Recently, we had the very good fortune of catching up with Gadi Amit—renowned designer behind the likes of FitBit, Lytro and Google's Modular Ara phone and founder of San Francisco-based design firm NewDealDesign—in London, thanks to a flying visit of his to take to the stage at the Product Design + Innovation conference.
In recent years, Amit has been calling for the retirement of the term 'industrial design', at least where it relates to the development of technological products. Whilst such a proposal might sound radical—sacrilegious even, to some—he points out that the evolution of technology-infused objects demands a new balance of skills from designers at the cutting edge of hardware.
Whilst design has been rapidly broadening its horizons in many directions (UI, UX, Experience, Service, Strategy, Transformation etc. etc.) in recent years, the concept of a 'technology designer'—Amit's preferred title these days—is an interesting one for the industrial designer rooted in design physicality in a world that is inundated with technology. We've been keen to hear more for some time.
Over the course of a winding chat over morning coffee, Gadi filled us in on what he's been working on these days and offered up five pearls of wisdom for those hoping to step up to technology design.
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1. Know Thy Technology
Once industrial design was fairly simple. The engineers delivered their ready-made package of components and your job was to put a pretty box around it. As design's role and responsibility has expanded, hardware designers have had to work much more closely and collaboratively with a whole bunch of different experts from mechanical and electrical engineers to software and UI.
In digital design there is a well understood advantage for designers who learn to at least speak code. Being able to brainstorm (and perhaps sometimes play hardball) with the programmers means a whole new world of leverage in pushing for more elegant design solutions.
Gadi sees a similar parallel in hardware design. Evolving to develop a deep understanding of the components that are dictating the form of today's devices is essential if you want to be able to shape more than the plastic box around them. The engineering, you might say, is too important to be left to engineers alone.
And there are deep depths of learning to be done with each microphone, aerial, sensor or speaker, each having its own complex requirements and interdependencies. It's the designers who can become deeply knowledgable of the limitations and possibilities of such components—this knowledge will allow designers to reshape them most creatively. "Making creative trade-offs is a core competency of industrial designers," Amit points out. Understanding the elements behind the hardware is essential in broadening our sphere of consideration to create game-changing solutions.
Dojo, a home cyber-security device designed by NewDealDesign moves drastically aware from tired rectangular form-factor of internet routers to create an unusually approachable pebble more suited to the home environment.
2. Get to Grips With 'The Guts'
Amit talks passionately about getting his hands dirty with the hardware–"the guts"—as soon as possible. It's only when you start arranging the raw elements of a device that the possibilities of the form and function become apparent and malleable. Prototyping is the second vital industrial design skill that Amit points to as essential for shaping future technology—but suggests that designers aspire to be as confident in this art of trial and error with basic electronic components as they are with blue foam and kappa board.
3. Less Smart. More Wise
The breed of 'technology design' that Amit preaches is not just about form giving. Gadi talks at length about the delicate balance of form, function and experience that he brings to his work. He is quick to admonish the bandwagoning around 'smart' technologies, that glorify functionality over experience in context. 'There's a big difference between a smart object and a wise one," Amit points out, using the example of two driverless cars, one that is smart enough to follow the road and avoid other cars, the other that is wise enough to anticipate likely scenarios, such as children running out into the street at the end of the school day.
Fever Scout, is a new continuous child temperature monitoring device that NewDealDesign designed for VivaLnk
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4. Mind Your Manners
The wisdom of objects and technologies has a lot to do with how well they understand the cultural context in which they reside. Gadi talks about the need for technology to have 'manners'—something that is all too often overlooked in an age of ringtone and notification overload.
Whilst he observes design has been gradually, globally homogenizing in recent years, Amit foresees that increasing technological ubiquity and complexity will see a return to exploring and catering for the needs of different cultures. "Designers have always been good at unpacking and understanding peculiarities of people," and Gadi suggests that these skills are something designers working with the technologies of tomorrow should continue to build on.
5. Embrace Complexity. Forget Process
Gadi's final tip for the budding 'technology designer' is to own the creative chaos of your craft. "Academia and corporate culture has put so much pressure on young designers to codify and quantify their practice," he laments. "We need to embrace the complexity and be confident in our abilities to reach a solution," no matter what got you from A to B. "It's talent and experience that give great results, not pretty process diagrams." Gadi puts a lot of his success down to seeking out clients who can understand and appreciate the unpredictability of this creative process.
Sam Dunne is a designer, strategist and writer based in London. Sam is founder of design strategy agency Cohere and Contributing Editor at Core77—reporting broadly on design, technology, food and object culture.