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Design Research Conference 2013: Highlights from day 1

October 22, 2013

This October, I attended the Design Research Conference in Chicago with fellow design researcher Leah Ujda.

The conference, hosted by the IIT Institute of Design at the Field Museum in Chicago, offered a very thought-provoking few days that challenged attendees to explore opposable forces like ego, empathy, humanity and technology.

Here are some highlights that I took away from my two and a half days at DRC2013.

Prior to the conference, Leah and I attended a pre-conference workshop on semiotics, “Driving Principles Behind the Practice of Semiotics,” led by Marcus Alfonsetti and Ido Mor of Added Value Cheskin.

Semiotics is a practice that helps you find the hidden (or not-so-hidden) meanings in things; a way of decoding things and relating them back to a culture or cultures. This idea complements the ways that Design Concepts gathers insights — looking at people/places, the world and the client/company to better understand the context of the user.

Alfonsetti and Mor helped the group look at this field from academic, historical, design and practical lenses. Using a more practical lens, we applied semiotics to think about how bottled water manufacturers are communicating ideas, meaning and value through the use of materials, colors, words, imagery and shapes. We also took a trip to Nike Town to explore how Nike communicates the idea of "empowerment" at its flagship Michigan Avenue store. Both exercises were very valuable in making some of the more philosophical ideas more tangible.

The next time we're standing in line, waiting at the airport, waiting for the coffee to brew, can we do "nothing " but reflect, think and observe?

Here are five things that stuck with me from the first day of the conference:

  1. Patrick Whitney (dean of the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology and Steelcase/Robert C. Pew Professor of Design) opened the conference by challenging attendees to cure our "reflection deficit disorder." This rang pretty close to home as it's becoming even more obvious that idle time is practically a luxury. Let's challenge ourselves: the next time we're standing in line, waiting at the airport, waiting for the coffee to brew, can we do "nothing " but reflect, think and observe?
  2. Don Norman (businessperson, academic, and author of several books including "The Design of Everyday Things") encouraged attendees to ask stupid questions, solve the right problems (not the wrong ones we're usually given) and to bridge the big gulf between product and research. To help teams move forward, Norman stressed "learning the language of business."
  3. Rhiju Das, assistant professor from Stanford and founder of the Das Lab, shared some fascinating work on how his team is using gamification and crowdsourcing via a website called EteRNA to learn more about the nature of RNA. Via the EteRNA website, "players" from all over the world are designing and building a library of RNA designs that will help advance the field of RNA science. The most amazing part of all of this? Over time, they are seeing that humans are outscoring computers.
  4. Matt Jones and Richard The from Google labs put a new spin on prototyping by using "design fiction." Using Google Glass as an example, they showed how their team made an "advertisement" of what Google Glass would be able to do before the development was complete. This helped the team have a common vision and visualization of what the future should be and then they went out to develop it.
  5. John Payne from Moment talked about affordances and skeuomorphs and urged designers to hold on to features that, while they don't have functional benefits, may still be culturally relevant because cultural affordances help people know what things are, even if they aren't functional. To help demonstrate cultural differences and the importance, John had the audience imagine a pencil. Most Americans probably visualize something like a Dixon Ticonderoga, primarily yellow. Most people probably don't know why a pencil is yellow, however. The yellow is a carry-over from years ago when manufacturers used that color to signify that their pencils contained high-quality Chinese graphite. In China, yellow signifies royalty so the yellow color made a positive connection to what was inside and over time yellow represented the writing instrument's "pencil-ness.”

Check back later this week to read Leah’s highlights and takeaways from the Design Research Conference.