There's a ubiquitous relationship between industrial and web design. Both are framed around a set of established standards to be easily produced and consumed by the masses. It was an unpredictable happenstance the two worlds I work in would indirectly influence each other.
Every time I sit down to design a website, I immediately browse through a reference library of industrial design products, particularly electronics. They work within the same restraints - like websites, consumer electronics have to be aesthetically pleasing, innovative, and make sense functionally. It's a delicate balance between the eyes, hands, and brain. A mobile phone is a good example of this trifecta. The visual information our eyes provide tells us a lot about how appealing it is. Our hands provide a tactile sense and allow us to manipulate its functions, and our brain has to decide if it all makes sense. Web design shares those same core elements.
One of the penchants of industrial design is "form follows function" but it's an antiquated model. A spoon looked like a tool you scooped with. A glass looked like a vessel to hold liquid. The advent of the microchip obliterated all that. Now we have products that look nothing like their intent because they're meant to do so many things. Websites are under the same siege of convergence. As new technologies emerge, websites are no longer a repository of information, but need to enable social interactivity that was absent five years ago. The problem is many websites are so inundated with functionality, design has become more of an afterthought than a priority.
My work lately has been stripped of superfluous embellishments. At one time I reveled in creating layers upon layers of detail (thanks to Isabelle and Pat for the tutelage), painstakingly crafting graphics that would make Photoshop vomit. It served me well since clients like eye candy but I grew tired of it. The pre-reqs for a modern web page is a clusterfuck of key art, Facebook like buttons, Twitter widgets. and loquacious content. All the fancy Photoshopping in the world can't hide it. Fortunately industrial design provides insights on how to deal with that too and as cliché as it sounds, Apple is a wonderful example.
When I look at the Macbook Pro (2010 model), it becomes clear to me what Apple, and to a smaller extent their designer Jonathan Ive, have been thinking. For many years the inconspicuous sleep indicator seemed to be a sore thumb in Apple's soft monolithic design. It was hidden in the latch switch but in 2010, Apple made the leap in amazing material technologies. The light is now buried just beneath the aluminum casing and only appears when asleep. Why else would you need to see it? It was an "aha" moment for me in my web work. Websites should be minimal to hide their complexity - cleverly laid out so powerful functionality only presented itself when needed. Extrapolating that into terms used in web design is challenging. Minimalism doesn't have to mean barren and stark. It can mean refined and thoughtful execution. Some of the best places to see real working examples are your everyday objects like phones, TVs, and computers. They need to provide fluid experiences that are intuitive without being "hand-holdy" and can be far more valuable than looking at pre-existing websites for inspiration.
So what does the future look like? Again I turn to my industrial design references. We live in an age of convergence devices and although we've made leaps in interface design and methodologies (thanks touchscreen), we are all still using hard materials, e.g. metal, plastic, and other composites. Is it necessary? The hard components made sense in the past as they provided protection for the important bits inside but we've progressed far enough where those pieces can be made malleable and flexible. Isn't it time for a paradigm shift? Sony pondered that very question several ago when they unveiled the LittleTV concept television. The entire body is made of textiles, capable of transmitting energy better than ordinary circuity and possessing thermal heat regulatory properties unheard of in today's electronics. It's soft and tactile, seemingly wanting to be touched. It's a future I'm particularly excited about in my work with industrial design and provides plenty of fodder for me to ponder when our websites will be as soft and squishy.