A week ago I had the privilege of speaking at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to a large group of multinational scientists from laboratories all over the world on behalf of our client Abbott Diagnostics. Yes, you heard that right. I was talking with scientists at an art museum. As a designer, there are few things cooler than that.
Standing in a beautifully renovated space housing many of the lifelong works of Vincent van Gogh, I spoke about “why design matters” — even in a laboratory. With the “professionalization” of the design industry, as Larry Keeley would say, the world, people and business have come to expect design. We are seeing, thankfully, a rise in social, public and even government design. So why not in laboratories, too?
Design and science are both inherently iterative — in a constant process of experimentation and learning to arrive at the better answer. The Van Gogh Museum event beautifully highlights the intersections of art and science.
Vincent van Gogh, known for his post-impressionistic paintings like Starry Night, Sunflowers and his Self Portraits, actually spent much of his short career constantly experimenting with various techniques, mediums and styles. Some of my favorite pieces at the museum are some of his earlier works: Old Man with a Stick (pencil on paper), and The Poor and Money (chalk, watercolor, pen and ink).
It’s a unique time at the Van Gogh Museum because Shell Nederland (their science partner) recently partnered with the museum on intensive research into van Gogh’s techniques and material use. Alongside van Gogh’s paintings, the museum has added a space dedicated to the science of his paintings. There are microscopes, paints, materials and information that document his tools, process, materials and techniques, giving depth to our understanding of how he worked.
The museum beautifully blends a raw, rich history within a minimal, modern building. I was struck by all the stories the museum represents. Each piece of artwork tells a story of a moment as well as a piece of van Gogh’s life journey as a person. The science behind the research that Shell conducted uncovers an even deeper story — a story about how Van Gogh worked as a developing artist. The minimal, geometric space that houses the works of art tells us a story of how artwork over a century old remains relevant and meaningful to us even in today’s modern world. It is about beauty, meaning and storytelling.
As a comparison, just across museum square, adjacent to the Van Gogh Museum, is the Rijksmuseum. It originally opened in 1885, while van Gogh was mid career, and it has recently reopened after a renovation. While the renovation took over a decade to complete, the story is about transporting the viewer back to a time and an era where the interior reflects the ornate detail of the original space. In the renovation, all of the pieces moved to new walls at the Rijksmuseum except for Rembrandt’s Knight’s Watch. It’s not only a lovely story, but when you walk through the space, you feel the impact of Knight’s Watch as a focal point, and it is breathtaking.
As I spoke with the scientists about why design matters, I highlighted examples in our lives of modern-day solutions that improve the human experience — from the Dyson vacuum making the mundane almost pleasurable to the Square enabling entrepreneurialism and the tools and technology we love. Great human-centered design is not only truly useful but also tells us stories – stories about companies and brands, but even more so stories about ourselves and what is important to us and our lives.
Design is about delivering functional and useful solutions; but, as the Van Gogh Museum demonstrates, what makes design beautiful is the combination of art and science to tell us stories that will last.
Last week, some colleagues and I attended the Interaction13 conference in Toronto, which marked the 10th anniversary of the IxDA. The conference is designed loosely, with about half of the four-day event filled with great speakers like Jer Thorpe (speaking on Big Data) and Dan Saffer (discussing micro-interactions). The other half is left open for networking and hallway conversations. These conversations are really the heart of the conference. Interaction Design is gathering steam thanks to a complex world that needs complex solutions to complex problems. It is an exciting time to be involved.
Let me take a little time to tell you about the goals of this field. In our day-to-day lives, we have good and bad experiences – from a product with too many (or too few) buttons, to a really great website, to a horrible moment with customer service. Interaction Designers are (or should be) responsible for thinking about all of these interactions with the aim of delivering a great user experience.
Historically, designers learn a specific craft – Industrial Design, Graphic Design, Architecture, Human-Computer Interaction, etc. Interaction Design is inherently an interdisciplinary endeavor as they need to think and design across 2D and 3D spaces as well as time. This is a challenge that those of us who attended school ages ago would likely not have been up for, but Interaction Designers are trained to think across disciplines and methodologies, so they’re well-suited for the challenge.
