A brief history – Why product design is changing

Product Concept Design has undergone some major transformations since the beginning of the 20th century.  But honestly, what didn’t change over the last 100 years? Commerce changed, Production Methods changed, the world got smaller, and ideas got bigger.

At the beginning of the twentieth century research companies like Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park R&D lab pioneered a Product Concept Design cycle that was based on experimentation.  Edison’s approach was remarkably successful.  He and his assistants created products like the modern light bulb, the phonograph and an electrical grid based on DC current.

Around the same time Henry Ford perfected the assembly line by introducing conveyor belts to the production cycle. The introduction of a consistent, unrelenting conveyor transformed the world economy by laying the groundwork the factory based model.

The explosion of factories across the world coupled with the mobilization for WWII meant that the tradition of insulated Product Concept Design was reaching its end.

New ideas about the way products would be developed catalyzed a second phase of product innovation. Individuals like Vannevar Bush believed that a structured collaboration between universities and industry would create better products.

Bush’s ideas for the development of products meant that administrators of large scale projects would be essential to successful innovation. These administrators would become the conduit through which fundamental research was translated to industry.

Seeing the success of the Manhattan Project, corporations began to adopt this method of innovation into their product development schemes and by the mid 1960’s a corporate mass-production economy was in full swing.

Companies like Xerox found their stride during the period after World War 2.  Having changed the business world with the introduction of its 813 copier in 1963, Xerox set out to revolutionize Product Concept Development.

In 1970 Xerox opened the PARC research facility.  Headed by Jack Goldman, a professor at the University of Washington, PARC created an explosion of new products, driven by collaborations between Stanford University students and PARC scientists.

Among the products produced through this collaboration were the Graphical User Interface, Laser Printers, the Xerox Alto and the Ethernet Local Area Network.

The current state of Product Concept Development

Today Product Concept Development still relies on the strategies developed by Vannevar Bush and typified by Xerox PARC but an added emphasis has been placed on including consumer input in the Product Concept Design cycle. 

Concepts like Design Thinking, which stresses that products be created to respond empathetically to a problem are now defining what the Product Concept Design cycle means.  Design Thinking consists of 4 key components:

1. Empathy – Imagining a products use from the perspective of the customer.

2. Collaboration – Being open to bringing in opinions from a variety of sources to better understand and solve problems.

3. Integrative Thinking – Refusing to make compromises that jeopardize the effectiveness of a product.

4.  Experimentalism – Using creative thinking to solve larger issues with your products rather than making incremental upgrades.

Couple the Internet and rapid-prototyping with Design Thinking and we can begin to see that Product Concept Design is moving closer to its origins where a single individual can create something that changes the way people interact with the world.

Looking forward – how will future product concepts be developed?

There are a lot of trends that will shape the future direction of product concept design.  Here are two of them:

1.  The Internet has made it possible to include input from a much broader audience of users and designers.  For example, Quirky is a company that has been built on the idea that people can submit product concepts that are “elected” for production.  If you haven’t seen the Product Design Show episode on “Product Development gone Social” that features Quirky, you can see it here.   The funding community on Kickstarter is another excellent example of social product development and funding.

2.  
3D Printing makes it possible for product designers to visualize and share their concepts more economically at an earlier stage.  There are now many 3D Printers available that cost less than $10,000, and even down to $1,000 for home-assembly kits.  For those designers who don’t just want to see their design printed, companies like Shapeways let individual designers create products and have them manufactured on-demand by 3D Printers.

Trends like these are “democratizing” product concept design, bringing it back to its roots where individual inventors and small teams can create and execute breakthrough design ideas. 

In the video below, Vince Penman and Allison Toepperwein give and overview of the history of Product Concept Design.

 

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