Transforming Industrial Design

Philipp Thesen: Transforming Industrial Design

Von Philipp Thesen | August 2019

In the design of industrial and consumer goods, the requirements placed on designers are changing fundamentally in the course of digitalization. They no longer design individual products, but complete business ecosystems consisting of hardware, software and services. Industrial design plays a key role in the digitalization of the economy. Germany’s industry invests billions in the infrastructure of the country and its companies. Software companies don’t have to do that.


The Internet revolution does not just consist of Google, Facebook and Instagram from California. In principle, these are large media companies that earn their money with customer data and advertising. But the digital revolution is not only in communications but also in industrial production. And this includes far greater added value than Silicon Valley.

Factory of the future

The digitalization of the factory has long since begun. And the factory of the future is in Germany. “Industry 4.0” describes the future form of industrial production with strong individualization of products under the conditions of highly flexible, resource- and energy-efficient production, the extensive integration of customers and business partners in dynamic, real-time optimized value chains and the coupling of production and high-quality services into so-called hybrid products.

Driven by the Internet, the real and virtual worlds are growing together more and more. The fusion of the physical world with cyberspace has come a long way in German industry. Embedded systems consisting of electronics and software play an important role as key innovation drivers for export and growth markets. They decisively extend the functionality and thus the utility value as well as the added value of vehicles, aircraft, medical devices, production facilities and endurance devices – keyword: Industry 4.0 or Industrial Internet.

Today, around 98 percent of microprocessors are already embedded and connected to the outside world via sensors and actuators. They are increasingly networked with each other and with the Internet. The result are Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS), which are part of a future globally networked world in which products, devices and objects interact with embedded hardware and software across application boundaries. With the help of sensors, these systems process data from the physical world and make it available for network-based services that can directly influence processes in the physical world through actuators. Cyber-Physical Systems question the traditional boundaries between industries and disciplines as well as established business models.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is increasingly becoming the primary technology which, as a cross-sectional function, covers all sectors of the economy and leads in different ways to different applications, new products and services in each industry. The application-dependent and highly individualized use of artificial intelligence present designers, innovation- and digital strategists with significant challenges in their respective fields of work. The design discipline must bundle and network these different experiences and tasks and define the overarching requirements of these basic technologies for the entire economy and provide assistance in the implementation in the various application scenarios of the different industries.

Design thus makes a considerable contribution to unleashing the great growth potential of artificial intelligence. Many of the new products and services that have emerged in the course of digitization in Germany are on a very sophisticated technical level, but unfortunately too often only isolated solutions in closed ecosystems or on proprietary platforms. Cooperation or partnering between different companies often fails because of the current structure of our economy: Whom does the customer belong to, who does the customer experience belong to?

For the customer, however, the successful customer experience consists of a seamless, positive user experience across the entire use of products and services. If different providers are involved in the customer experience, then interoperability often fails as, for good reasons, many participants do not exchange data with each other. This results in friction losses at many interfaces, which frustrate users. There are numerous examples of this in the area of mobility services, the networking of automobiles with software companies and telematics services, isolated solutions for smart home, smart energy, smart city, etc.

The moment of truth

These frictional losses are a real obstacle to growth for the digitalization of the industry and limit the success of new providers from the rising digital economy. We need more openness on all sides: more open business models, more open platforms. The design discipline should, therefore, explore new forms of cooperation and collaboration that meet the urgent demand of design for a “seamless experience” in the interest of users and customers. Artificial intelligence is increasingly becoming the basic technology which, as a cross-sectional function, encompasses all sectors of the economy and leads to new applications, products and services.

Friction losses within a company are much higher. Ownership thinking, hierarchies and claims to power often prevent transparency and cooperation in large companies. If a designer formulates a comprehensive design claim in this everyday corporate reality, this is often misunderstood as an inappropriate striving for power. However, designers should be involved from the outset. Many products and services are manufactured in large companies in vertical silos but are experienced horizontally by the customer.

This is why many products fail: they do not pass the suitability test in the customer’s everyday life, because nobody paid attention to the customer’s perspective during the development process. In the design process, all the conflicts in the development process materialize, and the weak points of a business idea come to light.

Creative Leadership

It is not necessarily the nature of a large company to continually reinvent itself and the foundations of its success. On the contrary, it is entirely rational for a company not to renew itself. Every small innovation is first and foremost, a disruption in a highly complex system that can lead to a slump in productivity and quality. Much worse, however, is a significant innovation: it is a high-risk undertaking. Because the costs of developing the new product are predictable – but the returns that the new product will generate on the markets are not. It gets even worse when innovations are successful in the market. Then they will certainly prevent the next innovation. That’s why every company needs a binding innovation roadmap that is adhered to despite overwhelming success.

Innovations are also perceived as a fundamental threat in many companies. Changes are blocked because people are afraid of endangering existing revenue streams and disturbing the balance of power in the company. A culture of mistrust and demarcation then systematically prevents the success of new ideas. However, a lack of internal cooperation and a dysfunctional corporate culture are becoming a real competitive disadvantage in the digital age at the latest.

A new role for design in corporate

If innovations drive the market success of a company, who operates the innovations strategically in the company and links them to the world in which customers and consumers live? Design can play an essential role in this. In contrast to every classical management consultancy, design has an empirical basis and the creative imagination to describe the future. Design knows the needs of the customer and can anticipate scenarios for applications and convert them into prototypes, which are always adjusted to the customer’s needs in an agile process. Design builds external bridges to customers and is the key to the strategic control of innovation processes in complex structures. And not in the classical understanding of design, which gives products shape and humanizes technologies at the interfaces to people, but design as a cultural technique. This is why design needs a right of veto in companies.

With design as a cultural technique, it is possible to inspire all employees in an organization to innovate, to give them the freedom and tools they need, to dare creative and disruptive thinking, to be prepared for change, and to take the risk of failure. Design Thinking has made this cultural technique available to companies and often plays a leading role in the corporate strategy of innovation-driven corporations. When design has become a relevant pillar of corporate management, it is given a leadership function.

Design leadership means that top management systematically deals with the changes and trends in technology and society and develops new growth opportunities and innovative applications from this understanding. Besides, there is the core task of every entrepreneur: the intelligent combination of creative talents with the necessary future investments.

Digital System Design

Digital System Design is, therefore, particularly in demand in large and complex organizations in which many departments work on different products and services. These companies often find it particularly challenging to network their employees on an interdisciplinary basis – not least because the traditional organizational charts and processes are questioning how well they functioned up to the time of digitization. But with the dawn of a new age, new approaches and a new self-image are required. These need to be found and established.

Gone are the days when designers worked on the design of individual products; today, it’s all about designing holistic customer experiences. These tasks are complex and demanding and transcend the boundaries of traditional design education. The boundaries between product design and communication have long merged in digital fields of application. To create a seamless and in the best case inspiring customer experience, however, more is needed than just beautiful surfaces – and also more than good interaction design. The customer experience no longer has to do solely with the product or service but is the result of the structure and the system behind it. In order to be able to view them holistically, designers must look at and understand entrepreneurial processes and infrastructures – without losing sight of the customer, of course.

The solution lies, among other things, in effective design guidance that plans the customer experience across all touchpoints and designs a system that consciously controls the connectivity of the internal trades. Against this background, the designer not only has the task of flexibly and efficiently eliminating pain points in the customer journey in the digital worlds. In order to do justice to the new role of industrial design in the industry, the qualified training must be upgraded and backed up with a broad intellectual pool. Then designers will not only become the architects of digital change, but will also be able to create great moments of meaning and radically humanize technologies.

Von Philipp Thesen | August 2019