Tag Archives: Industrial Design


If the people and cars look like this, how can you go wrong?

In the movie In Time (not-out-of-the-ballpark-great but definitely worth a night in), production designer Alex McDowell renders the future in retro tones–60s and 70s cars, mid-century apartment decor, a generally thin-lapelled fashion language.

I guessed that the look of the film was born at least partially from a small budget. If you’re going to create a world distinct from the present but don’t have the funds and/or time to design a bunch of never-before-seen stuff, going the other direction–back to the past–and then doing a bit of modification (like the solid rims on the film’s chopped Lincoln Continental limousines) and adding a soundtrack that connotes “future” is a pretty good strategy.

It turns out that, yes, the film had a small budget and short production timeline, but also that McDowell has an amazing production design resume: Fight Club, The Crow, and the cited-by-every-client-who-wants-to-innovate-something-that-includes-a-screen Minority Report. McDowell also coined the term “immersive design,” and is an advocate for creative collaboration between the entertainment and scientific communities.

Which brings us to Worldbuilding. Although more traditionally used as a concept for narrative and game design, I am really excited about this area right now as it applies to design work in general. I’ve been working on a lot of projects that combine elements of product, space, and experience design, and conceptualizing these endeavors as the creation of a world makes complete sense.

Something like the iPhone succeeds because it delineates a “world” that has cohesive physical characteristics, patterns of interaction that mostly hew to a logic that can be intuited through ordinary engagement, and a larger ecosystem that supports the norms of this world. In products and services, as with fantasy and science fiction, cohesive worlds satisfy our pattern recognition jones, and create pleasure.

5D, a “global community of multi-disciplinary creators,” describe the Worldbuilding design arc as follows:

  • Inception – imagining and developing the world
  • Prototyping – testing the story space and visualizing the world
  • Manufacturing – building the world, real or virtual, for studio and capture
  • Finishing – honing final resolution and the experience of the world

This is a process that will sound familiar to most designers. Design and the creation of narrative are tightly interwoven, and McDowell’s advice in a 2006 MIT News article still rings true for designers in all disciplines:

It’s time for us to restrain ourselves and use the tools to do sophisticated storytelling as opposed to “just look what we can do if we just press this button.”

A response to Don Norman’s “Why Design Education Must Change”

Don Norman posted an article recently on Core77 discussing design education and the increasing need for designers to possess broad and deep knowledge as they take on ever more complex problems:

In the early days of industrial design, the work was primarily focused upon physical products. Today, however, designers work on organizational structure and social problems, on interaction, service, and experience design. Many problems involve complex social and political issues. As a result, designers have become applied behavioral scientists, but they are woefully undereducated for the task. Designers often fail to understand the complexity of the issues and the depth of knowledge already known. They claim that fresh eyes can produce novel solutions, but then they wonder why these solutions are seldom implemented, or if implemented, why they fail. Fresh eyes can indeed produce insightful results, but the eyes must also be educated and knowledgeable. Designers often lack the requisite understanding. Design schools do not train students about these complex issues, about the interlocking complexities of human and social behavior, about the behavioral sciences, technology, and business. There is little or no training in science, the scientific method, and experimental design.

My reaction to Don’s commentary is that in focusing solely on design education, he may be looking at too narrow a solution space.

The complexity of many problem spaces being tackled by contemporary designers, with physical, technological, psychological, cultural, and organizational factors to be understood and leveraged in creating solutions, necessitates a multidisciplinary approach. It’s usually not realistic to expect one or even several people to possess adequate knowledge and experience across so many domains, so this would suggest taking a team approach — at least including appropriate experts as advisors to a core team.

If the designer is posited as the ringmaster of this effort, then the primary skill set starts to become one of broad familiarity with a variety of domains/disciplines and skilled facilitation of conversation and work across these areas, coupled with the ability to express the ideas that emerge from this effort in a variety of physical and narrative forms. Is this really the province of just the designer, or is this a wider issue?

Perhaps what’s needed is not so much a new approach to the designer. Perhaps it’s a new emphasis on the idea of collaboration as the natural way of doing things, and an increased obligation on experts of all sorts to also be skilled contributors to these types of collaborative efforts.

It’s always worth broadening the designer’s knowledge base, but what might a “collaboration curriculum” look like — one that could be implemented across many domains and disciplines? Could that yield more bang for the buck?