The Emoji Keyboard of Industrial Design

Modern Industrial Design within Emerging Technology Teams

Donald Burlock
8 min readAug 27, 2018

Impact intrigues many of us, doesn’t it?

Honestly, I think it is what motivates many of us to get up and pursue moonshot-like projects everyday with focus and passion. Making an impact has often been the biggest motivational driver in my day-to-day activities while working as a creative and designer in various hardware start-ups over the past three years.

I’ve been flattered by the unique opportunity to join a team currently in deep research in an emerging technology space. Even more, it is special to do it within the oceanic boundaries and conditions of a huge social and advertising company with so much at stake. But, it is a daunting task, requiring a daily effort to define in detail what I do and why it matters. This company already has billions of users, so quite naturally the possibility of delivering successful hardware and hopefully by way of it, meaningful experiences to people, is incredibly fascinating.

But, Industrial Design can be a foreign language to those who have not worked directly with designers prior, especially in a data-driven software environments.

Just like with any spoken language, our most effective moments of communication between two different language speakers can require translation. Translation is the fundamental building block of radical empathy and ultimately how industrial designers can make an impact in a software development organization. Industrial designers are now required to be tech designers, with the goal of not only shaping the technology, but also are responsible in the ongoing effort to incubate an internal culture that speaks in an informed way about design. It’s time for industrial designers to help technical teams go beyond an emoji keyboard of reactions to new objects. To move toward richer questions and deeper discussions, let’s address some of the comments often reflective of historical industrial design.

Can You Make This Look Pretty?

Translation: “It’s ugly, but can you present it with a more attractive surface?”

Every designer gets this question at some point. Sometimes it is actually a request from a client. In my experience, it is often through an internal team hoping to ‘wrap’ the technology in a beautiful skin before releasing it to the wild. I relish these moments as opportunities to educate and further an ever-expanding definition of industrial design for the post-modern world. While this question of ‘can you make it pretty’ can be generally harmless, it is historically outdated for modern industrial designers working in the complexity of tech-oriented companies.

The question does touch on the beauty of what makes so many of us attracted to traditional industrial design: creating an object that takes our imagined ideas into a physical reality, often with craft-oriented qualities in mind that make it popular within the industry or category of which it is a part.

But over the past decade, companies venturing into hardware have discovered that an emphasis on experience and an end-game in mind for how people will interact with a product can have far greater impact on sales than only entertaining surface aesthetics. To move in this direction, technical research teams at these companies have become more aware of the critical need to conduct ethnographic research and apply design thinking across the organization so that individual teams can benefit from the insights.

Industrial design plays a significant role in this research by teasing out key human interaction principles and also defining ‘end-state’ product visions. End-state product visions are often less about what the product would like if produced today and more about what the product could look like in the future if designed to reflect the core human needs. It’s about framing the context for the opportunity and then delivering on the object form.

This is ultimately how industrial designers can lead within the organization. If the goal is ‘making it look pretty’ then the goals are nearly impossible to measure — ‘pretty vs. ugly’ is inherently subjective and not necessarily driven by qualitative and quantitative data from research. Evoking emotion can be purely subjective and can also work against asking deeper questions that can challenge a form decision.

At the end of the day, ID, UI/UX, hardware engineering and tech research teams must get beyond how does this look?

Do you like it?

Often, it is by painting the vision, that the technology roadmap trajectory pursued by engineers and researchers can gain traction, or buy-in, within other parts of the organization. So, the more the ID can drive form design informed by a complex mix of human needs, interaction and social perception, the more likely it can seed technical research teams to pursue new intricate solutions in mechanical and electrical architecture, materials, and supply chain processes to support a product path.

Can You Afford To Make It Nice?

Translation: “Can you make your aesthetic decisions feel chic but cheap?”

This is a classic question for classic industrial design where every aesthetic decision comes with a high level of scrutiny and nasty arguments about costs. But this questions is not as straightforward as it was a decade ago — before the Apples and Googles of the world. Also, before wearables and voice-activation or hand gestures — which require a very different approach to evaluating physical design and interaction.

