Highlights from DesignBoost: Why Design Must Look Elsewhere To Innovate

For those who missed DesignBoost this year, or were there and want to read about it. Here’s our round-up, including major themes of the event.

Sweden’s DesignBoost wants designers to look beyond design. The premise of the conference, which took place over the past two days, in New York City, was that design (in the most general sense of the word) can draw power by looking beyond simply creating a thing for the sake of making it. Instead, design practitioners must take a more interdisciplinary approach to building their teams, discovering new processes, and constantly borrowing from other fields. This will provide fresh solutions to growing problems, enabling designers to solve for human needs, drive culture forward, and change human behavior more completely.

The Workshops

The first day hosted 20 workshops, which were basically brainstorms themed around DesignBoost’s mission. What made these groups particularly fun was that the speakers and audience were intermixed. There was also a wide range of experts at the table, many of whom were not designers. The various topics discussed unearthed provocative questions that addressed sustainability strategies, smarter ways of designing one’s life, the value of history in innovation, the intersection of design and science, how design education must adapt to changing societal requirements, among others. Participants were then interviewed on their group discussions and ideas.

Notable Speaker Highlights:

  • Bill Moggridge, one of IDEO’s founders and Director at Cooper-Hewitt picked ideas from his book Designing Media to drive the point that “expanding the context of design and thinking holistically is necessary for social innovation”. His ideas connected remarkably well with the ‘Design Beyond Design’ theme.
  • David Gresham, of Materials Connexxion, stressed the importance of “industry transfer.” Specifically, he talked about how materials and chemical processes innovated for scientific experiments or space exploration can impact the design of a shoe or a car. In fact, he went further to say that “the right material choice can change the perception of what you are making”
  • Andrea Ruggiero articulated a 3-stage framework conveying the evolution of consumers on wealth distribution (being able to afford something) and education (knowledge informing a purchase decision). While the presenter described the Pre-Consumer, Over-Consumer, Post-Consumer. Any given person can transition through these stages, and many times they are in the gray area between each stage. For Andrea, the problem is not over-consumption, but disproportionate consumption, where the rich consume 76% of total private consumption as the poor account for only 1.5%. He plotted these 3 archetypes against brand relevance, eco-awareness, values, and market conditions. It was a very compelling framework.
  • Phillip Tiongson from Potion asked how can designers go beyond spectacle? How do we get beyond watching and get them to interact? “Spectacle is visually compelling, but can also be an obstruction to interactivity. People are reduced to spectators, not participants. Engage a wider range of human experience.” To do this, Potion create social moments through technology that binds people together, enriches conversation, and adds to shared experience rather than isolating individuals in tiny screens. Examples of their work can be found here.
  • Susannah Drake is a landscape architect and Principal at dlandstudio, a multidisciplinary design. Her talk focused on how to create innovative architectural solutions that seamlessly connect natural and urban systems. She highlighted a handful of “productive infrastructures” that support oxygen production, provide shade value, optimize water usage, and impact neighborhoods positively. Projects she mentioned include Gowanus Canal Sponge Park and the Brooklyn Bridge Pop-up Park.

3 Key Themes From The Talks

Context is King

Design Beyond Design is premised on the idea that designers must now consciously account for more factors. This includes the ethical implications of their work, its life cycle, and identifying opportunities for enhanced efficiency. These points ought to be integrated into the making of the thing so that the user is given a path that fosters a positive behavior.

The Designer’s Changing Relationship to Nature

Design was founded on observing nature; contemporary bio-inspired design is a return to that with the additional suuport of machines. Anna Rabinowicz drove this point far by breaking bio-inspiration into categories. Design can look to internal biological processes (i.e. how a kangaroo regulate oxygen as it runs), anatomy and physical structure (i.e. how a shark’s skin enables it to swim faster), or collective behavior (i.e. how bees or ants work to build shelter). Biodesign seeks to draw scientific insight from living things and apply it. Noble examples include canes for the blind that have vibration feedback  based on bat adaptability or prosthetic limbs for amputees based on cheetah legs.

Conversely, Jamer Hunt, who talked about scale, described how disconnected our concept and perception of scale is from nature. Whereas scale use to be based on the human body and the natural world, electronic environments have made it difficult to know the size of an image or to understand the scale of a problem today. So it’s become harder to react. This is a call to designers to communicate the scale of pressing issues and mark an evolution in our relationship to nature, the environment, and the world.

The Power of Narrative: Storytelling Over Prototyping

The importance of storytelling was talked about often. Bill Moggridge advised designers to “prototype in a way that hangs elements together”. He also asked designers to captivate your audience by acting things out, engaging the imagination, and borrowing from how narrative have characters, plotlines, shapes, and duration. The power of narrative was also acknowledged by Phillip Tiongson when he demonstrated how design can get us to reflect on how we got to where we are, prompting a personal narrative for each individual.

DesignBoost

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