I just attended the IDSA’s International Design Conference (IDC) in New Orleans.  The IDC is a learning and networking event that attracts design executives and rising stars from around the globe.  

Vendors such as KeyShot, Sherwin-Williams and Model Solutions were onsite with tools and services for augmenting our profession.  As expected, the conference proceedings were excellent and focused on the disruptive technologies that are impacting our profession, the economy, ecology and our culture at large.  

Coincidentally, three of the conference presenters sited the earliest of Apple iPods in their on-screen presentations.  In all instances, the iPod served as an effective ‘then vs. now’ datum for measuring change over time.

When I returned to my home office in Austin, I found myself digging into my archives to find my first-generation iPod.  Thankfully, I found it well-preserved.  It was then that I remembered the iPod was not my first MP3 player.  It was actually the Diamond Rio player.  It had already been on the market before the first iPod launched in 2001. I was among the first to buy a Rio player, but sadly I didn’t preserve that device which, I believe, is quite telling.

Both the Diamond Rio and Apple iPod models were sized like a deck of cards and densely weighted.  These portly bricks were equally capable of playing music, but only Apple would be credited for transforming the way content is produced, distributed and consumed.  Apple didn’t invent the category, but like the Wright Brothers, their iPod was the first to take flight in our popular culture.

Crazy as it sounds today, playing music from a digital file was an abstract concept back then.  I was onboard with it from day one, but it still took me another decade to digitize my music and part ways with all those CD jewel cases.  

And, keep in mind, all previous forms of playing music required kinetic mechanisms.  The phonograph, reel-to-reel tape, eight tracks, cassettes, CDs, and the MiniDisc all had to spin.  Sadly, no spinning action player was robust enough for the hyper-mobile user.  Ever try jogging with a Sony Dis, Dis, Dis, DiscMan? Those things stuttered more than an interview with Mel Tillis – Google that! Thankfully, digital media players finally solved this hardware skipping problem.  

Still, the market was slow to accept the Rio, a solid-state player with no moving parts. I believe Apple’s record-like rotary controller on its front face was key to driving their mass market adoption. It was such a brilliant design semantic for its time because it anchored us to that all familiar spinning action. Its physical form and interface invited everybody to the party, not just early adopters. The iPod fit our culture like a great pair of jeans – the ones you know you have to buy, even though they’re way over-priced. And, 17 years later, the iPod’s classic silhouette is still the quintessential digital icon for music players today.

This got me thinking more about how digital interfaces typically replicate the iconic objects that exist in our physical worlds. Take your computer, for example. Unless you’re keystroking code, most of your computer work is happening on a simulated desktop that’s only analogous to the real desktop that your computer is actually resting on. Now ponder who designed your real desk, your real folders or your real trash can.  These physical things were created by an industrial designer, or a team of them. I’d argue that industrial designers are a first source for user interface design and the best physical design solutions have a better chance of earning their immortality status in the digital world. But then again, that might be the ID guy in me talking.

Fast forward to modern times.  Today anyone with a bit of talent can write and produce their own digital music.  Ableton is a music software platform that contains virtual replicants of all the physical controls that you’d expect to find in a world class recording studio.  I’ll admit that it’s hard for me to imagine Keith Richards hovering over his iMac, composing music on a computer with a bourbon and cigarette in hand, but it must be happening, right?  Like the original Rio player, only a few digital content production tools have gone mainstream.  Even though numerous packages are capable of reproducing the warmth of traditional instruments, all digital music production interfaces are inherently cold and CAD-like.  I’m hoping this will change when AR, VR and ultrahaptics go mainstream.  

This year’s International Conference was a good reminder that our discipline of industrial design is as much about finding these elusive connections between people and the things that populate our world.  Needless to say, it was great to be in an auditorium of design thinkers, all of us with an unquenchable thirst for translating that understanding into meaningful products and experiences.

Until next time, thanks for letting me be Frank!