Beyond the Artefact

On how asking the right questions can spark design innovation.

It’s not that they can’t see the solution. They can’t see the problem.
– G.K. Chesterton

Originally published in Computer Arts #228 (The Innovation Issue)

There’s an old episode of Blue Peter, the classic BBC kids show, where children around the UK are invited to submit their own re-designs of the generic lunch box. In a rare cameo, Sir Jonathan Ive is asked about the most common mistake when re-designing an icon like the lunch box.

His answer is that participants often make the mistake of taking the name too literally causing them to start thinking of a new, improved box for their solution. The true innovators are those that break from the idea of the box and think of a new lunch container all together; a new shape, form or idea that will disrupt the perception of the product.

The episode of Blue Peter and Ive’s comment made me think about the current state of design and the special relationship we, the designers, have to the artefacts we produce in our daily work.

Think about this for a moment. We define our craft and promote our work through artefacts. We tell stories using artefacts; through the systems we shape, the languages we create and the output we deliver. We see beauty and timelessness in artefacts; we understand them and feel them. Well-designed artefacts appeal to us. They make sense.

Artefacts define us.

THE MOLD THAT GAVE US SHAPE

We were educated to look at design in this way, responding to the immediate impact of the thing right in front of us. To see it, feel it, and react to it. It shaped our processes, our methodologies and ultimately our craft. It made us fluent in creating things of beauty, things that you could hang on a wall, study or admire. We learned to love stuff that would inspire us, transcend the trends and deliver a strong message — artefacts that would leave a mark in time. That was the mold that shaped our way of thinking about design, our belief systems.

Then, one day, we awoke to a New World Order. The interaction design work we had been playing around with on the side of other projects wasn’t just another, new thing to do, it was the thing. It was the future.

We realised at that point, that we weren’t designing to communicate any longer; that our work wasn’t designed to be passively digested or admired, but to be interacted with. We realised that we were not just designing the tangible artefacts to hold on to and touch, but also the invisible connections in between them; the connections between systems, objects and human beings.

As designers of interactions were now orchestrating those connections, the moments in-between, the anti-matter of human habits and routines; and it blew our minds.

It quickly became obvious that we had only gotten the chance to look at design through one fragmented perspective, through that one singular lens that we were brought up with as designers. That Waterfall process-y, designer-as-genius, Paul Rand-y school of thought, that now seemed so disconnected from what we were experiencing within our daily work. It shook us up; we were un-learning.


A NEW TYPE OF CHALLENGE

Today, as the world continues to evolve all around us, offering countless new contexts, possibilities, and issues to be dealt with as designers, with new technologies and mediums to explore; we still seem to be completely absorbed with the production of artefacts. Our focus remains on the things that we design and the process we take on to create them: the what and the how of design.

The greatest challenge for the next generation of visual designers then of course, is to go beyond the artefact and start asking the right questions.

THE CREATION OF PROBLEMS

Consider for a moment that the brief you’ve been given in your design project was written by a group of people; a group of client stakeholders quite literally holding a stake in the output your work.

This group is likely to shape the brief through a set of needs that are crucial to the project’s success; business needs, marketing needs, strategic needs, brand needs, organizational needs etc. The written brief will outline specific goals for measuring success and will define a number of artefacts for you to design in order to reach the outlined goals. A website, a leaflet, an intranet, a piece of signage, a smartphone app etc..

Then imagine for a moment instead that you are writing the brief; that you would be making the calls. What would you ask yourself to produce?

As designers we have the capacity not only to produce the answer, but also to alter the question. These days we actually do get to write our own briefs and create our own problems to solve within pre-defined spaces, simply because our clients trust us to do so; because we’ve proven that it brings them back results. We offer our clients a different perspective on their businesses. Designers don’t begin by looking at financial goals or marketing needs, but start with human needs.

This is the fundamental aspect of human-centred design.

Embedding ourselves into the cultures and environments within which we’ve been asked by our clients to innovate allows us to gather clues and investigate without the bias of a predefined point of view. We look for business opportunities by studying people and experiencing their cultural and social fabric. It gives us an idea of how people live their lives, how they interact with each other and what they dream about before they go to bed at night. It allows us to look beyond the numbers and create design concepts that are truly meaningful to individuals; people with a name.

It’s shaping the question that makes a difference. Not only looking at the what and the how, but more importantly — the who, the when, the where and the why.

THE CYCLES OF CHANGE

Sir Jonathan Ive’s comment about the lunch box at the beginning of the article can be applied to specific examples of innovation, looking at individual design projects or contexts. Yet, it’s more interesting when considering our discipline in general. Does a lunch box have to be a box? Does design by rule need to come in the shape of a design artefact?

Things change.

Technology will change by nature; outdoing itself over time to be replaced by something smarter, better and faster tomorrow. Devices and platforms come and go. The older screen will be exchanged for the newer one, and we will adapt our designs to it in a heartbeat. Trends will come and go; be celebrated, over-used, then passed over and shamed, only to be later brought back again. User interfaces were once industrial, then realistic, then flat, now whatever else, changing as rapidly as the commodities that they are.

These shorter micro-level cycles of taste and fingerspitzengefühl detract from timeless values of quality and beauty, momentarily resulting in anti-design and brutality in execution. It will shock us for a while before we get bored and start over.

It’s all programmed in time, in the nature of how things change.

And as all of this is happening, as the designers around the world are running faster and faster to chase these ephemeral variables of perceived perfection in their artefacts, one thing will always remain the same; the human condition.

Maybe that’s where you should be spending your time, understanding what gives people around the world their highs and their lows, how you can make their daily lives more enjoyable, or in some cases more bearable.

It might just be the best thing you’ve ever done, and it all starts with asking the right questions.