A new breed of objects means that some physical manifestations will fail purely because they have chosen to fight over ‘premium’ vs. ‘economic’ and have not focused on the product’s experience or the goals of the brand. While making something look nice for cheap might be the ultimate direction, it is often a misguided start at the wrong end of the spectrum for how products have impact in the market. Instead, the thoughtful questions might be:

Have we identified the core experience we want to deliver to our audiences? In other words, have we framed the problem to discover the user experience people primarily want through a product’s hardware and software?

What aesthetic challenges are there to overcome in order to deliver on that experience to our target audiences? For instance, should we be exploring materials that make the products feel more understated and harmonious within the home environment?

Have we asked the clarifying questions and gathered insights from user research studies in the field — in order to understand the real human needs driving the form design and interaction with that form?

Has the best engineering path already been determined? How do we change, test, and refine new mechanical architecture based on where the company is going on the technical roadmap? Or are we only building on assumptions we know today?

I see design as an invitation to learn another language — to go beyond the emoji keyboard — with the end goal of connecting more deeply with people in our world by asking better questions.

And if industrial design is an act of forming a language, like building out wikipedia pages for words, then our impact ultimately comes from giving people new descriptors and questions to use when evaluating whether the technical efforts of the team will ultimately be successful in the integration of the product.

Can You Dream With Friends?

Translation: “Can you — industrial designer — work fluidly in an ambitious, fast-moving, technical environment with teams focused on non-tactile things?”

Weaving in multiple players is absolutely critical in translating the value of the ID experience across many small teams within the organization. Industrial design models and physical proof-of-concepts afford greater opportunities for collaboration and input while also allowing analogous teams to stay rationally and emotionally engaged to the work.

That’s why brainstorming still matters for industrial designers— so, let’s participate in more brainstorming sessions. They are tough. But worth it. They help us all dream together and keep us from being lily pads floating alone in our efforts.

Brainstorms create exposure to the diverse set of design initiatives within the project — including the progress of the technical research. Ultimately, this allows for cross-pollination and innovative concepts to surface. The temptation is for technical research teams to stay in a silo but, there must be a symbiotic relationship between the industrial designer and the research team, even if the initial approaches to the same goal are different. This is called working with the team within the team.

Wearable tech in particular demands that we go beyond the traditional heritage of ID and move into dimensions that involve us connecting with more and more teams while the design is still in its infancy. While it is important to focus on what is feasible and plausible in the near term, industrial designers must also look to bridge across other parts of the organization to understand how the design can go beyond the immediate physicality to being the core of a new experience, or even a new platform. In essence, industrial designers are asked to translate their language to their surrounding world of peers who talk everyday in a highly-technical vernacular.

Be the frog, not the lily pad.

So, in the case of wearable tech, what are some simple questions that we could ask industrial designers in order to build more informed models?

Can you make this easier to put on?

Can you make this easier to wear over long periods of time?

From our research, we are leaning that people are doing…can you consider this in your next design iteration?

At our company, we are applying these experiential guidelines and brand expressions to every aspect of the product family, can you make this design move more in line with the experiences we want to deliver?

There are number of informal learning channels to continue to sort through why industrial design matters for our new wave of tech-drive products. The undercurrent is to downplay the path to become informed of what good design means for our organizations now. But, I do not think that the learning curve of a new language is a reason to shy away from being informed about the ever expanding realm of industrial design.

While traditional ID questions will continue to surface, we do a disservice to ourselves as innovative thinkers to stop there. I encourage everyone to relish the paradigm shift of digital thinking, virtual and augmented reality applications and connectivity across many fields in product design for consumers. Just remember to learn a few questions along the way to help inform what people will ultimately experience, physically.

— — -

Further reading: More Insights On Building Your Product / / LinkedIn



Donald Burlock

Creative Technologist @CapitalOne | Former Creative Director @Dolby, Former Designer @IDEO, @CocaCola designing with emerging tech for new consumer experiences