Design renews its relationship with science

February 26, 2011 — 3 Comments


I have noticed a growing conversation recently concerning the relationship between design and science.

Adam Bly, founder and editor of Seed magazine, did much to get this conversation started, aided and abetted by Paola Antonelli, Curator of Design and the New York Museum of Modern Art. Some of her columns on the topic of design as it relates to science are excellent, as was the Design and the Elastic Mind show she hosted at MOMA a couple of years ago. Unfortunately the magazine ceased its print version in 2009 but there is still great material on the website.

My own view is that the latter half of the twentieth century saw a steady decline in designs interest toward science and technology as engineering inserted itself between the two. This is not a criticism of engineers who, in places like silicon valley, performed wonders with the new technologies of micro-processors, storage, networking and software to create the products and services we rely on today. The same is true in other fields such as aeronautics and bio-medicine. No, my criticism is of the designers and scientists who have relied on engineers to provide the translation between their two fields. My concern is that in this translation much is lost that could benefit scientists, designers and the end user.

I wonder how much might be gained if designers had a deeper understanding of the science behind synthetic biology and genomics? Or nanotechnology? Or robotics? Could designers help scientists better see the implications and opportunities of the technologies they are creating? Might better educated and aware designers be in a position to challenge the assumptions of the science or reinterpret them in innovative ways? Might they do a better job of fitting the new science into our lives so that we can gain more benefit?

If scientists were more comfortable with intuitive nature of design might they ask more interesting questions? The best scientists often show great leaps of intuition as they develop new hypotheses and yet so much modern science seems to be a dreary methodical process that answers ever more incremental questions. If scientists had some of the skills of designers might they be better able to communicate their new discoveries to the public?

The twenty-first century will be the scene of significant scientific developments that may fundamentally change our human experience. I am intrigued by how different that change might be if scientists and designers could figure out how to work better together.

I am off to TED next week for my annual dose of new ideas about science, and many other topics. I will be on the look out for scientists who might be interested in hanging out with some designers.

Tim Brown


3 responses to Design renews its relationship with science

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that for the most part science lacks the opportunities hidden in the “grey” that designers find through “intuition”. But as a student who has converted from science to a design degree, i can echo Ellie’s comment that a lot of scientists in fact exhibit “design thinking” without realising they do so, and in fact “design thinking” makes up a large part of (often creative) problem solving towards scientific solutions.

    The best example of scientists utilizing DT in their everyday practise would be theoretical physicist and astrophysicists. The nature of constantly reinterpreting the “small” (quantum physics), whilst trying to keep in mind the “large” (universe) reflects the nature of designers focusing on HCD (small=people) whilst developing sound solutions for the “large” (companies and corporations/the environment)

    could design and science -in in this respect- share fundamental thought processes/patterns and learn from one another? I believe design should analyze the thought process inherit in these fields of science for new insights into looking at and interpreting ‘designerly’ solutions.

    I find this topic intriguing and am currently exploring the relationship through my research.

    After all, we (as designers) can’t assume the sole creation of “design thinking”

    Stefanie Di Russo
    (student) PhD in Design
    Swinburne University
    Melbourne, Australia

  2. I’m a Ph.D candidate in Biology at Carnegie Mellon and am actively looking to employ design thinking in my daily science. While it is true that we do involuntarily use design thinking all the time(though we don’t call it so), the scope of using it in the scientific process remains far untapped. I would say that scientists use design thinking very actively and consciously only in the initial phase of a new project when they have to chart out their work-plan. It’s gladdening that you blogged about it at a time when I was actively engaging in the same 🙂

  3. Hi Tim
    I’m not expecting this ‘comment’ to be published, I just wanted to make contact and bring ColaLife to your attention. I’m doing this after watching your presentation at MIT from way back on 16 March 2006.
    I consider myself to be an innovator with a particular interest in open innovation. I’m not a theorist or methodological person. However, so many of the processes you described in your talk map directly onto the work we are doing eg story telling to connect stakeholders from diverse sectors; getting your inspiration from the real world and rapid prototyping (we used cardboard and glue and the bedside table in a hotel!).
    So if you every need a case study here we are. There a couple of videos of recent presentations I’ve done (TEDx Berlin, Royal Society of Medicine) on our blog where I continue to tell the stories.

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