One of the biggest challenges Interaction Designers have charged themselves with solving is, ironically, of their own creation. The world we live in has so much interaction and possibility for interaction that some feel it’s getting away from us. As we spend more time everyday with our heads in our mobile phone screens, on FaceTime with our families while we try to keep up with the frenzied pace of life, there is a growing desire to get back to a life with more meaning and humanity. The pendulum has perhaps swung too far, and now we have to try to swing it back.
I was encouraged to have so many conversations about this very thing. Carla Diana spoke wonderfully on making meaning in the context of the Internet of Things and how the growing future of smart products can add value to our lives (or take it away). Although it will be difficult to realize in a natural way, Interaction Design promises to help us move beyond the physical and the digital to bring us back to the “here and now” by designing truly human experiences. The winner of Interaction13’s Best in Show award is a beautifully conceived and executed example of this.
As the world we live in continues to grow in weird and unpredictable ways, these designers will have to make the leap to truly inventive futures. We have a long way to go to remove the obstacles of technology and the legacies of bad design, but Interaction Design is an important point of experimentation. From consumer goods to government to healthcare, Interaction Designers and the businesses that hire them need to focus on creating smart design solutions and experiences that will enhance our lives and live in harmony with the world we live in. Development needs to break out, and think beyond widgets or mobile apps to think of holistic experiences, be they physical, digital, services, some combination thereof, or something else entirely. As designers and innovators, we can take that step together, but only after we understand our responsibility to our customers as humans, first and foremost.
Last Friday, my colleague Rainer Schnabel and I attended the Association of Professional Design Firms (APDF) quarterly exchange at the Viceroy in Santa Monica. This event was called ‘New Business is Your Business,’ and focused mainly on Marketing. A lot of time was spent thinking about customer service and the customer experience, so naturally we began to think about applying these thoughts to our own business and how we could improve.
If Design Concepts were a physical product, our user interface would be our business development and project management teams. This is a comparison our president, Dave Franchino, likes to make regarding our customer service model. I like this analogy and, over time, have aspired to situate it within a total experience map to better understand the details that I likely overlook.
Experience maps are one of the many tools we use with our clients, but they are immensely powerful. When done comprehensively, they can track and outline the entire user experience in one place, revealing what really happens in the market, pain points for the users, and opportunity areas that may have been previously obscured. But their most powerful function is the way they tend to shift the perspective on our project opportunity not only for our clients, but for the Design Concepts project team, as well.
At APDF, too, a lot of the conversations centered on shifting perspective. They were led by Mark Goldstein, a top marketing and advertising executive The Wall Street Journal has called “the guru of new business.” Mark brought a laser-like focus on how to best prioritize our day-to-day activities to reflect the things we strive for; namely, providing deep and lasting impact to our clients.
Some of his ideas were very simple, like how to thoughtfully, succinctly, and respectfully respond to RFPs while still leaving the opportunity open to take a unique approach. Others were more dynamic, like how to use carefully choreographed meetings and well-defined individual roles to appropriately respond to a company’s strengths, opportunities, and potential pitfalls. Doing this properly can help lay the groundwork for powerful shifts in perspective throughout the course of work.
As usual, the thing that makes APDF exchanges so unique is the honest and thought-provoking ideas and applications that come from discussing all of this with peers during break-out sessions, receptions, and evening small group dinners. That’s where inspiration can take hold and be refined. By the end of the conference, Rainer and I had the framework for our own customer service experience map and now just need to fill in the details (which is the hard part). We’re excited, however, and have already begun.
Our goal in this exercise is to make sure that we are focused on the right things every day, not just the ones we’re best at or that have worked themselves into our routines. We are excited to take to the next level, and are thankful to have an organization like APDF to facilitate the discussions that can inspire it.
This weekend, at the American Society of Anesthesiology (ASA) show in Chicago, IL, our partner Spacelabs introduced their new global anesthesiology machine ARKON. Design Concepts partnered with Spacelabs in 2009 on the international user research, product strategy and conceptual design. Design Concepts’ team included all of our disciplines, with our heaviest efforts in the areas of research, industrial design and prototyping. Design Concepts continues to support ARKON’s development as they ramp up to full production. Our warmest thanks and congratulations to our partners at Spacelabs!