Design thinking

Recap from IIT’s 2013 Design Research Conference

The term “design research” has different meanings depending on who you’re talking to. That’s why none of the 300 attendees at this year’s International Design Research conference seemed to do exactly the same type of work. The speakers talked about everything from theories on ego to storytelling, crowdsourcing, design for social improvement and how to deal with empathy. As researchers, how do we make sure that the substance of what we do matches the hype surrounding design research today?

Exploring creative balance in design

The 12th annual Design Research Conference hosted by IIT Institute of Design started off boldly with Don Norman stating that “Research people do things that are useless to product people. How much of design research is really used by product people?”  This problem, he suggested, can be addressed by involving the entire team in the research to get them on board, by understanding the market and business people’s needs as well as your users’ needs, and by focusing on solutions instead of problems.  Nothing really new to Veryday, but a good lesson in how to do things properly.

Don continued by explaining how uncertainties are seen as a risk within engineering culture – unpredicted things are generally bad. However, uncertainty is a way of finding opportunities – volatile assets can make money.  In a research-centred design culture, those “four weeks of chaos” we often have as a deadline approaches actually make sure that you think through the details and deliver on time. The result is usually a thorough, functional and well worked-out idea, but the process of getting there can wreck the nerves of clients and managers.


The conference continued by talking about how to handle emotions. One of the dangers in involving yourself in other people’s needs is that you could end up feeling too much and losing focus. Other speakers talked about how you can inspire projects by looking at the hands-on solutions of the world: low-tech solutions, collaborative solutions, hacks and workarounds. Or use what you find online – one example is analysing the people you find on Google maps to get an understanding of the population in a specific area.

Co-creation needs to be handled with care

Many people spoke about collective creation.  Crowdsourcing was brought up many times as a way to solve bioscience problems, create a safe-looking car or develop cheap rocket engines. There was also criticism: crowdsourcing creates “motorways” where everyone does the same things, meaning that ideas become profoundly conservative since no one dares to go for new and wild ideas. People have strong opinions but they’re often wrong – in crowdsourcing you will find, alongside the good ideas, clusters of strong opinions or ideas that just don’t make sense.  In other words, co-creation needs to be handled with care.

The key is to remain curious, open-minded and brave, and to listen carefully to the people you are designing for, but then not necessarily do what they ask you to do.

Storytellers can invent the future

Google creative labs inspired us by talking about how they use internal storytelling:  they tell their team all about how great the final outcome will be before a project has even taken off. The trick is to vividly show and explain the final experience of a product to your team in order to inspire them and create a goal for the work they are about to do.

The conference explored everything from theories on ego to storytelling, crowd sourcing, design for social improvements and how to deal with empathy.


John Payne spoke about skeuomorphs – the things that imitate what was there before them in order to retain a cultural reference. Generally this is considered to be “bad design” since the actual, physical reason for the design is often long since gone, but John was of the opinion that skeuomorphs fulfil a psychological need and make products understandable and therefore functional to the user.

The more cultural learning, the higher the potential

Quite a few speakers talked about social innovation and different aspects of cultural understanding. Social impact often needs to happen really quickly. Time is a luxury and pretty, thoughtful recommendations are usually useless since they will already be redundant by the time they are finished. To avoid colonisation tendencies as a designer, you should make sure that you are not leading the projects and that you do not jump in for a short period of time but instead are prepared to take on longer commitments so as not to produce superficial, shallow designs.

Deborah Alden and Robert Young spoke about cross-culture. We all have the same universal needs, but we have different ways of satisfying them. Your normal is just yours; it’s not mine or anyone else’s. In order to create good design, you need to get exposure to other cultures, ask other people, don’t assume that they think or do things the same way you do. And there are lots of different cultures even in your neighbourhood – you don’t have to look far.  Every little subculture that isn’t yours is actually a different culture that you can delve into to learn about other people and how they see the world.

The good old “id, ego and superego”

Matthew Clarke spoke about egoistic versus idealistic design. As is often the case, the best approach lies somewhere in between. He referred to the good old “id, ego and super-ego”.  The “id” consists of our egoistic desire to design only for ourselves, to suit our own taste and needs. The “super-ego” is the divine, human morality in all of us, who is certainly nice and thoughtful but is pretty poor as a designer.  The “ego” is the moderator between them who makes sure that ideas are useful but also interesting and have a bit of spark.

A nice little summary of the conference is this: there are lots of ways of carrying out design research and it’s something that’s hard to define, since every project, culture, and situation is different. The key is to remain curious, open-minded and brave, and to listen carefully to the people you are designing for, but then not necessarily do what they ask you to do.