The Future of Industrial Design

by Tim Brown, CEO/President, IDEO
Tim Brown.

Tim Brown. Photo courtesy of IDEO

When I was in school back in the 1970s and 80s, industrial design meant creating mass-manufactured products. The prevailing question was How do you make the perfect cup or chair or sports car? The challenge was clear: make better, more efficient, more beautiful stuff.

That kind of design still exists, of course, but now the challenge at hand is much more complicated. Why? Because the things we interact with are leaving the simple and physical world and becoming virtual and complex. If industrial design is the interface between the world of technology (defined broadly, to mean anything we design and make) and the world of people, then it has to solve for a whole new level of abstraction. Today, industrial design is as much about designing systems and software and applications as it is about designing objects. We are designing machines, but also the ghosts that live inside them.

A recent IDEO project reflects how much the practice of industrial design has had to stretch in the last couple of decades. For Innova, we were tasked with reconceiving an entire school system in Peru. The brief included many classic design problems—plans for a campus and classroom—but we were also faced with creating a business model, a curriculum, and digital tool for educators. Moreover, everything we created had to be confluent within a culturally specific system with its own set of requirements. The work still fits my definition of industrial design as a mediation between technology and people, but because it applies across an entire network of information and activities, it will have far more impact than simply designing a better school desk.

That kind of project is what excites me about being a designer today, and it’s why I was surprised that the categories hiring the most industrial designers in the NEA [industrial design] report (automotive, for example) were so traditional. That there wasn’t a single service company in most of those tables seemed very 20th-century to me. I’d argue that the opportunity for design—where it’s taking the greatest strides—is likely to be outside the categories we’d identify in the past. Perhaps the data simply hasn’t caught up with the reality of the situation.

The view from our offices, where we’re being asked to design new systems in education and health, looks quite different. Who would have known 15 years ago that Kaiser and the Mayo Clinic would be hiring design teams? Faced with having to support a vast aging population, the health care industry has had to think a lot more like designers.

Not only are we applying our craft to a broader set of industries, we also have unprecedented access to tools and manufacturing techniques that have reunited design with the act of making. And once the making is done, designers can bring their ideas to market in a flash. What’s happening on platforms like Kickstarter and Etsy—how effectively they’ve helped designers with things they’re not good at, like raising capital and finding their market—is just jaw dropping. IDEO’s extended family has launched many a project on Kickstarter, including a portable kayak called the Oru and “the world’s thinnest watch,” called CST-01 . Some of today’s most exciting startups—Airbnb, Mailbox, Pinterest—have founders who are designers. The crossover between design and entrepreneurship has never been stronger.

So, how do we prepare the next generation of industrial designers for this new abundance? Broadening and deepening educational approaches to design is a good start. Art school was invented by the Bauhaus 100 years ago, and that has been the go-to model ever since. But hybridized programs are starting to pop up, like the MIT media lab and Stanford’s d. school (started by IDEO’s very own David Kelley). Design is a practice that one learns by doing, not by listening to lectures. We need to capture the minds of more kids, tap into a broader segment of the student population, and get them excited about the contribution they can make.

To summarize William Gibson, the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed. But that moment is coming. It’s exciting to see this pivot from designing artifacts to inventing entire systems that we live in and operate. More than ever before, design is transforming how we think and behave and connect with other people—and the world.

Visit to read Valuing the Art of Industrial Design: A Profile of the Sector and Its Importance to Manufacturing, Technology, and Innovation. Visit our News Room for the press release about the report.