As a young industrial designer, my colleagues and I were used to explaining what we did–to our friends, siblings, parents, and virtually everyone we met. “Well nooo, I don’t design factories. Not exactly. I design products.” It was still a new-ish profession, with a confusing sounding title. During my time as an intern at Sagem in Paris, it became clear there weren’t even any French language words for “industrial designer.” I had to use a lot of hand motions to make my point. (But then I had to use a lot of hand motions just to order a croissant, so that was nothing new. I probably got better at hand motions than I did at speaking French.)
Even as a renegade design student taking marketing classes, the uphill climb of my chosen career became starkly apparent. No one I met at the University of Michigan’s esteemed business school–professor or student–had a clear notion about how products came to life. I started volunteering to do one-hour “This is Industrial Design” demonstrations in my business classes. All I really did was show my student projects and explain my student-level understanding of the process of product design (“Well it’s a combination of psychology, human ergonomics, materials science, engineering, sociology, marketing, and aesthetic form). In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.
To my college roommates, I knew a lot of my work looked like play. I’ll never forget the night I triumphantly put the last touches on a product model–something I’d spent weeks in the school woodshop forming–and had it sitting on a piece of butcher’s paper on my apartment bedroom floor. (The paper was to keep stray lint particles off my precious work of art.) I was sitting on my bed, fondly admiring my craftsmanship when my biology major roommate Marg burst in the door. She’d clearly had a few too many, saw my model sitting there (it was a product that rolled) and cried, “What are we playing around with tonight?” I felt frozen in stone as Marg jauntily grabbed my model , sent it speeding along the floor, where it crashed into the wall and spectacularly broke into its many finely formed parts. (Marg and I remain the best of friends, but I keep her far away from anything I really care about. Marg found the perfect career–she combats Third World agricultural pesticides–an effort well suited to brute force.)
After a few years of work as an industrial designer, I signed on for an MBA. Surely things will be better here, at Harvard Business School. I mean this is the big time, right? People will really understand product development. They must write cases about it, right? Wrong. In the ’80’s the situation was pretty much what I’d found at Michigan; in each of the companies we studied, products just seemed to fall out of the sky and then the real work of advertising, financing, strategy, mergers, acquisitions, accounting, and human resources management could begin. I dragged out the old slide portfolio and started giving those same volunteer lectures.
Post MBA, the design crusade continued, albeit much more informally. Sitting on a plane next to a colleague–a very sophisticated business person in every way–she asked, “So just exactly what the heck do industrial designers do?” I pointed to the airplane seat, the fork we ate with, the wing of the plane and said, “That, and that, and that.” “Ohhhhh. I never really thought about it.”
This all came back to me this week when my brother forwarded an email from one of his daughter’s friends, a young industrial design student from my alma mater. The new grad wrote, “I appreciate your extending an offer to contact your sister(s) about potential j-o-b opportunities. I’ve attached my resume. Oh, and I’ll clarify my degree a little more than just on the back of that business card. I graduated from Michigan with a Bachelor’s in Fine Art focusing on industrial design. Industrial design is an all-encompassing term for product design, automotive design, furniture design, and shoe design.”
I don’t think my brother needed that explanation, but clearly this young man has already figured out that 90% of the population does. The crusade continues.