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Not quite the end of industrial design, but almost …


In the next few years we will see various types of consumer electronic devices all look like thin black boxes being defined by the size and proportions of the displays that characterise their shape. In traditional retail settings it will be increasingly hard to sell these products based on some imperceptible quality differentiations related to “improved” display or audio qualities.When towards the end of the last century products started shrinking in response to the miniaturisation of components , the old mantra “form follows function” didn’t work anymore. The outer shape of products used to be dictated by the arrangement of the internal functional components. But once mechanical components were replaced by electronics, there was not much left to follow.

In the early eighties a few designers made some last critical statements about the disappearance of the physicality of products. A good example was the radio in a bag by Daniel Weil, clinging on to components that soon were rendered invisible.


Radio in a Bag, 1982, Daniel Weil

In the eighties postmodern philosophies were brought into play to justify shapes that indicate how to interact with products. Designers sought an explanation of functions in the semantics of form, making products understandable and easier to use. Different approaches were applied to instill meaning into new behaviors enabled by electronic and soon digital functions.

One of the best examples was the Phonebook prototype by Lisa Krohn and Tucker Viemeister, which won the Neste Forma Finlandia price 1987. It is a digital phone based on the principle of a file-o-fax , combining functions like a basic phone, an address book and an answering machine. Each function is accessed by turning pages exposing only the required interface elements for each application. In retrospect these products were longing for a past, not ready for a future yet to come.


Phonebook, 1987, Lisa Krohn & Tucker Viemeister

Extreme design-sketches emerged in the quest for form at consumer electronic corporations around the world. Most impressively a personal sound system player, created during a workshop at Philips Corporate Industrial Design, in the shape of a head, called Beethoven. The expression of the design went beyond the pure functional requirements of the audio system. The mouth was to hold an audio cassette. The ears were to adjust the volume, in place of the eyes was a display, the hair hid the loudspeaker, the power switch looked not unlike Harry Potter’s scar.


Beethoven, personal audio system, Philips CID, 1980. image: past tense, future sense; bis publishers 2005

One outcome of this quest was the unexpectedly successful Philips Roller Radio, which stood out from the boxy, tech looking, metall finished appliances common amongst consumer electronic brands in those days. This radio was explicitly designed to appeal to the youth market. The loudspeakers were clearly separated from the main body holding the radio tuner and cassette player. The handle expressed portability. The back revealed bulges underneath which the batteries fitted. The bright colors and shiny plastic finish created a distinct youthful contemporary look and feel. As the story goes, the initial proposal was refused several times by top management, who couldn’t believe that such a radically different approach could sell beyond the required quantities to break even. The development team managed to secure initial orders in opposition to the opinions of management and  production began. Against all odds, sales soon exceeded the wildest expectations.

roller01scaled roller_radio_philips

Roller Radio, Graham Hinde, Philips Corporate Industrial Design, 1981….and later versions from the Moving Sounds series,

Link kindly provided by

Soon a next generation was created to jump on this success. Interestingly the second Roller Radio, a basic restyling exercise of the original, turning the cylinder shaped speakers into spheres, didn’t manage to continue the success of the first. Instead of applying this new thinking to a wider range of products, Philips lost the initial momentum they had created. Their competitor  Sony was more successful at capturing this new design spirit, creating a line of products that lasted well over a decade around the ranges of My First Sony in bright primary children’s colors, with expressive interface elements, and the Sony Sport series based on highly visible yellow hues and a rugged look and feel, products that could withstand a rough handling. One of the main decisions was to sell these products outside the common consumer electronic retailers and place them in toy and sports stores, where they could be discovered within the context of their intended use.


My First Sony, mid-eighties

Philips soon followed suit, with the Moving Sounds line, in stark yellow with brightly coloured highlights, trying to catch up in the niche they had created in the first place, but failed to keep innovating. In the end Philips never really managed to sell these products outside the established consumer electronics markets.

