Ellen DeGeneres: ID’s Secret Weapon

When I told my family I wanted to become an industrial designer, I had a reaction that I assume was similar to many aspiring designers. My parents starred at me with a look of love and confusion, and asked, “honey, what is industrial design?” This was followed by a, “but, can you get a job as a designer?” and “why don’t you just become an engineer?” I know they meant well, and that these questions came from a place of love and concern, but the frustration was still there.

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What it feels like trying to explain what ID is to my friends and family

My parents were not alone. Extended family, friends, and even strangers on the bus would ask me, “what is industrial design?” I used a variety of methods. I explained to them that ID was making iPhones, cars, and vegetable peelers. I explained that it could be as diverse as designing apps, pacemakers, or trade show displays. I explained to them that ID was what would happen if engineering and art made a baby. And, when all else failed, I just said that it was, “like getting a degree in Ikea.”

“Oh! I get it, now,” was the usual response.

Of course, I have come to learn that industrial design is not easily defined. Depending on whom you ask, you can get wildly varying answers. But for the sake of clarity, I have become OK with letting people think that ID can be defined as making iPhones and modular furniture. So imagine my surprise when one day my mom says, “Allie, Ellen is doing an industrial design show! Are you all watching it? I get what you’re doing, now!” (Ellen, being America’s sweetheart Ellen DeGeneres, and “you all” being my classmates).

“Mom, what do you mean ‘Ellen is doing an ID show’?” She went on to tell me that Ellen had paired with HGTV to air a reality show where furniture designers would compete for a prize and the title of “America’s Best Furniture Designer.” It was aptly named “Ellen’s Design Challenge.”

Was Ellen the missing link? While I knew that a reality show was not the ultimate indication of success as a furniture designer, nor was it a holistic view of industrial design, it did bring up an interesting thought. Was design becoming popular enough where TV executives considered it legitimate programming? And what did it mean that a mainstream celebrity was now a barometer for critiquing a discipline once reserved for high-end Manhattan firms, and gallery directors? In one fell swoop, Ellen had made a convoluted industry digestible to a wide audience of hobbyists and housewives.

As I watched the show’s judges critique the contestants’ pieces in the opening episode, I let these questions linger. All esteemed panelists in their own right, their critiques were insightful and informed, and they used language similar to my own peers and professors. It didn’t feel overly contrived nor dumbed down, which I appreciated.

So, kudos to you Ellen! While I don’t see a reality show in UX happening anytime soon, I do appreciate the step towards bringing the world of design to the masses.

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Now, all we need to do is to get Beyoncé in on ID!
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