The new product design – where visual meets digital


When people simply say they are a designer, I’m quick to assume that it’s graphics or web design based on the many freelancers I meet. While it could mean anything from fashion to furniture, 3D product design, or even architecture, all of these kinds of designers tend to describe themselves more precisely.

What then is the design industry? The design press, D&AD and DBA mainly appear to serve communications agencies, the big employers. There’s a market for them here. These agencies provide content, and they pay to take part in awards for their own promotion. Sometimes communications disciplines rub shoulders with industrial product design, but rarely with fashion or architecture, which are their own worlds.

Right now design is certainly in demand. Consulting firms and global businesses are investing heavily in their own design resource. Design Week asserts, that we are in the ‘Age of Design’. But what kind of design? It’s not the communication design that makes up many of its readers. It’s digital product design.

So, do we need to better distinguish between the two? Is one really more important that the other? Or, are we simply all product designers now?

Service design comes of age

These days businesses rely on digital products. Digital design is so important and continuous that in many cases it has to be in-house. Added to this there is a need to coordinate and design the customer experience across all channels: phone, print, face to face, environment, and digital interaction. And there are huge opportunities in innovating new service propositions, made possible by digital capabilities: designing new models of business.

The current need is for service design.

Service design and design thinking are by no means brand new. We heard about the service economy back in 1999 in Charles Leadbetter’s Living on Thin Air – The New Economy. It should be no surprise in 2016 that Uber owns no vehicles, Alibaba owns no inventory, Airbnb owns no property etc etc (you’ve seen the graphic).

Design thinking was refined as a methodology at Stanford through the 1990s and the ‘Agile Manifesto’ was defined back in 2001, providing the principles for user-centred digital design. Tim Brown at Ideo brought Design Thinking to the fore in 2009 in his book Change by Design.

It’s not new, but it is very much in the spotlight. These disciplines are maturing. And starting to make a bid for that generic “designer” term that graphic designers thought was theirs.

Product versus communication

The thing is, it can be pretty confusing for graphic designers to hear messages about ‘designing business’ since the call to action is largely for service design which is likely to be as alien to them as architecture or fashion.

Service design is inspired by industrial product design processes involving insight, testing and iteration. Design thinking is a defined methodology. It’s not just about being thoughtful, clever or witty. Agile is a defined method too. It’s not just about being a bit more flexible.

Service designers tend to have degrees in product design, engineering or psychology, most at postgraduate level. Testing involves scientific techniques. Much of the time, service design is more akin to management consulting with its focus on complex stakeholder management. These designers think in a different way to most who went to art school. Visual designers just don’t test and iterate in the same data-driven way.

Importance of visual design

Within many articles on service design circulating in traditionally visual design arenas, I see reference to “merely visual” design.

Now, this is not the fashionable thing to say, but not every designer needs to be concerned with rewiring business. It’s important for designers to hone a craft and specialism, whether it’s strategic, craft-based, digital or physical. We need them all. It’s a mistake to assume that new is good and therefore old is bad.

Graphic design mustn’t be belittled in these debates. We’re in a highly sophisticated visual culture and there’s still very much a need for expert visual design, packaging design, and print. In a data-driven world, it’s more important than ever to maintain some sense of uniqueness, quirk, and sometimes even imperfection in order to stand out.

Bridges and collaborations

I’m not sure where service designers congregate, or what they read. It’s likely that they aren’t jostling for new business and air-time yet in quite the same way as packaging designers. They haven’t built their clubhouse. But is it just me who feels like there’s very often a mismatch between message and audience? That proponents of “design thinking” can denigrate the visual design community rather than reaching out?

I’m hugely interested in discussions around service design, yes please. We all need to understand it, and many don’t. So let’s be clear about what these disciplines are, how different they are, and show some love for them all. It’s through mutual respect and collaboration that we can really deliver value for the organisations that need us.