Lessons of Techno-Labo No.1 Design

From the viewpoint of the management of a company that have been entrusted many product designs, I summarized what design is . It is influenced by “design thinking” which was prevalent in Silicon Valley and “design driven innovation” which has become a hot topic recently. If you are interested, we recommend that you refer to the books on the reference list.

What is Industrial Design?

First of all, let me talk about the word “design”. Although the word “design” is used by many people, the definition differs from person to person and it is not clear. In the broad meaning, the range of “design” has expanded to the “system design” and the word of “career design”. In this article I will tell you about design, only in “industrial design” which I know relatively well.

First, let me define “industrial design” as “to make the exterior design of a mass production product beautiful” to sell! Since I am not a designer but a manager, I would like to talk about how the function of design was positioned in society. It is slightly different from the designers who ride the waves of the design fads, but I think that what many users want is this point of view.

I defined design as above by considering background when the industrial design was born. In the first place, the “design industry” is an industry that was born to increase sales of products after finishing mass production, finishing the appearance of the product beautifully. Although beautifully finished artworks and crafts are art items, mass production products are not art objects. To distinguish good quality “mass production” products from art, the word “design” has been used. From the beginning of the design, “design” could not be separated from the purposes of “”mass production”” and “Sell”. That is why “industrial design” should mean “to make beautiful appearance designs of mass production products to sell”.


Transition of Industrial Design

Recently the circumstances have become complicated and the role of design has gradually changed. It would be easy to talk if we could define “design” just as “making the appearance design of the mass production product beautifully to sell”. There have been four phases of design.

Phase 1: Make Appearance to Sell

In the past, products were sold if the appearance was cool. Initially, only the purpose of creating a beautiful and cool look was needed for design. In that era, the designer was a person who produces cool things, so they were considered such as an artist with a good sense. Some people might think they look suspicious.

Phase 2: Learning Knowledge of Mass Production

As the time passed, industrial products became more complicated and the technology used in mass production had been diversified. For mass production,  it was essential to understand the basic technology of mold and injection molding to design a shape with high affinity with technology. Not only good sense but also high level of knowledge of manufacturing technology has become necessary. At this point, “graphic design” does not require knowledge of production technology, so it differentiates from “industrial design” where accumulation of knowledge becomes essential. In general, both have become understood as different skills.

To become an industrial designer, it is necessary to acquire the basic knowledge of mass production, so basically it was necessary for manufacturers to have experience of stacking for several years. A common career path is the pattern that in Japan we graduate from five representative universities and arts colleges, then we do an in-house at home appliances maker’s house, then after independence at a personal office.

Phase 3: Marketing and Storytelling

In recent years, products are no longer sold simply by cool designs based on knowledge of mass production. Every manufacturer is making cool products, so differentiating them with design got difficult. As a result, design became one of options of marketing. It is a concept that we should research the users’ demand first, then design the products based on the needs.

People describe it as a “Storytelling”.  Not only attractive design, but also there are stories such as ” I created it for my sick wife …” or “a craftsman of historical Hida region spent 5 years to make”. The movement to appeal products by making emotional stories has become stronger. Advertising agencies, which are good at marketing and storytelling, has been leading industrial design increasingly.

Since, when it comes to “design”, we often heard words, which we were not used to,  like “from manufacturing (mono-zukuri) to storytelling (koto-zukuri)”, “product concept” and “customer profile”. Therefore, the design got far away from the users.


Phase 4: Creating Innovation

Nowadays, the opposite movement is happening. Consumers are starting to realize that marketing and storytelling are not trustful. They tend not to buy the products easily. They want to buy something real, under no influence of marketing. I am not sure if consumers can distinguish real products though.

In this trend, the creation of “innovation” is getting required. In other words, people started to think more on method of design because consumers did not purchase the products like before. As an owner of the company, these reaction of society makes me regard “designing” as a struggle to sell the products.

Answers form Designers

By the way, current designers have two answers for the definition of design. First is “participatory manufacturing (PM)”. Second is “radical manufacturing (RM)”.

Design Thinking

Popular group at Silicon Valley is advocating PM as design thinking (DT). DT covers wide range of application. Narrowing perspective into selling, DT tries to seek thoroughly what users really need. DT believes users will buy the products more if they can bring back design, which got far away from users’ real feeling, to the hands of users.

According to DT, we were making things for the sake of ourselves in the past. After mass production divided a lot of roles into each company, users lost feeling and joy of manufacturing. DT wants users join the process of manufacturing to make them buy the products. Recently, the concepts of “maker movement” and “cloud funding” are emerging. Since these became popular in Silicon Valley, it seems these concepts match well with DT as expected.

Design Driven Innovation

On the other hand, Europe group is advocating RM as “design driven innovation (DDI)”. Contrary to DT, they do not approach users at all. Users have no idea what they really need until the products appear in front of them. Therefore, they are trying to create brand new product based on enough research by individual or teams.

For example, from the car invented by GM to Apple’s iPhone, marketing did not produce epoch-making products. Rather than marketing, DDI describe “research” of how to create radical product is the most important. To that root, there is the idea that “art” and “philosophy” should be more valuable than design when we evaluate the product. Italian company came up with the original theory of DDI and it is spreading to Japanese company.


As summarized above, the concept of the design has changed considerably, depending on the times. We can say that it is because the purpose of the design was selling the products. To sell, the method of the design has been changed. After talked about history of transition, I will talk about current mainstream of industrial design in the next article.


Reference List

Hiroyuki Anzai, Kazaru Yaegashi (2017). Dezain no tsugini kurumono (What will come after design). Japan: Cross media publishing

Hiroyuki Aoki, Yoshiyuki Matsuoka (2017). The avenging Plastic. Japan: Maruzen planet

Konno Noboru (2008). Art Company. Japan: Nikkei Publishing Inc.

Roberto Verganti (2009). Design Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press

Tim Brown (2011). Change by Design : How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. New York, United States: HarperCollins Publishers Inc

Tom Kelly, Jonathan Littman (2012). The Art Of Innovation : Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books Ltd