A "product" today is rarely just physical, but consumers' expectations for meaningful product experiences are greater than ever. The challenge for designers is to bring empathy and sensitivity to their work, regardless of the tools and technologies at their disposal.
Last month marked Ziba's 30th anniversary as an innovation and design agency, and besides giving us a reason to celebrate, this milestone is also a perfect opportunity to look into the past as well as the future. Ziba today is a far different company than the one I founded in 1984 in a bedroom in Beaverton, Oregon. We're a larger organization now, of course, but also a far more multidisciplinary and collaborative one. It's a shift that reflects the product design field as a whole.
To help quantify this shift, we recently hosted a panel conversation between three of the most forward-thinking designers and educators in the country. "The Future of Product Design" asked these panelists—Allan Chochinov of the School of Visual Arts and Core77, Aura Oslapas of A+O, and John Jay of Wieden + Kennedy, plus myself—to evaluate how product design has changed since we first entered the field, and to make some predictions about where it's headed.
All four of us have been working designers since the '80s or '90s, and we've all seen dramatic changes in the tools that people use to turn concepts into products. And while our opinions diverged in some ways, we all agreed that the tools matter far less than the intention and empathy behind them. It's true that software like Adobe Creative Suite and various 3D CAD and rendering packages have gotten much more powerful and easier to use, empowering millions of people to take on design tasks once reserved for professionals. The real expertise of product designers, though, isn't in their mastery of computers, but their ability to identify needs, create meaning and form a thoughtful point of view on what a design should do... and why.
Out of the themes that emerged from the discussion, five were especially pronounced, and worth exploring in greater detail—not just as a way of taking stock of past achievements, but of anticipating where product design could go in the next 30 years.