The Road to Digital
An industrial design student’s perspective
‘Whilst in my second year of university studying industrial design, I recall sitting in the workshop sanding a model in order to try and get two split lines to match up perfectly.’
When I was a young child, my parents asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I remember replying “I want to make things.” With only the sound of foam particles flaking off my model, I questioned whether this is what I had in mind.
Nothing major had changed. I still loved making things and watching people interact with products I created still gave me a tremendous amount of satisfaction, so why did I not feel fulfilled?
- The process of creating something new and being able to share it with people in the hope they could get excited about it as much as I enjoyed making it.
- Creating something that could enrich people’s lives, that fundamentally helped as many people as possible improve something in their day to day.
I realised that the second aspect gave meaning to the first and that without it, I would not get a sense of fulfilment from whatever I was creating.
This was the crux of the matter for me; most of my project briefs set out the functionality for a device (or involved objects such as lights that broke no new ground functionally) and tasked us with designing the shape for them rather than creating something that could measurably improve people’s experiences.
The hunt for a new direction
Around this time, I was searching for summer design internships in order to gain industry experience. During my search I decided to target design agencies that quantified the success of their products through statistics such as on-boarding, revenue increases and user satisfaction as these are potential measures of improving users’ experiences through design.
I quickly discovered that most of these agencies focused on service design, digital design or design strategy. As a result, I decided to try and secure an internship in one of these fields to find out whether their line of work may fulfil me more than my current path of industrial design.
As most design students will tell you, securing an internship is a gruelling task of refining your portfolio, applying to as many places as you can and routinely hearing nothing back or being rejected straight away. After about 50 or so applications I finally secured a 1-month internship at ELSE — an experience design consultancy helping businesses to create products and services that change behaviour.
A new medium requiring a lot of the same thinking
Initially, I found switching to digital design more of an adjustment rather than a complete overall of the way I think and work. A lot of the same product design thinking is still very relevant; for example, a universal goal of any new product is to appeal to its target user group and fulfil their wants and needs. This is true regardless of whether the product is physical or digital.
Nonetheless, key differences did begin to emerge as I was brought onto more and different types of projects at ELSE, which rekindled my sense of fulfilment from product design. For example, a digital product can contain many steps to its user journey and multiple different types of users with different goals. In these cases, the focus is on looking at the big picture and guiding different users through the product or service as best as possible.
Even when working in the refinement stage of a project, there are still aspects of user experience to consider. For example, whilst working on a project for a large pharmaceutical company, I designed a suite of icons depicting the symptoms of a serious medical condition. These icons not only had to fit the clients existing design style, but also had to clearly depict specific symptoms without creating confusion relative to other content on the page.
On the flip side, physical products are generally not as complex from an information architecture or user journey perspective, so a lot of time and focus is spent on aesthetic and manufacturing aspects such as product detailing which, whilst important, are not always directly related to the end user’s overall experience with a product.
I’ve now been a digital design intern at ELSE for 9 months and have enjoyed every minute of it. As a result, I’ve shifted my career goals for after graduation to working as a UI/UX designer.
If you’re an industrial design student who’s not feeling satisfied or just curious about other mediums of product design, I would recommend giving digital a try. The love of making things that inspired you to become a designer is still there, it just might be the things you want to make may have changed!
This is the first in a series of blog posts I will be writing about interning at an experience design agency. If you enjoyed reading this, please do return for the next one!