Essay: Tangible/Intangible


Product Design, without the Products.

The abridged version of the essay shown below was published in the Made in Brunel directory in June 2008. The original, longer version, can be downloaded here.

Product design used to be straightforwardly about objects – the design of physical, self contained artefacts. No longer.

Up until the mid-20th Century, products communicated their function externally out of necessity; where products interacted with the world around them, it was a physical and visible meeting of two objects. The introduction of personal computing in the 80s and infiltration of our world by microcontrollers through the 90s, has led to products whose external form had little relationship with their function became more commonplace. The question this raises is what happens when the entire concept of an external form becomes obsolete and how does an industry, whose traditional role it is to define that form, adapt? How do our skills as industrial designers translate when there is no physical function for the form to follow – or, indeed, any specific need for a form of any kind? For most designers, trained in the classical art of form, this is a completely new challenge; for those of us new to the profession, it blurs the lines of our realm beyond recognition.

Where previously mechanical processes and analogue electronics were the prime drivers of function and the mantra “form follows function” made sense, today’s products are increasingly based on a digital platform. The freedom afforded by the miniaturisation of technology has given designers more freedom regarding the outward form of a product, but also exposed a range of issues that are only recently being dealt with, such as the design of the interface to a product. Nonetheless, so long as processing power, data, and both inputs and outputs remained local, “products” had a functional purpose beyond being a vehicle for brands: to give all the components a home, and giving them an output to communicate with the external world. Suddenly, however, seemingly dumb objects have become inexplicably smart. Many physical, mechanical products have been superseded by chips the size of grains of rice, wireless connections, and intangible networks. Interactions with the world have become invisible: we speak as if into thin air to friends on another continent, we swipe a plastic card in the general proximity of a turnstile and it lets us through, our computers log us onto the right account because we have the correct eyes, and our location can be pinpointed at any time. By its very nature, the concept of pervasive or ubiquitous computing stresses the invisibility, but this does not mean that it is of no relevance to product designers. While the obvious features of this emerging age may be intangible, taking the forms of wireless networks or instantaneous transactions through touch, gestures, or speech, the interfaces with this world must, to some extent, remain physical – we are physical creatures, living in a tangible world, after all.

Advances in communications technologies over the last 20 years have allowed greater amounts of data to be transferred, irrespective of geographical distance. Voice, video, biometric information, or the stock levels of an entire warehouse can be transferred instantaneously. The development of more open code and APIs to web services has enabled formerly static objects to suddenly adapt to changes in the world beyond their immediate environment. By externalising the storage of data and, to a lesser extent outsourcing the computational heavy lifting from the product in question, designers have been able to work outside of the physical constraints of yesteryear. Radio Frequency Identification tags which are low power, low range and are used to identify a unique string stored on a tiny chip have been quietly infiltrating our lives for several years. They form the basis for the theory Bruce Sterling describes as “The Internet of Things”, whereby every object has a unique, trackable, and searchable, ID, that enables all sorts of interactions between objects, and between objects and people. RFID tags are widely used for access systems and logistics/supply chain management, primarily due to their small size and minimal cost, although privacy concerns have been raised which stem largely from a lack of knowledge of where information is flowing, what information is being processed, and who has access to it at any one time. A more visible use of the technology has been in public transport, such as with Transport for London Oyster cards. What is interesting from the perspective of an industrial designer is that the chip – the “active ingredient” if you will – is smaller than a grain of rice: essentially, it has no physical shape. And yet, it is embodied in a card, to imbue it with familiarity and communicate its function and use: it feels like a ticket, not a piece of high technology. The turnstiles, ticket barriers and ticket machines all function much like those designed for paper travelcards. Current explorations of how to communicate the interactions required focus primarily on two dimensional representations, but the logical next step is to explore how this can be translated into three dimensional forms. How can invisible transactions be indicated, how can feedback be given and how can mental models that may be foreign to the user still be communicated? All these are issues – not just related to RFID, but also QR codes, GPS, multitouch interfaces, and countless other current and future technologies – we will have to face more often in the immediate future.

QR codes allow text-based data to be compressed into a 2D, computer readable, representation. It functions as an interface between the physical world, usually in the form of printed matter, to the intangible world of information displayed as text or, more commonly, to the internet in the form of a URL. The pervasive nature of mobile phones that make the QR system work has much wider implications, and are perhaps more interesting, than the system itself. Where previously a company might have envisaged, designed, engineered and manufactured a completely new product, most features can now be integrated into software additions to a mobile. Only where inputs or outputs not currently available are required can a new product be easily justified – and with most phones already including a camera, a microphone, a speaker, a screen and a keypad, in addition to a data connection, this is often not the case. This has wide-ranging impacts on product development and on the brand “ownership” of both the object (currently the phone) and the information displayed on it.

In assessing the question of whether product design is “dead as we know it”, as frogdesign creative director Valerie Casey put it, it is more valuable to look at whether the skills that today’s industrial designers possess are still applicable. The boundaries between related design fields are indistinct; product designers do at least some element of interface design, graphic communication and engineering in their daily jobs. What needs to be questioned is whether an education and experience in product design are still useful basis from which to approach the problems of tomorrow. Approaches from different design fields utilise the same thinking, capacity for synthesis and prototyping culture, but differ in their craft – the modelmaking, wireframing, the coding. Often, the most intangible systems demand tangible touchpoints, such as the oyster card system. These elements still need the attention to detail, form and manufacturing quality that any product of the 20th century required. The fundamental change is one of mindset – a physical product is not always the solution and the product, if there is one, is likely to be an element or embodiment of the outcome, rather than the outcome itself.

Product design may be dead as we know it.

But it is far from dead.


Bibliography and Further Reading:

Arnall, Timo (2007) RFID as a Material in Design, Oslo School of Architecture and Design

Bell & Dourish (2006) Yesterday’s Tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision, Axel Springer, London

Cross, Nigel (2006) Designerly Ways of Knowing, Springer-Axel Verlag, London

Greenfield, Adam (2006) Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, Peachpit/Pearson

Hall, Peter (2007) Teaching the Bigger Picture: No-product Product Design. Metropolis April 2007

Heskett, John (2002) Toothpicks and Logos, Oxford University Press

King, Oliver (2007) Serves them Right: Service design is design but not as you know it, NewDesign Issue 52

Löwgren, J & Stolterman, E (2004) Thoughtful Interaction Design: A Design Perspective, MIT Press

Macdonald, Nico (2007) “Designing Interactions, Media or Experiences?” Panel Discussion Intersections07 Conference

McCoy, Kathering (2005) Education in an Adolescent Profession, Allsworth Communications, NY

Moggridge, Bill (2007) Designing Interactions, MIT Press

Myerson, Jeremy (2007) “What is the new Know-How in Service Design?” Panel Discussion, Intersections07 Conference

Potter, Norman ([1969] 2002) What is a Designer, Hyphen Press

Schulze, Jack (2007) RFID icons

Sparke, Penny (2004) An Introduction to Design and Culture [2nd ed], Routledge

Sterling, Bruce (2005) Shaping Things, MIT Press

Thackara, John (2005) In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, MIT Press

Weiser, Marc (1995) Designing Calm Technology, Xerox PARC

Wilkens, Todd (2007) The End of Products, Keynote speech at Emergence 2007, Carnegie Mellon University

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