Following the early morning portfolio review was a series of seven compelling presentations, each representing slightly different perspectives on the world of industrial design. What tied the presentations together was their emphasis on the role of designer not merely as form giver, but as researcher, empathizer, humanist, enabler, activist, and leader. A tall order, to be sure, but each of the speakers made persuasive arguments, often strengthened with case studies. The audience, which nearly filled the auditorium for each presentation, was engaged and enthusiastic.
The speakers at the 2006 IDSA Western District Conference were informative, entertaining, provocative, and energizing. Their presentations demonstrated the power that designers have, and suggested that the choices they make have an undeniable impact in the world. If, after Saturday's presentations, you didn't feel good about being part of the design community, then you simply weren't paying attention.
Read on for more about each of the presentations...Brett Vladika,
from Brooks Stevens Design, got the day going with his presentation, Design Beyond Rhetoric." For Vladika, rhetorical design is pretentious, insincere, and intellectually vacuous. Vladika and Brooks Stevens Design avoid rhetorical designs through rigorous research. To give us a little insight into how this all works, Vladika presented the case study of a simple cash box. For this project, the challenge was breathing new life into a very mature - and very boring - product. Rather than simply "skinning" the existing product (e.g. giving it an early iMac candy-colored shell), Vladika and his team explored how people actually use cash boxes. The surprising results of their research, combined with their careful look at market opportunities, led to a truly innovative take on an otherwise stale product. For those of us who teach and practice design research, Vladika's presentation was further validation. If design research can transform the lowly cash box, just think what it can do for some of our bigger challenges!
from SonicRim, challenged some commonly-held beliefs with his presentation, "The Scam Called Experience Design." According to Dandavate, we can't hope to design experiences for people; rather, what we can (and should) do is co-create with the people for whom we are designing. In order to do so, we need to be empathizers (echoes of Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind), and in order to become empathizers we need to visit people's homes and their imaginations. Designers should be looking for inspiration not in the slick design magazines (although we all love them), but in the real world and the world of imagination. Only by understanding deeply what experiences people dream of and aspire to can we then hope to innovate the tools they will use to get there. To illustrate his point, Dandavate asked the audience to think of a movie based on a book. He then asked: if you read the book before seeing the movie, did you enjoy the movie? Not surprisingly, few people indicated that they had. Dandavate suggested this was because prior to seeing the movie, we owned the experience on our own terms. As designers, then, the best we can do is design the "tools for experiencing."
Uday Gajendar also set out to debunk some design world myths with his presentation, "The Interface as Pathway to User Experience." We often think of the user interface (or UI) in purely digital terms, as a visible (and often maddening) layer of menus, icons, and buttons that enables us to interact with digital data. However, Gajendar proposes that the UI can be thought of in much broader terms, and that by doing so, we can help create the circumstances for a better user experience (although, it should be noted that Gajendar agrees with Dandavate's argument that we don't actually design experiences, but only the tools for experiencing; and Gajendar also is hesitant to use the term "user," as it tends to objectify people - he prefers the term "human"). While many products have what we think of as UIs (the iPod or Motorola Razr), other lower-tech products also have UIs (the curvaceous handles on Fiskars scissors, for example, "invite" a user to experience holding and cutting with them). Other examples of user interfaces include a simply restaurant menu, customer service centers, and storefronts (think of the Apple stores, and how they "invite" a user experience). For Gajendar, then, the interface is simply the mediation between the designer's intent and the expectation of the people. Done well, it leads to better experiences; done poorly, the designer never connects with the intended audience.
Charles Austen Angell
If people's thoughts were drifting a little as lunch approached, Charles Austen Angell, from Intel Digital Health, was just what we needed. His presentation, "Design by any Other Name, and a Few Dangerous Ideas," was injected with his sense of humor and knack for storytelling. Angell emphasized the importance of communities, both permanent and temporary (although, as Angell pointed out, all communities are temporary if the time scale is long enough). By leveraging "community," we can improve individual health (currently, the emphasis is too much on the medical aspects of health, as if this alone would lead to improved individual health). Angell and his team at Intel Digital Health focus on the human behavior aspect of healthcare (66% of people do not take their meds as prescribed!), proposing design solutions that take into account how people actually behave in the overall context of their lives. Finally, Angell proposed that as designers we ought to pay attention to communities not as separate entities for whom we design, but as participating collaborators.
After lunch we were treated to Patricia Moore and her presentation, "Designers: The Anthropologists of Our Time." Moore, who is a designer and gerontologist, combined humor with some sobering commentary in what might be described as a heartfelt call to arms for designers of the future (and aren't we all designers of the future?). Our mission? Well, according to Moore, we need to begin to think of people in terms of what they can do, rather than what they cannot do (abilities vs. disabilities). As designers, we have lots of power - we need to design to include people, rather than leave people out (inclusive vs. exclusive designs). Rather that design one-size-fits-all, we need to be designing something out there for everybody. Choice and control are critical to quality of life; without choice, we lose control, and without control our quality of life inevitably suffers. We can design things (products, services, spaces, etc.) to accommodate choice and control, but it needs to be a conscious effort. Quality of life needs to be part of the design brief. Moore pointed out that the Baby Boomers, now beginning to retire, will not accept the old, medical model of late life; their expectations are much higher (and they have the money to make choices). And Gen-X and Gen-Y, taken together, make up an even larger cohort than the Boomers - and a significant portion of the audience too. According to Moore, we have the opportunity to really change the way we address (and think about) aging.
Katherine and Michael McCoy were joined by Prasad Boradkar for "Edge Conditions: A Dialogue about Creative Conceptual Spaces." The discussion was about how turbulence can lead to a creative tension, which in turn leads to some interesting design concepts. It was suggested that we, as designers, need to embrace these tensions and "swim in the turbulence." As an example, Michael McCoy used the Scion xB. Here is a vehicle that is derived from your basic utility van, but with a clear nod to the custom van culture. Then Toyota mass produces the xB, creating a sort of hybrid. However, in the minds of some people (including Boradkar) the "corporatization" of the vehicle dilutes its edginess considerably. Of course, industrial designers generally design for mass production, making it difficult to sustain that much-sought-after edginess. The general consensus, then, was that these edge conditions are critical to the design process, even if the results arenâ€™t as edgy as we might like.
CEO of Design Continuum, delivered the closing keynote presentation, "Embracing Complexity." Zaccai began his presentation by noting that industrial design has historically addressed the needs, wants, and desires of the wealthy (while ignoring the poor), embraced globalism (over tribalism), and paid more attention to industry than ecology. Not only is this no longer sustainable, by adhering to this old-school approach, designers are missing out on many interesting, enjoyable, and lucrative opportunities. As an example, Zaccai spoke of his experiences with InterDesign, a two-week collaborative "deep dive" into some major issues facing the world today sponsored by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. Zaccai gave several examples of successful new business paradigms in which designers have played pivotal roles, and suggested that there are many more such opportunities out there. Due to their unfamiliar constraints, these projects offer rare opportunities for real creativity and innovation. And, oh by the way, they're an awful lot of fun too.
Stephanie Tharp received a master of industrial design degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, and a bachelor of mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan, and coordinator of their foundations program.
She has work experience with Ford Motor Company, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Armstrong Industries, and amazon.com. Most recently, with her husband, Bruce, Stephanie runs Materious, a design studio that produces discursive and speculative design work. They are currently working on a book, Design as Discourse: Tools for Thinking, which seeks to further legitimize and problematize alternate forms of design practice that extend designers’ cultural agency.