Strategic Industrial Design in Digital Business Transformation

The current big trend in business is “go digital or die”. This also applies more and more to easy-to-deliver physical products – 20 years after WebVan failed, even groceries are online again. The operational challenge for the industrial designer is to appeal and connect with consumers and to turn them into paying customers. As this takes place on digital platforms via mobile smart phones or desktop PCs, the interaction and flow of transaction are vital for any sale. The new buzzword therefore is “Customer Experience” or UX. Now, even as interaction design is the key driver in the human-to-machine interaction, way too many results are quite primitive and generic, especially in mobile space – more about this in a future article – but they seem to work for now, because the novelty and comfort for the user outweigh the shortcomings of having to deal with the lowest common denominator. Looking at history of communicating, selling and buying, design is looking more and more like an executioner of advertising – and logically, ad agencies are invested in digital design. However, “products” have become the orphans.

To understand and judge physical products offered online, they must be “known” to the consumer either as paradigms (books), product classes (cosmetics) or as artefacts (furniture & electronics). Bigger items such as cars or houses still are more in an advertising mode, where potential buyers are invited into a real-life follow-up. It also is quite interesting, inspiring and entertaining, how new product concepts are presented and pitched on crowd sourcing portals such as Kickstarter. But from a design point of view, most concepts still are just slick presentations. Quirky was another promising start-up – combining crowd-sourced and community-voted ideation with design and manufacturing under its own brand – which in 2015 went Chapter 11 because of over-spending and lacking strategic focus and upward potential as envisioned by its founders and investors. The company’s assets got acquired by Flextronics (e.g. Wink) and by Q-Holding, who continues operations at a more modest scale.


There are two ways to achieve this: superior branding (providing emotional satisfaction) and great physical interaction (providing functional satisfaction). Steve Jobs realized that an Apple Shop-in-Shop at BestBuy didn’t really support the magic of the brand nor provide an adequate PoS-interaction with the products. The result is a hybrid concept: innovative Apple “brand stores” – previously established by fashion and luxury brands – combined with an effective online presence, and naturally: great products! Now, even as Sony, Microsoft and Dell followed suit, this concept hasn’t really caught up in consumer tech, because it is expensive, and one needs attractive products. Looking to China as the new eldorado of online business, even Xiaomi, which had integrated its hardware business into a very successful online portal, now is moving to branded stores, and so do Lenovo, Asus, Oppo and Vivo…


We are back at the importance of innovation, new product development and especially strategic industrial design. But the stakes are high.

The chart below – CEOs around the world could name 3 issues – shows the dilemma: CEOs are challenged and focused on making progress in digital business, and they certainly don’t focus on strategic industrial design, innovation and product quality. The golden calves are growth, IT (makes sense with digital transformation) and operational corporate issues. It is like a farmer being focused on selling milk without caring to feed his cows. Even “customers” come in at the same low interest level as “product”. Industrial designers seem to be driven back at where they were 50 years ago: beautifiers at the mercy of conservative engineers and marketing managers in fear of failure and blind to opportunity.


Left-brain executives won’t change. Therefore, we designers have to.

1/ We must become and be respected executive partners! This requires to expand our professional competence beyond “design”, so we will gain a voice in the C-Suite – or even become creative CEOs. We also have to team up with leaders and companies who want to go places, and where we can make a difference towards economic success. New trends such as 3D-Printing – no ugly vases and skulls please – and industrialized customization must be advanced and applied for substantial economic impact.

2/ We also must revolutionize design education back to creative basics, superior skills and the ability to recognize the patterns that connect. As their professional future is years out, we must enable our students to design for tomorrow imagine and simulate future scenarios, taking on today’s challenges like pollution, global warming, economic injustice and be aware of political naïveté as well of destructive corporate power games. Another requirement is to have more teachers who are successful professional designers themselves – and care for their alumni beyond graduation!

3/ We must accept the higher challenge the “Convergent Internet of Things” is setting for strategic industrial design: being curious, visualizing innovation, providing physical proof of superior value and performance, and creating an emotional appeal for the customer – form follows emotion. We designers must work and create together, across disciplines, across cultures – never tolerating copying and commercial or esthetic vulgarity – and what we create must express our passion to improve people’s lives.

Right now, we have to accept, that growth driven by digital business transformation is the main concern for CEOs. But my personal goal is that in two to three years, Gartner’s CEO review – hopefully done as Vidlet’s selfie interviews – will put innovative and emotionally appealing products as Number One.

As did Akio Morita and Steve Jobs.

Header Image: Amazon Warehouse Madrid, Spain –

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