The Social Turn in Industrial Design

This is a post that responds to the statement – “I would like to understand more about Industrial design”. 


Industrial Design – lets start with Jonathan Ive the designer at Apple – is a vast profession. If you have an appliance you are encountering the work of a designer or design team. So Industrial Design is about stuff? Yes some of it – or rather the mainstream profession is anonymous (designers beavering away within large manufacturing enterprises) and often governed by very strict rules of privacy monitored by corporate enterprises. I like and have a real love for the Fountain Pentel – a great writing instrument. This is a good design – and I guess I will never know (or it will be very hard to find) the name of the designer/s behind this amazing product. Thats one way of thinking about a massive population of designers supporting contemporary material culture.


Of course you can often encounter Industrial Designers in cities (as most designers go to work really early – to factory design departments), at gallery launches, and on youtube. These are people who do something else that is largely not about mass manufactured products. I will not be speaking about the work of this population – what I will instead speak about is something that is changing all our lives in a subtle fashion.

(This is a placeholder – so I have listed a few topics that I will expand upon as time goes by.)

This is a good one from many years ago – 2009 – Its an Industrial designer speaking about ‘worth’. Or about what we, as designers, ought to be doing. Video here.

The Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) describes the profession in this way.

Industrial design at RMIT has a ‘pathway’ called social and sustainable design. A full 50% of the academic staff subscribe to this pathway. This is Social Design.


This is IDEO (the top  industrial design design company in the western world).


As you can see a strong streak of altruism runs through Industrial Design. Some refer to this as the SOCIAL TURN in the profession. The feature of this is an extreme form of idealism – we teach our students how to become activists for societal change. We push for an engagement with the global south – and produce graduates who have a sophisticated appreciation of great project in the global south. This is a site re global south.


This can go someway in explaining why I do Codesign and why agencies like hospitals and VicRoads seek out Industrial Designers, employ industrial designers. This is Mayo Clinic and their Industrial Design Department.


Then this is Fjord a corporate service design company. They have recently been taken over by Accenture. The form of Industrial Design that is most vibrant (read highly paid) is Service Design. As an aside Deloitte Digital – the other big service design company staffed by our graduates – is spending 400k to do probono work with the hospitals.


Finally the loveliest story of all is TACSI. Lucy (recent graduate), who gave me that ringing endorsement on Linkedin, has just joined TACSI. The lead here is an Industrial Designer who came out of the UK (we chat every now and then). They did a project a few years ago that has made huge waves in Australia and overseas – and thats why Lucy was super keen ( as are most f our graduates) to join them. This is a very lovely project from them: family by family.


So in short a huge section of the population in Industrial Design have a focus upon patients, poverty, marginalised populations and social change.

By Soumitri Varadarajan

Soumitri lives in Melbourne, Australia - #probonodesign #codesign #sustainability #patientexperience #quantifiedself #mdg

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