Constant change: Insights from twenty years in the design industry
Nearly two decades after attending Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Dan Grossman, Design Director of Industrial Design at Smart Design, is helping to mentor today’s students. His recent experiences there sparked some reflection on how the design world has shifted in the past two decades. From the expanding number of firms and tools to the streamlining of product design, there are always new opportunities to build upon and new challenges to crack. Core77 recently chatted with Dan about his perspective on these changes, the difference of designing as a student versus a professional, and just what it was like being a student at SCAD back in the day.
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This school year you’ve been invited by SCAD to give a series of lectures to student designers. Tell us a bit about that.
I was asked to be a Professional Alumni Mentor to the students of the Industrial Design department this year. On my most recent trip, I sat in on graduate and undergraduate classes like “Contextual Research Methods” and “Industrial Design in the Marketplace” and listened to the lessons, reviewed projects and shared relevant professional stories and case studies. I also connected with students and professors through activities like discussing event strategy and student engagement with the school’s IDSA student chapter, reviewing portfolios, and lecturing on how to increase your chances of job placement within the competitive Industrial Design field. It was great to reconnect with old professors, meet new ones, and spend time with the new Department Chair, César Pieri, who previously was the Creative Design Manager at Jaguar’s Advanced Design Group.
What was your experience as a student at SCAD like?
Looking back at my time at SCAD, I realize how fortunate I was. The Industrial Design department was pretty progressive, and the professors were constantly experimenting. Not to date myself, but I was a student back in the early 2000s, post 9/11 and the dot-com bubble, so the world was changing fast. Technology was changing even faster. Suddenly, it wasn’t just the must-have products we were celebrating, but the designers and creative teams behind them. It was an exciting time, and it seemed like the department was doubling in size every year.
To keep up, we were pushed to think beyond just creating pretty objects and look deeper into understanding user needs, using various research and innovation methodologies. One professor I was fortunate to study under, Jon Kolko (who has since gone on to start the Austin Center for Design), was a key player in this department shift. He had come from the world of Interaction Design, which was then a very new formal design discipline (remember, smart phones didn’t exist back then). He brought new ways of thinking and problem solving, and really pushed the Industrial Design department to merge the physical and digital worlds. Because of that shift, I minored in Interaction Design, something no other school was even offering at the time.
What are some of the things you learned after leaving school and entering the professional design world?
For the most part, school does a great job of teaching you how to think and problem-solve. Design school especially pushes you to be creative in tackling projects that are extremely ambitious—like, a student project that encourages you to ignore the laws of physics and design at will. It’s those types of challenges you’ll probably never get to work on in the real world, but can be beneficial to your early creative development. The flip side is it can make for a really tough transition to the working world. When you go from trying to solve the world’s problems, or creating a dream object as a senior in college, which will most likely end up in a landfill at your very first job, it can be a really tough transition.
I had never heard of buyers before and certainly didn’t think people who worked in marketing had any sort of decision making authority when it came to physical product. But as soon as I started working, I quickly learned that many hands touch a product before it hits the shelves. It was surprising to find out that the designer typically doesn’t get the final say in what gets made.
There are two sides of design, really—the design and business sides—and it often takes equal parts of both for a great product to succeed.
Do you have some advice for students now, as they consider leaving school and starting on their career?
I encourage students to approach each project they will work on as an opportunity to learn. How can you expect to design a complex piece of tech hardware if you don’t even know how to design a wood cutting board? I mean really design it, not just draw it or render it up in CAD. I mean figure out every corner, every dimension, and go back and forth with the factory, commenting on samples, and fighting with different project stakeholders to get the look and feel right. That is how you learn how to get products made. These are lessons they don’t teach you in school and for good reason: you get this kind of knowledge on the job.
There are two sides of design, really—the design and business sides—and it often takes equal parts of both for a great product to succeed. These are things that you just have to learn yourself, which is why it’s so important for students to intern. Get out there, get experience and exposure, take on every professional project with the same rigor and focus as you would a personal one. Being a designer is basically agreeing to be a student for life. You’re never done learning.
What are some of the most compelling challenges designers face today?
The field of design has really gotten so large that it can feel over-saturated. The value of design is at an all-time high, which is good. But because of that, the field is evolving in ways we never anticipated. Consultancies are being purchased by larger consultancies and then homogenized. In-house corporate teams are growing, which is great for the job market but not always great for innovation. And creative tools have gotten so good that it’s hard to tell what’s real anymore.
I also worry that product aesthetics have gone hyper-minimal. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a minimalist at heart but because of this aesthetic—or really, the lack thereof—it’s tougher for brands to stand out. Especially given that creative tools have gotten so advanced and the field so large. If you look around online you will quickly see an almost infinite number of cool, minimal designs that have never been made and, most likely, never will.
Think about the evolution of the cell phones. When cell phones first hit critical mass, we all basically had the same one, right? We all had some version of that original Nokia series, with the same ring that, if you’re of a certain age, you can hear in your head as you read this. But then technology caught up with the demand, and thousands of designs hit the market. All of the sudden, your phone became a part of your identity. Were you a Blackberry? A Nextel? A Razr? Was your phone sleek and minimal, or sporty and funky? Did your phone flip, or have a full keyboard? It was a form of self-expression. Now think about the difference of receiving a brief from a company to design a cell phone back then versus today. Today’s phones are essentially bare, minimal black rectangles. Brands like Apple and Samsung are in this constant race to make them as thin and simple as possible. The point is, products that originally were designed to stand out are now being designed to disappear. Something about that just feels a little disappointing.
Obviously, technology has significantly changed design; what do you believe has stayed the same?
One thing I really appreciate is that even though CAD and 3D technology has gotten so advanced, the art and craft and 2D design is still celebrated. Sketching, especially in Industrial Design, continues to be one of the most important skills in the designer’s toolbox—from quickly roughing out your ideas on paper to creating beautiful renderings through digital tools that highlight the intricate details of your design. The ability to communicate complex things through sketching is like a super power. It’s this universal language that only creative people speak. The fact that it seems to be celebrated even more than ever within the field is pretty exciting.