Wanted: Hybrid Designers
Since 1968, the Braun Prize has been seen primarily as a product design competition, concepts ranged from a construction crane to a diesel locomotive. Fast forward 47 years and it seems the same. But one subtle change that surfaced in 2015 was the introduction of the word “virtual” to the brief. As stated on their website, the aim was to “create something that changes the quality of your life or the world, simple or complex, big or small, physical or virtual”. The introduction of the word “virtual” opens up opportunities to explore concepts, that stretch beyond physical products to include interactive experiences and services.
This widening of the scope accurately reflects the shifts we’ve seen already happening for the past 20 years, given technology’s massive impact on our lives and the fact that it is so often embedded in the products that surround us. The inclusion of interactive experiences in 2015 resulted in my invitation to be an external jury member. Although originally trained as a product designer in the late 1980s, I returned to school a few years later to learn how to design software. As a product designer I realised that nearly every product I was asked to design contained a screen of some kind, making it increasingly impossible to design a product without knowing what was happening on the screen. Browsing through the online archives of the Braun Prize winners since 1968, if a screen appears on a product, rarely is it contextualised beyond a photo of a product with static text on a screen.
It was therefore a welcome sight to finally see submissions that articulated interactive experiences, as well as product experiences, in 2015. To encourage more product designers to broaden their approach before entering the Braun Prize in 2018 and to encourage more interaction and service designers to submit their work, lets explore five themes that highlight this approach to designing technology solutions in the future. Additionally, we can review concepts from the Braun Prize last year that illustrate the effectiveness of this new way of working and thinking.
From Products to Services
For many years now, design solutions have shifted from stand-alone products to service experiences. Products are now just one of many touchpoints that exist within a larger ecosystem. The way we interact with this service varies. It may be via a screen, or we may phone a call centre or even interact face-to-face in a retail environment. This requires designers to think about systems, rather than products, and think of a user’s journey across these multiple touchpoints over a sustained period of time. To be successful, designers must think about the product, the service, and the system.
The best example of such a holistic service approach in 2015 was “The Urban Yield” created by a young group of designers from the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. The service connected a network of farmers and community gardeners with local cafes and restaurants, to create an environmentally conscious and community orientated food mobility network. The designers of the service envisioned a dedicated cargo bike that picked up and delivered fresh produce in the city. By providing a mobile infrastructure, in the form of specialised cargo bicycles, the system aimed to promote urban agriculture and encourage community engagement in localised food production and distribution.
They also designed an app that allowed growers to notify couriers of a pick up location, including information on the food type and weight. Additionally, the app lets the grower keep track of their pick up and a navigation system enables the couriers to easily find the location of the grower. And finally, a restaurant or cafe could order fresh produce through the app and keep track of their deliveries and payments.
Although not a unique concept in itself, it reflects the designers’ attention to every detail and aspect of the service; from the design of the bike to the app, the service experience itself and even the branding of the service. Services that excel are typically consistent, delightful to use, and unique.
From Design Specialism to Design Hybrids
For many years, traditional disciplines like graphic design, industrial design, fashion design, and architecture have been taught in siloes and rarely mixed. If trained in one discipline, you rarely got exposure to another. A product designer, for example, trained on how to design a physical product but rarely on how that physical product relates to the on screen experience for that product. As more products incorporate digital technology, new design disciplines such as interaction design and service design have emerged. Designers are now entering the workforce with this new way of working; they are more collaborative and less bound by their core discipline training. As they work on multidisciplinary teams they are exposed to new tools, techniques, and approaches from other design disciplines. These “hybrid” designers work across several design disciplines and can adapt and flex accordingly, based on the problem they are solving.
Mats Lönngren, a “concept” and industrial designer awarded with the Gold Award in the Professionals and Enthusiasts category embodies this new way of working. Lönngren’s Ahti X1 Connected Life Jacket is in itself a beautiful elegant product. But it moves beyond aesthetics with its embedded connectivity. An inductively charged wireless module is located inside the life jacket, making it completely waterproof. When someone falls overboard, the life jacket inflates and automatically creates a time and location stamp for the victim. This data is accessed via a mobile application, allowing the victim to be tracked in real time. The rescuer can quickly see how long the victim has been in the water, the distance to the victim, wind data, and water temperature. The app provides clear visual instructions for how to rescue someone safely from the water. A clear hierarchy of information highlights critical details during a rescue operation.
