Post-Industrial Design

I’ve been intrigued by the term “post-industrial design” ever since I encountered it in a post by our colleagues at BERG. The term has been around since the late 1970s-early 1980s, and there are various articles from that era about the “coming age of post-industrial design.” Whatever age they might have imagined via their use of that term (rapid manufacturing? 3D computer modeling? dematerialization of products?), I’m pretty sure it’s arrived by now.

How BERG has been using the term, as in the use of non-traditional materials, including non-tangible technologies (“immaterials”) such as RFID, has really resonated with the work we do at Kicker, where the form of the product, while still important, only tells part of the object’s story. Objects become hosts for all sorts of interactivity that may or may not be suggested by their forms (if there even are forms). I was getting to this same idea in my talk Interaction as a Material, but didn’t quite make it concrete enough.

More than anything, it seems that post-industrial design is both a way of working and a way of thinking about products. It’s a way of working in that it considers the interactive behavior a product should engender before considering its physical form. There may be no physical form at all, in fact. Or, more accurately, the “form” is an area whose parameters are unseen by the naked eye. The technology of “immaterials” can be used to extend the form beyond the physical object into an area of space.

In post-industrial design, data becomes a resource to be managed, the same way electricity is managed in traditional industrial design: it must be detected, acted upon, transferred, stored. Data, and the technologies that surround its management, have properties, truly physical properties, that while they cannot be seen, they can certainly, like gravity, be felt and experienced. Consider how close you have to stand to get a paper towel from a sensor-driven dispenser, or the length of time it takes to transfer a file via Bluetooth.

It’s this management of data via digital technologies that powers post-industrial products, be they websites, interactive environments, or devices. In a world becoming filed with sensors, microprocessors, RFID and other near-field technologies, mesh networks, etc., an awareness of the immaterials that structure our interactions will become more and more a necessary design skill. Not only during the process of design, but in communicating presence and instruction to those who use our products.

How we think about time and space and how we interact with the physical world are shifting, and this is (obviously) a big deal: for the design profession, those we work with, and for the world in general. The times, they are a-changing. God help us all.