The changing nature of design is coming full circle

Matt Nish-Lapidus on the evolution of product development from pre-industrial through post-industrial eras.


Design is entering its golden age. Now, like never before, the value of the discipline is recognized. This recognition is both a welcome change and a challenge for designers as they move to designing for networked systems. Jon Follett, editor of Designing for Emerging Technologies, recently sat down with Matt Nish-Lapidus, partner and design director at Normative Design, who contributed to the book. Nish-Lapidus discusses the changing role of design and designers in emerging technology.

As Nish-Lapidus describes, we’re witnessing the evolution of product development from one crafts-person, one customer; to a one crafts-person, many customers; to a one craft-person, one product that many people will customize. He explains how the crafted object and the nature of design has changed, beginning with the pre-industrial era:

“If you look at a pair of glasses from the pre-industrial era — anything from Medieval up through the 1700s to 1800s — what you’re seeing is an object that’s the direct expression of a single crafts-person and was made for a single individual to use. It’s a representation of that crafts-person’s view of what glasses should be. They create one, and they sell that one pair. It was often, at the time anyway, also made on commission, so it was rare that they would make large quantities of the same thing and have them sitting around. Pre-industrial, in this way, is an expression of the individual crafts-person involved.”

The industrial period ushered in the ability for the crafts-person to mass-produce, which changed the landscape not only for designers, but for consumers as well. Nish-Lapidus explains:

“The new methods of production and new materials that were available allowed the designer to create something that they’d never been able to create before on a mass scale. You also had, on the consumer side, the emergence of many people buying and owning and using basically the exact same object. In the industrial model, the object itself, in this case the glasses, becomes an expression of that scale. It’s no longer a direct expression of the individual crafts-person communicating with an individual customer. Instead, it’s a one-to-many relationship between the designer and the people who end up using this product.”

Today, we’re entering the post-industrial era, and the relationship between the crafts-person and consumer is shifting yet again — in some ways, back to the more personal, one-to-one relationship of the pre-industrial era. Nish-Lapidus notes:

“We go from having a single pair of glasses made for a single person, handmade usually, to a pair of glasses designed and then mass-manufactured for a countless number of people, to having a pair of glasses that expresses a lot of different things. On one hand, you have something like Google Glass, which is still mass-produced, but the glasses actually contain embedded functionality. Then we also have, with the emergence of 3D printing and small-scale manufacturing, a return to a little bit of that artisan, one-to-one relationship, where you could get something that someone’s made just for you.

“These post-industrial objects are more of an expression of the networked world in which we now live. We again have a way of building relationships with individual crafts-people. We also have objects that exist in the network themselves, as a physical instantiation of the networked environment that we live in. We go from pre-industrial, where we have an expression of a crafts-person, to industrial, which is kind of a mass expression, to post-industrial, which is the individual crafts-person now making one thing that is used by many people, but it’s the one thing; it’s not copies of that one thing.”

Designing networked objects: aesthetic qualities of a network system

Designing for emerging technology requires a new way of designing. In the interview, Nish-Lapidus talks about a language of aesthetics for designers creating products in the networked world. He identifies key terms — like “texture” — that will help designers think about their craft:

“Texture is looking at the way the system connects to all of the other pieces that exist within it, or how those pieces interact with each other. When you have a system that has multiple nodes, and those nodes could be human or inhuman or physical objects or pieces of software, how does the communication between those happen, and is it smooth? Is it easy? Is that a difficult connection? Is there a lot of interference? When you start to talk about that in terms of a texture of connection, you can look at how obvious the connections are. If they’re really obvious and easy, and you can access them, and you understand what you’re supposed to put in them or what you’re going to get out of them, you could talk about that as a smooth form of communication. If it’s really confusing, or you get something unexpected, or there’s interference from other aspects of the system, you could start talking about that as rough, or as other types of similar descriptors.”

You can listen to the entire interview on the SoundCloud player below or on our SoundCloud stream.

This interview is part of our ongoing investigations into Experience Design and Business and Experience Design and the Internet of Things.

Cropped image on article and category pages by Susanne Nilsson on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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