What are the three most popular and lucrative fields of product design today?
Updated: Jul 4
There is a fundamental flaw in asking this question. That is because when it comes to product design, a lot of its branches and sub-branches meet at some point. This overlapping within these different fields makes it difficult to pick only three. This dilemma also arises because anything from a needle to AI can be called a product. But each requires its own expertise. Most importantly, ‘what’ you design and ‘how’ you design, changes. Based on these differences of what and how, we will look at three fields that are the most lucrative when it comes to product design.
Do you remember entering that particular grade, excited about writing with a pen? The boring pencils were thrown away for ballpoint pens, and oh the excitement of using them in class! This ballpoint pen created the same amount of excitement when it was first released in the market. It was invented in 1938 by László Bíró, a Jewish-Hungaraian journalist. The idea came to him when he noticed the ink used for newspapers dried up more quickly than the ink used in a fountain pen. This one observation led to an invention that changed the pen industry as we know it. People in the US stood in queues to get their hands at this new pen, the ballpoint pen. They were very rightly called “miraculous.”
What we see here are three things: The creation of a concept, the ballpoint pen, based on gaps identified in a similar product. This identified gap, the leaking of ink from a fountain pen, emerges from how people have interacted with the existing product. It is this experience of the people with the product that defined what the ballpoint pen would solve.
It is exactly this that the emerging fields of product design show us. The ballpoint pen is a solid example of how the three fields are not separate but rather processes that work in tandem.
The first here is Industrial Design. It refers to the creation and development of concepts. It bridges the gap between what is and what’s possible. It also analyses the form and material of the product based on the industrial constraints. The rotating ball in the ballpoint pen is a concept that was developed after identifying the issue with the nib of the fountain pen.
It was a direct result of industrialisation in Great Britain in the 18th century. But a precursor of the profession can be traced back a century earlier in France; the Royal artistic patronage provided by Louis XIV led to large government-operated manufacturing operations. They produced decorated products ranging from tapestries, furniture to coaches. Today, the field strives for innovation and betterment of not just products, but services and systems as well.
The second is Interaction Design abbreviated as IxD. It explores the relationship between people and technology by focusing on the product’s understandability (as defined in our first article) and usability. It aims to enhance the user’s knowledge of the possible uses of technology. This is achieved by studying the use of new technology to create a positive experience for the user. Again, the ballpoint pen was invented in order to make writing a pleasant and easy experience for the user. This is achieved by reflecting on the past and present events concerning the use of the said technology.
User Interface (UI) also falls under the umbrella of Interaction Design. It refers to the design of user interfaces for machines and software. It is defined by the goal of making a user’s interaction with the product as simple and efficient as possible.
In the case of the ballpoint pen, all a user had to do was pick it up, open the lid and use it. It eliminated the process of checking the fountain pen for leaks, or if the ink needed to be refilled. It simplified the user’s interaction with the product and made their experience much more efficient.
The last one is Experience Design. It draws on the user’s emotional connection with the product and the experience it provides. This specific field’s work is very human-centred. If a product’s experience is unpleasant, it is experience design that will make sure this flaw is solved. The experience of users when using a fountain pen was tedious. What if you ran out of ink right when you had an excellent thought you needed to pen down? By the time you fill the ink, the thought is gone. The ballpoint pen eliminated this process of refilling ink. It made the experience easy and smooth.
Design and all the fields that come under it as a formal pedagogy and discourse are relatively new. It has been practised for eons but its formalisation is recent. Hence, there are emerging fields of design that are not well defined yet, and ripe for exploration. These new fields include industrial design, interaction design, and experience design. As different as they are from one another, they also interact with each other when it comes to product design.
How many of you know what the Anglepoise lamp is? All designers may know it as one of the most iconic designs. But all of us have seen it at some point. Let me jog your memory. You know the lamp that Pixar uses in its introduction? That is the Anglepoise lamp. So what is it about this lamp that makes it so iconic? And how is it connected to these three fields of design? Let’s find out.
It was originally conceived in 1932 by George Carwardine, who was a car designer. By keeping the user at the heart of the process, it was initially developed for working environments that required task lighting such as workshops, surgeries, and WWII military aircraft. Later, a three-spring version was created in order to make its use fit for homes. This change made the product’s experience better by optimising the function, value, and appearance of the product.
Even after that the Anglepoise lamp evolved with the rapidly evolving market of electrical software design. The design has synthesised and imagined things as they could be, instead of analysing how things are. Its most recent edition includes touch-sensitive dimming and LED lighting, maintaining the rapid use of the product.
Both the ballpoint pen and the Anglepoise lamp show us that a product or service does not just demand careful consideration of scientific aspects underlying its engineering, manufacturing, and ergonomic aspects. It must resonate with the user’s social and aesthetic sense to provide an optimal experience and meaningful interaction. This can only happen when the knowledge from industrial design, interaction design, and experience design comes together.
About the Writer
Malika Vaidya is an architect and writer. She is the Co-Founder of Architecture Pulse, a blog that explores the intersection of architecture and society. She is a graduate of the Rachna Sansad’s Academy of Architecture (AoA), Mumbai. She has interned at One Habitat Studio and The Origin.
About the Editor
Vishwa Balani is an English Literature graduate from St. Xavier's College, Ahmedabad and MS University, Baroda. She has been associated with CEPT University for two and a half years now where she has taught writing to students across various courses. Her tryst with language began very early in life and it has continued no matter which field she chooses to work in. She likes experimental writing but also believes in grammar, and the Oxford comma.
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