Written by G. John Cole

Design is an evolving field: while innovations like 3D printing make the gestation period of a design shorter (and now contribute to manufactured items), product designers are -- by definition -- always designing for the future. Designers must both anticipate and create the future in which we’ll live. Those that manage the design and development teams have to fully appreciate the identification of unmet, undermet, and unarticulated needs with what is known as  ‘white space’. That which does not exist. With that in mind, here's a look at the latest design trends, along with one school leading the way in preparing graduate students for management in this fascinating industry.

Sustainability

According to a Pew Research Center survey 75% of US consumers say they are concerned about helping the environment. This suggests that sustainable design is not just an ethical imperative but could/should be a prudent business strategy. Products made at a sustainable scale from sustainable materials, are to be considered for today's progressive design managers and leaders. Many situate themselves in a so-called circular economy whereby production takes place in a loop, ‘beginning’ with recycling, then running through production, use, re-use, maintenance, and back to recycling.

Design managers also consider ‘invisible' stages of use, such as packaging and transport: optimized solutions, like IKEA's flatpack furniture minimizes transportation issues of ‘bulk vs lbs.’ Similar solutions are found in everyday use of optimization of large volume detergent agents with the basis of water removal allowing for smaller packages, thus optimizing shelf space as well as shipping costs. We’re starting to see what was once science-fiction, such as bacteria-based food wrappers made partly from leftover Kombucha tea.

The apparent restrictions of designing to save the world are actually an inspiring opportunity

Plastic alternatives 

Science-fiction ideas made real and high-concept design are great ways to explore the potential of design and the limits of the human imagination. But there’s nothing like a simple, headline-grabbing initiative to bring these issues in front of a broader public. Recent news stories, such as McDonald's replacing plastic straws with paper ones, show that we all consider as standard the elimination of expanded polystyrene packaging with paper. And developments such as the use of edible water bottles that also biodegrade in six weeks compared to 450 years, at the London Marathon, reflect the general public’s desire to contribute to the environmental effort. Bans and tax on plastic bags have further highlighted the everyday tweaks that consumers can make. But ultimately, it’s what goes in the bags that makes the biggest difference. 

LEGO, the starting point for many young designers, is an acute example of a company that has responded to these changes, with their newly introduced plant-based plastic sourced from sugarcane for some of their elements. Additionally, they have already begun cutting back on packaging and running their factories on wind power. The LEGO Group have established a Sustainable Materials Centre as part of their commitment to use sustainable materials in core products and packaging by 2030.

UX in design

Not all design trends are eco-oriented. Some are led by other technologies that are developing around us. The abbreviation UX (User Experience) was almost unheard of in the public realm a few years back but has come into everyday use due to digital culture and new approaches to how consumers consume.

A lot of superficially excellent design falls down the moment a problem arises. Function fails to live up to the startling forms that today’s manufacturing technologies have made possible. UX is about designers using ‘human centered’ methodologies and putting themselves in the position of the user. Is it easy and intuitive to use this product? Is it compelling or rewarding? What are the user problems in actual usage?

While the buzz of UX has been inflated since its adoption by the app industry, it is a fresh way to look at the development of physical products too, and to empower ambitious creators to move beyond ‘well-intentioned bad design’ to objects that never disappoint by putting end users first.

Portable product design

Since at least the birth of the Sony Walkman, we’ve experienced a growing ‘miniaturation' of the products we use. The next major turning point for minimization was the iPhone, which not only packed several different devices into one stylish, notebook-sized tool but inspired generations of never-imagined tools to be designed for it.

Meanwhile, the laptop has come of age over the past decade as freelancing and remote working has released record numbers of workers from the confines of the office. What might be the next household or work item to change our pattern of movement?

Multipurpose product design

If the iPhone makes it easier to get about, multi-functional furniture and devices make it easier to enjoy staying at home as urban living spaces are becoming tighter and tighter due to rising rents.

Multipurpose products can also reduce the impact on the environment. And frankly, there’s something charming about the inner Transformer that multipurpose product designers find in everyday objects.

The Internet of Things

Whichever statistic you read, the Internet of Things (IoT) is fast becoming Big. Incorporating several of the above design trends and adding a whole lot of convenience to the package to sweeten it still, IoT is what happens when your car’s GPS informs your home's heating system that you'll arrive in ten minutes, so it should be 70°F indoors. More visibly, we’re seeing IoT take over in the form of HomePods and Echoes that aspire to be classics and game-changers in the same way as the iPhone before them.

HomePods and Echoes that aspire to be classics and game-changers in the same way as the iPhone before them.

With much of the market already being fiercely competed by old and new names alike, it will be up to design leadership to imagine the full potential of IoT -- including how their product will evolve. This is the biggest shake-up in the home appliances market since the 1950s, and this time planned obsolescence is out of the question.

Where to master these new crafts

The Master of Product Design and Development Management at Northwestern University (mpd²) is perfectly designed, so to speak, to nurture the next generation of leadership for product creators. Experienced professionals, who are currently in the field and involved with product design and development in some manner, and keen to update their skills (and their thinking) study under top design and management leadership.

In addition to creative design thinking students are thoroughly versed in employer-required skills such as end-user research, marketing, leadership, and project management. The program can be completed full-time, or part-time alongside ongoing professional work. It's taught at Northwestern University, on the shores of Lake Michigan near Chicago, within the Segal Design Institute, a design facility where innovative thinking is tethered to principles of engineering, social sciences, design, and management theory, to produce professional leadership in design and development.

“We’re excited about what has become the premier master’s program in the country for product design and development,” say program directors Dr. Walter B. Herbst and Dr. Stephen H. Carr. “If you want to become a leader in product design and development, the mpd² program will give you the tools, expertise, and confidence to achieve your goals.”

If leadership is what you want to achieve in this growing field, then look no further.

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