A decade later, with the arrival of the tiny MP3 players, opportunities for expressive physical design shrunk together with the smaller spaces left for cover art, when music media moved in succession from vinyl sleeves to CD cases and almost vanished with various digital audio formats distributed over the internet. For many years diminishing form factors and the improved portability were sales features in their own right. But as mentioned in another post ,  once the design passes a critical minimal size, one has to design around the only requirement left, in this case that of the battery.

In recent years we see products converge at two ends of the design spectrum. On the one side we find the rationalized multi-functional devices, which, like a chameleon, will change their skin to adapt to whatever context they are required to operate in. On the other side we find highly expressive appliances, quite often devices with a singular functionality, providing an entertaining one-liner for marketeers to create advertisement buzz. One of the best recent examples in this category is the Sony Rolly.


Sony Rolly, MP3 robot, 2007

The Sony Rolly is a robotic loudspeaker accessory  that can play MP3 files, streams music wirelessly via bluetooth and can be programmed to react to the music with colour changing LEDs and motion created by its wheels and ear-like sound reflection flaps. These are the products that tell a simple story, display astonishing behaviours and are easy to sell … it’s oh so cute! But it’s hard on the shop floor; these products require constant attention from a sales assistant, even when they are placed under a transparent dome by the entrance to the shop. On the other hand, once you are shown a sample, their expressiveness is so infective, that they almost sell by themselves.

Things look different at the other side of the spectrum. These products have typically an almost square shape, with few physical controls and are defined by what occurs on their displays. When their displays are switched off, as it often happens on the sales floor, there is little story to tell. When the first digital photo frames appeared in the late nineties, till well into the first years of the popular Philips and Kodak digital picture frames, around 2005, it took retailers quite some time to realize that it would be a good idea, to take a sample of a frame out of the box and have it actually switched on in the shop. When we had the dwb pilot store in 2006, we were amazed to find most retailers across Europe to have hardly any working displays in their stores for customers to experience.

Things radically changed in 2007. When the iPhone arrived in the shops, over thirty five working units were placed on the display tables in the Apple flagship store on Regents street in London. People walked in to the Apple stores to just try the iPhone and form their own opinion. Customers came to see and touch the iPhones themselves, they were amazed by the physical behaviors build into the graphic user interface, sliding windows with a flip of their fingers, page movement mimicking physical inertia, tilting the device in all directions to move virtual glass marbles around the screen. Most mobile service providers at the time (an still these days), were showing only non-working phone dummies of different brands lined up along the walls of their high-street stores. I still have the feeling that retailers are almost afraid, apart from having their samples damaged, to show the awkward interfaces that contradict the hype created in the advertisements which promote new features in each successive new phone evolution.

By now many companies bring many, virtually similar products to the market. Switched off they are almost indistinguishable. They behave quite differently under the hood.


Apple iPhone, Samsung F700, LG Prada, RIM Blackberry Storm

Computing and display technologies have reached a level of maturity that almost any product can be created out of a choice of the same set of components. The cheapest and least risky option, offering most flexibility for consumer electronic manufacturers, is to produce different appliances assembled  from the same components. These products are only set to perform particular functions once they leave the manufacturing floor. Either the functionality is locked into the product’s firmware or the user can install the desired functionality at a later stage. The introduction of cheap precision touch displays and photo realistic graphical user interfaces has taken functional flexibility even a level further. These products are the result of so called rationalisation of the manufacturing process, wrapped in neutral, often black frames, holding an LCD or other display in one of the common formats. Software will make these devices behave in any way the market requires.


It’s similar to the eighties, when United Colors of Benetton created white jeans as blanc canvasses in the manufacturing process, which then were coloured only at the last moment, to suit the demands of a particular geographical market. In the same decennium was rather costly to adapt consumer electronic products to fit market requirements . An appliance platform, for example a portable cassette player like the Walkman, retained almost the same configuration of  internal components for a few years, whilst the outside was restyled on a regular basis like a dress following the fashion of the day. Tooling costs to create the molds for the outer shell and the cost of distribution, generally required sales guaranties of at least hundred thousand units in the low to mid price segments.


iPhone skins

Now the dress is the software that creates the look and feel of the application on the surface of the display and can be exchanged at a moments notice. Development, production and distribution costs have diminished and prices can now be calculated on very different business models and in direct response to market opportunities. Little work, apart from the detailing of the back of the display and the specification of materials, is left for traditional industrial designers to do.

