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Report from the IDSA Conference: The End of an Era

I've just returned from the IDSA conference in Miami, and I'm both convinced that, in ten years, there won't be an IDSA conference to go to - and that isn't a bad thing. I don't mean this in a disparaging sense; I enjoyed the conference, caught up with ol

by Jon Kolko, Associate Creative Director, Frog Design

I've just returned from the IDSA conference in Miami, and I'm both convinced that, in ten years, there won't be an IDSA conference to go to - and that isn't a bad thing. I don't mean this in a disparaging sense; I enjoyed the conference, caught up with old friends, made new friends, and learned a bit. But a trend that I've observed at past conferences is only more evident this year, and it's patronizing to continue to skirt what is becoming increasingly obvious: the IDSA has served a valuable role in the evolution of design as a professional discipline, and has helped advance the field to a point where the IDSA is now essentially irrelevant. Design has outgrown “Industrial Design”, and a professional organization cannot exist only in the form of self-maintenance.

I'll explain, as I realize this may come across as both pretentious and self-righteous (and I intend it to be neither).

The discipline of industrial design has had a long history of form giving, and the creation of objects and artifacts that relate to the incidental parts of life. Industrial designers make stuff, and the making of stuff is a commodity - a profession differentiated only by cost. That is, there are a huge amount of capable industrial design firms in the world (and increasingly in Asia), and these firms are only differentiated by the cost of their services. A commodity market affords only limited growth and only limited market share, and can never truly sustain itself in any meaningful manner.

The other major capability industrial designers are able to bring to a project is their understanding of, and abilities with, materials and manufacturing/development processes. This is advancing in the opposite direction of a commodity - it's becoming increasingly specialized, increasingly intellectual, and incredibly complicated. The complexity associated with new material introductions and advances has such deep tacit knowledge, and such strong connections to fundamental issues of chemistry, that it can't continue to be "owned" by designers - it needs to be managed and coordinated by scientists (which was the implicit point of Dr. Andrew Dent from Material Connexion, in his excellent keynote presentation at this very conference; I feel the irony was lost on much of the audience, unfortunately). In this way, while material sciences will absolutely not become commodities, they also will soon be out of the grasps of designers.

In addition to these changes in skillset, there is a trend towards the inclusion of digital components, controls and networked services in products that have traditionally been isolated, single artifacts. These less tangible aspects of the products need to be designed, too, and so the designer who was typically responsible for developing a form and function for an item must now concern themselves with systems, services and more complicated - and arguably, more intellectual - facets of design. The major corporations that are embracing design as a true innovation catalyst realize that differentiation requires specific attention to the design of these systems and the utilization of networked services.

And so we’ve reached a point in the history of technological culture where the IDSA has served its purpose, and is now obviously struggling to define what to do next. This is evident in a program filled with discussions of rendering techniques and in an exhibitor hall full of plastics and injection molding vendors; it’s obvious in powerpoint presentations that struggle with basic concepts of human behavior and interaction, and in hallway conversation of designers who aren’t sure how they can ensure they have a job in the “new economy” of the future.

Steve Portigal summed up my feelings nicely, in a blunt - but absolutely dead on - way. "The IDSA is the recording industry or car industry of professional societies". He's referencing a long history of positive contribution, but an increasing lack of relevance, and a desire to hold on to how things used to be - a feeling of tradition, and a celebration of an industry. IDSA, like GM, is struggling to evolve, but with many of the same leaders at the helm and with many of the same traditional viewpoints of how design should be.

Yet there's no shame in celebrating the past and simultaneously building a new, and very different future. The organizational body of IDSA is not the appropriate organization for shepherding the massive change required in industry and education, and that's OK, as they've already done the hard work of laying the groundwork upon which this massive change will come. I look to other professional organizations to lead the way, and I hope those who built the IDSA – and the field of mass-produced artifacts – can look happily at the fruits of their labor, and allow the organization to proudly retire.