The New Generation of Industrial Design – Problem Solving for Sustainability

Banner For Jony Ives’ Interview with TIME Magazine

TIME Magazine recently nabbed the first interview in 20 years with Jony Ives, the most amazing designer, period.  Some describe him as “a genius of beautiful, minimalist design.”  The tone of this article praised Jony as an immensely humble, respectable, and rich innovator.  It is clear why: Jony Ives is the highest paid designer in the world who paved entirely new roads in design with his work at Apple.  He clearly cares quite a lot about perfecting objects to their best possible iteration.

Fan-made parody: If Jony Ive redesigned US currency.

Jony is the poster boy for Tara Andrews’ visualization of the industrial designer, as made clear by her article Design and Consume to Utopia – Where Industrial Design Went Wrong.  She argues an important point in regards to Industrial Design.  Early designers were instrumental in creating the modern consumerist culture we have today.  Facing a national economic hardship, designers were utilized alongside “consumer engineers” to stimulate the economy.  Designers had, and still have, the ability to “inject products with ‘eye appeal.’”  Designers had the ability to manipulate a consumer into purchasing something they may not have considered otherwise.  Early Industrial Design was born out of a rapid increase in manufacturing processes, which was itself born out of the Industrial Revolution.  Sustainability didn’t exist and money did.  Sustainability in Industrial Design was first mentioned by Buckminster Fuller on the 1960’s and 70’s with minimal response.  He was largely recognized for his large geometric dome structures.

Buckminster Fuller with one of his geometric structures.

Tara Andrews’ argument starts to fall flat as she develops it beyond a basic understanding of the origin of Industrial Design.  It is a mistake to define the entire field of Industrial Design by its origin. She creates a conflict between Industrial Design and sustainability because of the history between the two.  “[T]he methods that were developed by the early industrial designers, which remain little changed in today’s practice, were furthering economic aims that are the antithesis to contemporary sustainability imperatives.”  The argument that little has changed within the field doesn’t hold up under further inspection.  I concede that the global icon for the field, Jony Ives, does not consider the true cost of the items he multiplies into the world.  In his interview, he stumbles when asked about “the built-in obsolescence of Apple products, its hermetically sealed operating systems, the need to buy new chargers for new products and the prices it charges.”  He defends himself by emphasizing that Apple’s thing is to make things better.  Is that the price we have to pay for design innovations?  Each individual iPhone requires 500 kilograms, or roughly 1100 pounds of discarded excess material like CO2 emissions, lithium, and gold.  Tara Andrews has a point; these processes create massive amounts of waste and feed into the preexisting cycles of consumer culture.

A relatively small pile of discarded technology. “Americans threw out just shy of three million tons of household electronics in 2006.”

The average horse weighs 500 kilograms. Each individual iPhone wastes this much material.

Andrews’ analysis, however, is far too narrow. She makes the assumption that designers will carry on doing as they always have done.  Designers do not do this; adaptability is an essential characteristic of any good designer.  She also defines the designer’s role as the beautification or re-skinning objects to increase their crowd appeal.  There is a strong contrast between that conception of a designer and the designers we see now. A local example, the Tech-Style Haus – developed by RISD and Brown students – utilizes solar panel textiles, new materials, and architectural features that culminate in a home that “produces 50% more energy than it consumes.”

Techstyle Haus – designed by RISD and Brown.

The designer is at it’s highest point now than it ever has been.  We do have to, in part, thank Ives for giving validity and significance to the role of the designer.  Design has been brought to the forefront of culture.  This increased validation for creatives lends new opportunities for designers to have bigger impacts on the production process.  Designers now have to power to make decisions for the benefit of the environment.

Raymond Loewy – one of the earliest, most-popular industrial designers.

Designers are creative problem solvers, striving to find solutions.  Just because those solutions were once found in a object’s appearance when Raymond Loewy was trying to stimulate car sales doesn’t mean that contemporary designers will make their decisions the same way.  We are no longer simply functional perfectionists or object resurfacers.  Sir Terence Conran, designer and writer, says that now “[t]he designer’s job is to imagine the world not how it is, but how it should be.”  Objects and visual experiences have the opportunity to motivate people and engage them in a limitless variety of ways.

Sir Terence Conran, designer and writer.

The new generation of designers cannot ignore the importance of sustainability and overconsumption.  Climate change is looming over young minds across the country.  Our generation has been handed an immense weight. Designers have the chance to lift it, piece by piece.  It can be overwhelming to read quotes like the, “[w]arming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level,” from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Designers have the opportunity to build a better future by considering every implication of the creative process.

Professor Jonathan Chapman – teacher, speaker and author on the idea of Emotionally Durable Design.

This concept is not abstract or distant.  Professor Jonathan Chapman from the University of Brighton teaches and speaks about design’s role in an unsustainable culture. In his book Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences & Empathy and in a presentation uploaded to Youtube, he details his response to sustainability and product design.  He uses the term ‘emotionally durable design’ to describe an object whose value improves over time.  This solution steps beyond simply redesigning a product to use less plastic or have a smaller footprint during the shipping process.  It imbues an object with increasing value so that the user will be inclined to keep it with them for longer.

One example of this principle can be seen in Bethan Laura Wood’s Stain Teacups.  Utilizing pattern of alternating glazed and unglazed surface, her teacups age gracefully into sentimental items with personality and uniqueness.

Bethan Laura Wood’s Stain Teacups

Marc Haldemann incorporates emotional longevity into two furniture pieces.  The first creates a unique stool where the legs are attached where knots are found in the wooden seat.  His leather stool uses material interaction to create a uniquely patterned surface.