Tilt, shake and other interface mechanisms have emerged out of the research labs, offering alternative physical experiences, instilling a whole new sense of excitement in designers. The Wii and iPhone, and before the iPod click wheel, have created a popular introduction to gesture based interfaces, demonstrating responsive feedback behaviours, applying “natural” physical effects like flipping and inertia, similar to the ones we are accustomed to in the real world, to improve usability expectations of an interface. Minority Report type interfaces, perhaps not the most desirable, which till recently have been confined to experimental prototypes in labs, are now appearing in professional applications. We are just waiting for a few more years until the prices become low enough, that we will see them feature in consumer interfaces. As new “cultures of use” emerge we are creating opportunities to form a language of gestures, similar to the conventions of “right-clicking” and standardised keyboard shortcuts. Currently designers are coming to grips with requirements to design affordances into these gesture based interfaces which indicate how to interact with them.

These products featuring behavioral interfaces wont sell in closed boxes on shelves in supermarkets. They may be demonstrated in videos, but in the end the most convincing way to be introduced to these products is to experience them for real. More about this in another post.

At DWB we are investigating how we can create innovative physical environments to discover, learn, subscribe to, and/or purchase these new breeds of software dresses and behaviour based products. We are interested to create retail conditions in which innovative physical consumer electronics type devices can be introduced to potential customers. Conditions that normally cant be found in large “pile’em high, sell’em cheap” type retail environments.

related articles:

The state we are in …

It’s time for new “features” ?

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  1. Interressant! groeten van Onno

  2. It is interesting how an article can be written taking a narrow set of examples and building a theory with a catchy title: “End of Industrial Design….” and even daring to make a sweeping statement like ” the old mantra “form follows function” didn’t work anymore”.

    Is industrial design applied only to gadgets like phones, personal music players and similar miniature devices ? What about cars, toys, shaving razors, washing machines, speed boats, trains, kitchen appliances and the entire rage of Alessi’s products.

    And what is “Traditional Industrial Design” Did you see the Apple notebook October 2008 video? Jonathan describes the design process of a laptop.

    What will you describe that as: traditional or non traditional design?

    Your article is highly misleading…It somehow gives an impression that design is only about the surface, the skin, the form.

    It is in the nature of tech gadgets that they are essentially boring and come to life only when powered up. But a beautiful vase sitting on a table is always ‘powered up’ to beautify the space.

    I will give your article a C – .

    Good luck !

  3. Hi
    I have read with much interest your article. You can see some photos of the first model of ” Philips Roller Radio ” and the “Radio in a Bag” and to these links:


  4. An excellent example of Form-giving as one of many aspects of Industrial Design is the exhibition Design Real at the Serpentine Gallery, London curated by Konstantin Grcic. open 26 November 2009 – 7 February 2010

    This exhibition is very much about the celebration of form and physicality of objects. And although all objects are selected for their functional practicality, their daily use is elusive. The beautiful online catalog tracks the story behind, highlights the process of inception and provides the context in which to understand each object. Although I personally prefer to experience products in relationship to their anticipated surroundings, I must confess enjoying sometimes watching, observing, staring at solitary design objects placed on a pedestal or displayed behind glass out of context of their intended use, instead set in a context of appreciation.

  5. I’d hate to see industrial design go way, or that chair you are sitting on while typing is going to get a lot less comfortable without anybody to design it.


  1. plus six » links for 2009-04-05
  2. Not quite the end of Industrial Design, but almost … according to DWB « DESIGN MANIFESTO
  3. Apple iPad and the Radical Innovation of Meaning « I’m Not Actually a Geek

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