Moving from Products to Systems


November 9, 2020

By Brooks Protzmann

Faced with the challenge of making the world a better place by design, industrial designers often turn to what they know best: creating products that people can use to live better lives. Industrial designers, however, have the opportunity to do more than envision products that are easier to use, more cost-effective, and more efficient to produce. Industrial designers have unique skills to move from the design of products to solving larger systemic problems. Good industrial designers are systems thinkers. Good industrial designers know that any product at the center of the design process does not exist on its own. Instead, it is part of a system of actors—physical, digital, emotional, and political. Systems thinking in design is an approach to problem solving that breaks down components into smaller parts and then creates a new solution of cohesive parts (see Figure 1).

In design school, industrial designers are taught how to empathize with the user they are designing for, breaking down complexity into solvable components and reassembling those components into a new whole that better solves a user's needs. Traditionally, those solutions come in the form of product renderings, CAD drawings, and manufacturing specs. Yet this same process can be applied to problems whose solutions extend beyond a physical manifestation. The same thinking at the heart of industrial design can be used for a variety of today’s problems, including racial inequity and economic disparity.  

Figure 1: A System’s Approach to Problem Solving

A diagram with two squares with the caption Distinguishing Things plus Breaking equals a newly distinguished part

Source: Derek Cabrera & Laura Cabrera, Systems Thinking Made Simple

From Making Products to Designing Holistic Systems

Industrial design originated in the 1920s and ’30s as a way to mass-produce goods for a world that was demanding products that were cost-effective, well-designed, and quickly brought to market. The bespoke, handmade products of the past were replaced with products that were easily produced, minimalist, and affordable. 

In the late ’80s, the design community began to apply the same methods that they had used to such great effect in the industrial economy to solve larger “wicked” problems. Industrial design was always a human-centered discipline, but in the early '90s, design firms like IDEO and frog began to apply their design methodology to new domains.  

What is Unique About Industrial Design

Industrial design is, at its core, human-centered. It requires an understanding of the physical and mental limits of a human, as well as an awareness of the context of use the product will live in. It also requires a firm understanding of how a product will get made—including manufacturing techniques, material choices, and materials sourcing. That broad set of knowledge, combined with a new layer of systems thinking, gives today's industrial designer the ability to ask higher-level questions and solve more significant problems.

Let me give you an example. When I was in design school, my class was given the assignment to redesign a fishing reel. We were told kids had not been fishing as much, and redesigning the reel would be a way to get them fishing again. Some of the students set about sketching endless forms and playing with various “kid-friendly” colors and materials. Some of us in the class asked why kids were not fishing as much. What else were they doing instead of fishing? What would make them want to come back to the sport? While this was not technically part of the assignment, this type of thinking represents the mind shift that was happening: start with the entire system, not just the form. Challenging assumptions, thinking holistically, and not being afraid to reframe the questions are at the heart of what is changing in industrial design.

Traditional Focus of Industrial Design for Social Good

The historical view of designing for social good, particularly in industrial/product design, has taken the form of designing solutions for developing countries. It was not uncommon in the past for people to focus on solutions such as crop irrigation, poor home lighting, and contaminated drinking water. An example of this can be seen in the Hippo Roller, which was designed to filter water as it is being moved from the water source to the community. (See Figure 2).  

Figure 2: Young people purifying water while walking.

Young people purifying water while walking using Hippo Rollers


Today, we have the opportunity to widen the scope, to use design tools to different ends.

The Power of Design Thinking

Designing for social impact brings with it responsibility.  In seeking to work on behalf of people who have been systematically excluded from power, we need new tools to bring all voices to the table. Tools like design thinking can help level the playing field, give all parties a say in the identification of the root of a problem, and promote a collective means to resolve issues. Design thinking activities allow designers and non-designers to empathize with users, understand their pain points, and create a new outcome unencumbered by organizational or cultural biases. For example, if you were trying to understand why the gender pay gap is the way it is, you need to ask broader questions about who is in charge, who sets the rules, how people know it exists, and how to talk about it. If you were to get representative stakeholders in a room and do some design exercises that gave everyone the same voice/vote, you would be able to uncover solutions impossible to see before.

Design is Design is Design

As my former professor, mentor, and friend Richard Branham used to say, “Design is design is design.” To me, this sentence represents the idea that design is open to everyone, and we all have a role in the design process. It also means that we can all be involved in the design process, no matter our background or specialty.  In my experience, the best results happen when people of all backgrounds come together to solve problems. We have to look beyond our silos to uncover meaningful outcomes.

Operating in these environments, with the complexity of social issues, needs the use of the more intangible forms of Human-Centered Design—Service Design, Strategic Design (with a dollop of Systems Thinking, and a pinch of Experience Design and UX) to address the social problems around us. These forms look beyond simple touchpoints to the systems and behaviors needed to drive real change.

― Jethro Sercombe, The Power of Designing for Social Impact

New Times, New Design Problems, New Approaches

So what does this mean for today's wicked problems and today’s industrial designers? I suggest that we need to open our aperture of what is possible and solve higher-order problems. It can be a daunting task, but industrial designers are equipped to solve problems that are not just product-related, but that also address larger, less defined, systemic problems.  This change in mindset means we can use our skills to address social issues like racial injustice, climate change, equality and inclusion, financial exclusion, and racism.

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