–Engage

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Report on Brenda Laurel Design Research Lecture in New York, NY (US)

On Wednesday, September 28, 2005, Brenda Laurel, Chair of the Graduate Media Design Program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, spoke at the Parsons School of Design. Her lecture on design research (following the name of her latest book) was part of the Stephen Wiess Lecture Series of the department of Design & Management.


Brenda Laurel (taken by Bill Moggride I was greatly impressed with this lecture on many levels. The first level is just on sheer presentation skills. Her humor, confidence, honesty and integrity glowed throughout the presentation. I appreciated most of all her love of her students and of their own creativity through her guidance. I also appreciated her upfront stance on social responsibility that permeated the presentation and obviously her own work.

The lecture centered on an entire process of doing design and using design towards doing design. Research, data analysis, and modeling of that data analysis towards coming up with final design solutions and thus artifacts to represent those solutions were described in full detail. She then used projects (I took this page out of context to create a direct link) over the last 4-5 years that she led in studio classes with her students at Art Center that exemplified the process she described. Unfortunately, I did not have paper or pencil and could only scratch a few key ideas on my thumb keyboard of my Treo, but I’ll try my best to remember the key points.

The outline of the process she described was very well suited for starting fresh. Fresh in her examples mean that there was no form already understood, and innovation of a completely new space was being designed. This actually through a lot of the industry members of the audience who seldom get to work in that purity of that type of innovation space. I’ll talk on that issue more below. But what I liked was a quote that I’ll paraphrase about what good innovation design does.

It injects new genetic material into the culture that doesn’t activate its immune system.

I took this to mean,

inject change without an adverse response.

What I enjoyed most and was inspired most about the lecture, was how it used the strengths of design and design thinking as a means to achieve a result of innovation with a wholistic picture of the outcome of that innovation. And it is this topic that I would like to concentrate on (instead of the process described itself).

All people are naturally creative. But creativity can take on many forms and processes. Design though has molded creativity through a specific process of analysis and validation through exploration of visual tangible form: “Design, Iterate, Test, Repeat”. Repeated throughout Brenda’s talk was this notion at almost every stage of her process. The very first step included the choosing of 3 unrelated words that when juxtaposed create a tension. This first verbal modeling activity already is one of exploration. Choosing the “right” words over time becomes a design challenge in and of itself.

But the best example of this is how Brenda’s students evolved the persona to become even a stronger tool towards gaining empathy with their users. Instead of just taking a single photo and applying textual narrative they let their creativity mold the model to an appropriate form based on the research they did. Examples included video essays, layer maps that explored different contexts or criteria around a single persona, photo collages, etc. The result was a much more expressive and relevant format that best fit the mood of the project. It was just less antiseptic. Other models also shared this level of creativity, and were equally good at expressing the value to be gotten from the data being analyzed. Or more importantly what the designer was going to get out of the data and really set a direction for moving forward.

One particular method of modeling in the persona structure that I really appreciated as I feel it directly flows into the types of artifacts that I deliver, was a graphic novel. The graphic novel was used to replace the text heavy scenarios that are often used with personas in the task analysis part of the Goal-Directed Design method. (Read Negative space is a question I asked about in regards to IxD a few months ago.) Through rich models of positive results, a good designer can evaluate the negative space within the models.

One critique of this metho was around the persona changes. While the new practices were great for developing empath among the designers, it was unclear whether these models were transportable enough to be the sales tools and empathy drivers for more of the total x-functional team.

Another critiques that came from industry at the end during Q&A was that, this was too much. I think this is a common quick draw critique usually based more in our cultural experience of corporate life than in what in reality we can work to change over time. It is hard to even do the little things that are mundane, let alone up the ante. But in our discussion after the lecture at the NYC IxDG Face to Face meeting we spoke about Fortune 1000 corps that are doing this type of Deep Dive” work.

Also, during the after lecture discussion, it occurred to me that it is always easier to develop high level start-from-scratch design methods. Well, you get to start from scrath and so the initial criteria for design are generalizable. But these methods should not be ignored when doing re-designs, or other incremental changes. There is scale to everything, and what we need to now search for is the appropriate level of effort for the type of work we are doing. Also, it may just be that none of this is useful for your current work or work environment and that is OK! That does not lower the total value of the processes that Brenda Laurel is presenting.

A summary things that I learned from the presentation that I think are valuable regardless of process or method:

  • value of negative space
  • value of doing creative exploration
  • using creation of artfacts beyond the mundane to gain further insite
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