Marc Haldemann – Forever Yours Series. This leather stool‘s surface develops an individual appearance as time goes by.

Wandular explores the future of technology by creating one unique computing device that you bring with you.  This device can be integrated into a variety of circumstances, allowing the user to not buy a wide range of products.  It utilizes modularity and replaceable parts to ensure it never needs to be replaced.

Wandular concept attempts to predict what technology in the future may look like.

A reimagining of the household toaster, The Optimist utilizes a sand-cast, recycled aluminum body that ages with grace.  Any dent or scratch adds to the aesthetic of the piece.  It uses a simple rotating arm to release the toast so to reduce any unnecessary extra mechanism.  Both visually and functionally this toaster is built to last.

The Optimist – Toaster.

All these examples are drawn together to  illustrate the designer’s awareness of both environmental concerns and their determination to reshape the way we design objects.  Sustainability is reaching, and will reach, a point of unavoidability.  Andrews makes a fair point that Industrial design holds responsibility for the manifestation of ultra-consumerism.  Now we can look to the new generation of designers to solve the problems that we are now faced with.

Apple’s Jonathan Ive Designs Tomorrow

Design and Consume to Utopia – Where Industrial Design Went Wrong, Tara Andrews 2009

The Industrial Design Reader, Edited by Carma Gorman 2003

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis report


5 thoughts on “The New Generation of Industrial Design – Problem Solving for Sustainability

  1. Hi Riley,

    I just have a few suggestions:
    You mentioned that Andrew’s made a “mistake to define the entire field of Industrial Design by its origin” and while I do agree, I think it can be worded a little bit better.

    I would suggest to maybe use a different example or add more examples to your point: “There is a strong contrast between that conception of a designer and the designers we see now” because the TechStyle Haus was a project created for the Solar Decathlon competition which is a very specific category. I think adding designers who practice adaptability on a more personal basis would strengthen your argument.

    You brought up a really interesting concept of “emotionally durable design” that I found very intriguing and the examples you used to support it were great. You used this point to support the idea “ Designers are creative problem solvers” which was a great example but I think using more examples could help. Perhaps elaborating on your point of “climate change” could be another concept.

    Overall, it was very interesting. You used some really great examples and brought up some really interesting points.


  2. Hi Riley,

    A lot of interesting ideas you put forth, but I wish it related more strongly to Tara Andrews’ points about industrial designers and utopian vision. Bel Geddes’ idea that there had to be 4 designs sent out into production before reaching #5, his utopian concept, is a pretty innovative way of thinking. Furthermore, Andrews describes in detail the strength of the streamlined Deco aesthetic, how consumer products had then a unified aesthetic which made it more feasible to address some sort of future vision. It’s amazing to think about the fact that the future in that time period, as Teague was bringing together designers to participate in the New York World Fair, was considered 1960.

    With all of these points that Andrews makes in mind, I wish you had approached your argument by considering these points, but then trying to find modern equivalents, rather than what you do in your post which seems to be to scoff Andrews for focusing too much on the past. For example, is there a contemporary unified aesthetic amidst designers? What are the most compelling consumerist futures presented today? What is the exact date of our envisioned futures as industrial designers (the year 2050 is constantly brought up in our classes in the industrial design department)?

    A lot of interesting points you bring up, but I feel you’re sidestepping the issue, and furthermore I think there are more compelling, visionary designers in the way of Bel Geddes and Loewy whom you could have addressed, like Marc Newson, Ross Lovegrove, or Philippe Starck, all whom have made very radical designs that have been very controversial. Ives, on the other hand, has appropriated the modernist aesthetic, particularly Dieter Rams’ style, to create ultra-noninvasive designs.


  3. I won’t disagree with you, I also believe Jony Ive is a great designer, but I don’t think his minimalist aesthetic makes him the best designer ever. I think a good designer challenges and redefines what design should or could be. “Good design” should be able to spark a conversation among consumers. I also don’t think all good design should be functional; I think a certain amount of intrigue and tenacity in a radically different design can be considered good design as well. An example that immediately comes to mind is Phillipe Starck’s juicer. Obviously it isn’t the most efficient juicer, but it is an elegant and thought-provoking sculptural piece of industrial design.

    Though I do think Andrews’ view is narrow as well, there are designers who do “beautify products.” As much as we, as designers, don’t want to re-skin objects to increase crowd appeal, I think we do to some extent. I, and I’m pretty sure you as well, don’t intend on doing this, but there are many big names who do it and make a hefty profit from it. An example is Alessi’s Acacia Honey Dipper. Is it a beautiful instrument and really captures the instrument’s definition but it’s functionality isn’t any different from a user just grabbing a regular honey dipper.


  4. Hey all, I guess I’m not clear about this but I’m being sarcastic referring to Jony Ives as the best designer ever. I think this needs to be better explained but I’m using Ives as an example of what Andrews considers all industrial designers to be. I should emphasize this sarcasm more. I try to point out later on that Ives ignores the sustainability opportunities with design and doesn’t acknowledge the immense amount of resources that go into making an iPhone.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This blog post gives a nice account of the historical origins of industrial design. You provide a reasonable sense of its emergence and tensions. Perhaps a little more could be said about antecedants to sustainability in design. Fuller is interesting but could it not be said that there are elements of the Bauhaus which also touch on these themes? I liked your visuals. The comparison between the horse and the iphone was very effective. The final attempt to respond to Andrews is hopeful and effective. Lots of nice good examples. But the issue is that we need so many more. So, how do we turn emotionally durable design from nice focus (like fair trade coffee) into the norm. That’s the big question isn’t it?


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