UI elements, perhaps with no more than 3-5 buttons and virtually no superficial or extraneous styling cues and a filleted corner here and there. Some people refer to this as minimalism or the Apple aesthetic. Still others may make references to the strict form follows function philosophy and design principles employed, most notably, by Braun products during the late 1960s and 70s. Regardless of the interpretations, Apple get it right with almost every product they release. But unfortunately nearly everyone else, Sony Ericsson included, get it dead wrong every time.

In the case of Sony Ericsson and the Xperia Pureness, it’s amazing to think with all their global resources including, supposedly, the best and brightest technologists, market researchers, creative design and engineering minds, they can only come up with a dull-looking rectangular black box for their latest smart phone creation. Surprisingly this is a product intended to appeal to the growing mass market for high-end mobile lifestyle devices -ergo stylish object of desire? I think not.
It seems virtually all large international manufacturers of consumer electronics and technology related products still appear to be chasing Apple’s somewhat elusive success. There are so many bad knock-off renditions of Apple products it’s enough to make you sick. Apple’s ability to create the objects many people desire (and many companies quest to emulate) are a glorious testament to the power of good design. Moreover, the insight of Steve Jobs’ prioritizing of design above all else, and the clever intuition of perhaps the greatest industrial designer of our time, Johnathan Ive, it seems no organization is able to replicate the mystique of Apple design. In Objectified, we get a rare glimpse into this world through the detail-oriented and slightly obsessive perfectionism of Ive, responsible for virtually all of Apple’s products since 1997.

Industrial Design Becomes The Design Of Interactions And Experiences
I believe if industrial design is to remain a relevant part of the product design and development process, we must first come to terms with the fact that physical objects themselves are becoming secondary to interactions and experiences. Unlike the physical realm, these attributes are somewhat harder to quantify without at least delving into the realm of cognitive psychology and human-centered design theory.
Technology itself has played a significant role in determining the look and feel of a great many products available to us today. Advances in microprocessor miniaturization and storage technology over the past 20 years have facilitated products of increasingly smaller size. Coupled with the recent proliferation of multi-touch screen technologies and organic LEDs, common consumer products like smart phones, portable GPS devices, and e-book readers are invariably reaching a point of critical mass where the device itself can essentially be realized and paired down to nothing more than a flat plane or screen.


In the futuristic movie Avatar we are able to visualize a plausible future where, in this case, military and science personnel work and interact with a variety of digital surfaces and curved, three-dimensional holographic interfaces.

On another level, I believe part of the challenge for ID lies with existing product design-development paradigms where companies may prioritize engineering, development and manufacturing efficiency above design and user experience.
In terms of physical products, the cost of manufacture and assembly, the tendency to utilize existing production techniques to keep costs down, unfortunately play a greater role in dictating a product’s final outcome more than interaction and experience design modeling.

By contrast, the intangible realm of interactive design presents a somewhat different set of pseudo-physical design and development challenges. Caveats such as platform constrains (e.g. browser, OS), open-source versus proprietary frameworks (e.g. PHP versus ASPX.NET, Flash versus jQuery), can play a significant role in determining design outcome and whether or not a product will be successful or fail miserably.

Where does this leave the Industrial Designer?

I believe the Industrial Designer is left with the important role and responsibility of designing beyond the physical surface to maximize the effectiveness of a product’s intangible attributes. That is, tailoring a product’s interactive qualities to the benefit of the user’s experience. Industrial Designers must become experts in this area, orchestrating meaningful product interactions which place the human experience first with the things potentially undermining this relationship—things like creeping featurismkept at bay. The quality of our end user’s experience must be elevated to the highest pedestal to become the most important attribute of any product, application, device or service (along with environmental sustainability of course!). This is the new ID and what ultimately separates the good products from brilliant products we can’t live without.

“Gone are the blissful days of the ‘new objectivity,’ where things’ forms followed their functions. This is because in the age of microelectronics, it’s hardly possible any more for these functions to be illustratedjust witness the computer. To an exponentially increasing degree, the post-modern world consists of highly complex Black Boxes whose technical workings can only be explained by specialists. As I just mentioned, today’s design no longer strives for functional or objective transparence, but rather for security and the trust of the world. The more complex our world becomes, the more urgent the design of the interfaces between people and systems becomes. And thus the successful design of everyday items is no longer positioned towards the object, but rather towards the subject.” -Norbert Bolz

Further Reading
Donald A. Norman. The invisible Computer. The MIT Press, 1998.
B. Joseph Pine II, James H. Gilmore. The Experience Economy. Harvard Business School Press, 1999.
Donald A. Norman. Emotional Design. New York. Basic Books, 2004.
Norbert Bolz. The user-iIllusion of the world., 2008.
Sabeen Durrani, Qaiser S. Durrani. Applying Cognitive Psychology to User Interfaces. Part 3: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Intelligent Human Computer Interaction. Springer India, 2009.
Tim Brown. IDEO Human Centered Design IDEO Books, 2009.