Disappearing Physical: Is Industrial Design as We Know it Becoming Obsolete?

For several decades, we used digital design tools to help us create real-world products. As new technologies like VR, AR, and broadband streaming became more accessible, a lot of designers are creating products that only exist in the digital world with manufacturing as one of the options. 

This process is also being accelerated by COVID: people spend much more time in the immersive digital environments (like games, productivity tools, or fitness apps) and are more likely to spend money on surrounding themselves with interesting digital objects. 

Is real-world design becoming obsolete? In this article, we will explore the possibilities that designing for the virtual world gives us and how industrial designers can stay relevant in this new setup.  

How it started

3D tools and the dawn of contemporary industrial design 

CAD or Computer Aided Design systems first appeared in the 1960s, but they didn’t fully take off until the 1990s when Autodesk and Silicon Graphics software was widely adopted. At the time, personal computers started becoming ubiquitous and CAD tools as well as software applications like 3Ds Max were finally available to the majority of designers, animators, and architects.  

Since the dawn of computer graphics, the 3D design field has always moved in several directions. First, there were a lot of tools that helped create physical products. Surprisingly, in the 90s computer aided design was being judged for how it inhibited the creativity of designers and computers were seen as stunting the creative output of a designer. But over time, the gap between the reality and the way it’s represented in the digital world was getting smaller and smaller — each new iteration of design software was becoming more intuitive and allowing the designers to create more realistic renderings of their concepts.

In addition to design tools for architects and industrial designers, the proliferation of 3D tools allowed whole new industries to flourish — now we have 3D animation, video games, and special effects in movies. Technologies allowed creators and storytellers to build narratives and engage the audience through character design and game dynamics — for example, Autodesk tools were used for creating special effects for movies like Titanic, Inception, Avatar, and many other box office hits. 

Industrial design
Dolce & Gabbana auctioned a nine-piece collection of digital NFTs alongside some actual couture for a total of 1,886 Ether.

Industrial design is moving away from physical-first 

In the past decade, there have been more artists and designers who don’t see 3D tools as means to creating physical objects or telling stories within the canons of the entertainment industry. Digital art is as old as the internet itself, but in the past decade we have seen at least two big movements that were particularly memorable.

First, there was a post-internet art boom of the early 2010s with artists like Jon Rafman using 3D graphics regularly as part of his practice (he often combined these graphics with installations and other mediums). And second, there is an NFT boom that we are witnessing right now. It’s enabled by blockchain technology that is allowing a lot of digital artists to create and sell their unique digital artwork without producing any physical pieces. 

The NFT boom has also encouraged a lot of designers to experiment with the new Medium — for example, this February Andrés Reisinger who is known for his surreal furniture renderings, sold ten of his pieces for a combined $450,000. His designs were deemed ‘impossible’ — Reisinger’s beautiful renderings show chairs and couches made out of thousands of flower petals, bubble gum, and other unusual materials. 

One of the chairs that Reisinger created — his famous 2018 render, Hortensia chair, was later adapted for mass production by Moooi. This is believed to be ‘the first  product designed for the digital world has gone into mass production.’ What does this mean for industrial design? This is a full circle moment — for decades, designers were creating objects for the physical world and using digital tools to help us along the way. Now the physical world is not a destination — it’s an afterthought. 

It’s not unusual for furniture designers to blur the boundaries between art and design — in the past decades, the novelty in this space was mostly achieved through experimentation with materials and form, not a function (a chair is a chair is a chair). What’s new is our ability to create these 3D objects that are only possible in the digital world. We then expect manufacturers to follow without considering any material limitations that industrial designers have always been dealing with. 


The rising tension

The rising tension between digital and material

The story of Moooi and Andrés Reisinger’s design sets an interesting precedent for generations of designers who were taught that it’s critical to understand a medium at its deepest level to create good products. Moreover, renderings were often seen as a cover up for poorly designed things. A beautiful rendering could hide imperfections of a real product and mask bad decisions made by a designer who hasn’t truly mastered their medium yet. 

We see not just how digital representation of something is replacing the final product itself, but also how the value of digital products is rising — Reisinger’s digital armchairs cost more than the majority of luxury armchairs available in the real world. Similarly, the world’s first digital couture dress was sold for $9,500 which is far more expensive than a lot of designer clothes made with fine materials and hundreds of hours invested in manufacturing. 

It’s not surprising that a lot of people start to see more value in digital products than before. Thanks to new technologies, a lot of household products that were widely used just 10-20 years ago are becoming obsolete (think CDs, USB sticks, tapes, phonebooks, stationary, film cameras, etc.). We are also spending much more time online and having much more fun, especially with new VR headsets, better interfaces, and faster broadband connection. 

2020 was a sad and traumatizing year, but industries like gaming grew and attracted new audiences that are likely to invest in their digital presence. Though digital couture is not super popular yet, people spend a more modest amount of money on ‘skins’ in popular games like Fortnite. Experts predict the market for “skins” in video games will reach $50 billion USD by 2026. This comes as no surprise as we spend more and more time immersed into digital experiences, and as our homes before that, these spaces give us a sense of safety, allowing us to express ourselves, and provide entertainment value. 

Finding more meaning

Finding more meaning in the world of objects, online and offline in design

As industrial designers, we’ve assumed the physical world is more important than the digital one, and our beliefs were confirmed by consumer habits. People with disposable income invested in status symbols that are easily noticeable in real life: a piece of jewelry, a Rolex watch, an expensive car or a big house. In 2021, our lifestyle is changing, and with new technologies allowing for greater experimentation, we are getting to a point where the digital world seems like it’s eclipsing the physical world in importance. Now we have tools to buy and sell exclusive digital artworks and objects that become a new equivalent of the exclusive luxury items of the past. 

So what does this mean for the industrial design industry and for consumer’s everyday lives? It’s easy to imagine a dystopian vision for the future where we fully move into the digital world, don’t own anything, and only invest in good computers and digital goods. It’s true that a lot of industrial design (and especially consumer electronics) is moving towards miniaturization or even complete obsolescence of certain goods, but that’s just a part of the picture. But as industrial designers we believe that the physical world is not going anywhere. Living in a virtual world allows us to experience things that are visually rich yet lack the ability to engage our tactile senses. This tactility is something that we value as humans because it’s such a huge part of what makes us human.

Yet products of the future will surely look different as we continue experimenting with digital artworks and objects. For one thing we’ll be able to leverage digital objects to better test new product ideas and gauge an audience’s interest before investing in high volume manufacturing. Secondly, we’ll also want to surround ourselves with less physical objects, and instead opt for things made with a much higher standard of quality. With this rebalancing of importance between physical and digital reality, people are reframing the way physical and digital products fit into their lives. Our hope moving forward is that both platforms will continue to be celebrated for their strengths to provide people with useful and meaningful experiences.