Lönngren designed the product, built the prototype, and designed the app – all by himself. As a true hybrid designer, he had the skills to think beyond the product. I predict that we will see many more examples of this way of working in the next Braun Prize.
Design is about creating solutions that are easy for people to use and understand. It’s about helping people to make sense of the world around them. In a way, designers are “sense makers”. But it’s easy for designers to fall into the trap of increasing complexity for people. To illustrate this point, let’s take an everyday object like the thermostat as an example. For years, people struggled to program their thermostats and still do today. Rather than making it simpler for people, designers continued to design small rubber buttons to control a complex set of functionality, often with no screen at all.
When the Nest thermostat was launched, it revolutionised the market because of the design’s simplicity and connectivity. They rethought the offering entirely by creating an intuitive product equally elegant and easy to use. Most importantly, they made sure the affordances of the product complimented the on-screen experience. Harmonising the form and the interface helps people to quickly understand how to use the product. Nest can also be controlled and monitored remotely, effectively rethinking the entire experience from the ground up.
The thermostat is just one of many products in our lives that has remained relatively unchanged over the years. Another example is the fuse box. Often located under the stairs, within dark cupboards; most people only engage with the fuse box when something goes wrong. But DCA, a design agency from the UK, presented a new fuse box design called Fuse, which won the Silver Award in the Professionals and Enthusiasts category in 2015.
DCA’s fuse box is beautiful and simple to understand. When something goes wrong, the casework itself physically transforms to clearly indicate where the problem is located, the screen updates to show corresponding instructions on how to resolve the issue. With the app, you can monitor your power consumption and access useful statistics to learn more about your energy usage. It is not only a clever solution that points towards the connected home, it also has the potential to change behaviour over time, which in the end helps our planet.
Which leads to the next theme: creating impact. As designers we have a responsibility to think carefully about what we create, and the direct impact our work has on society. The scale and complexity of the problems our society is facing continues to shift and design continues to answer this call.
Several of the projects submitted in 2015 focused on large, complex, urgent problems we’re currently facing, such as water, food, and energy shortage as well as improving our health. One of the best examples of creating impact was the Noah Balloon, the Silver Award winner in the Students category. The premise was simple. How can design help people to evacuate cities before and after a natural disaster? According to the designers, Jong Chan Kim and Daewoong Park, 230,000 people were killed in 2004 in the Indian Ocean tsunami and 316,000 people in the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
Cities considered high risk would have multiple Noah Balloons placed in specific locations, based on the potential threat. In earthquake zones, they would be located in large open areas, safe from high-rise buildings. In areas prone to tsunamis, the balloons could be accessed on the rooftops of high-rise buildings. The balloons are designed to detect an earthquake tremor and automatically inflate with helium and shoot into the air. Easily seen from a distance, the balloons become visual markers, allowing large groups of people to quickly move to a safer part of the city.
The design for the Noah Balloon was striking. Red, bold, and distinct, the shape of the balloon mimics the identity of a pin on a digital map. It is encouraging to see young designers tackle large issues and I encourage more designers to think about how their work can have a positive impact on people and our planet.
Technology for Technology’s Sake
Last but by no means least, I want to talk about the use of technology. Many of the submissions last year used technology to answer a problem that, in my mind, did not exist. Using technology for technology’s sake is problematic on multiple levels: designers must have clarity as to why they are inserting technology into a product. Designers need to question first and foremost, what the problem is they are trying to solve and then ask, can I resolve this problem in a simpler way? Does it even need a product to solve this problem? Can this be solved using software on a device that already exists? By asking such questions early in the design process we can avoid adding unnecessary high-tech products into the world, which would have a positive impact on land fill issues.
To conclude, it was timely of Braun to open up the Braun Prize to virtual, as well as physical solutions. There were 2,510 submissions from 67 nations in 2015 and I expect that the number of submissions will increase again next time. Even so, it is important to continue to encourage product designers to broaden their approach beyond just products, as well as promote the competition to more interaction and service designers. The submissions last year were certainly impressive and the standard remains very high, but there is always an opportunity to improve the quality, the impact, and the range of the solutions. With this in mind, I am looking forward to seeing the results of the Braun Prize 2018.
Heather Martin is the vice president of design at Smart Design, a design and innovation consultancy, and holds a master’s degree in interaction design from the Royal College of Art. She has worked in design for 20 years and is recognised as one of the leading authorities in interaction design. She has worked as a designer at Tangerine and Ideo and as an associate professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. Her client work spans transportation, finance, healthcare, media, telecommunication, retail, and automotive.