In praise of Creative Technology — reminding design that inventions are inspired by technologies, not people

Edison’s electric pen — a device to create duplicable documents and drawings. Its idea was suggested by the technology of the printing telegraph

“Good design is good business,” famously said IBM president Thomas Watson Jr.. It took some time, but after 50 years that notion has definitely gained traction. Looking at John Maeda’s Design in Tech Reports, in the recent years acquisitions and fundings have increasingly involved companies with design at their core; and many big corporations have started to see the business value in user-centred design, in allowing them to make their products more intuitive and pleasant to use and in turn more successful.

But as is often happens when a tool becomes popular, it starts to be used in ways beyond its capabilities. And so we turn to the user-centred methods of service design and user experience when we want to invent new things. But this doesn’t work. User-centred design is great for discovering needs and validate products and services. But for invention, the best source of inspiration isn’t people: it’s technology.

Inventions emerging from curious explorations rather than as solutions from a specific problem is in fact the most common case in history. In his Guns, Germs and Steel, anthropologist Jared Diamond notices this pattern over an over. Historically, “invention is the mother of necessity”, and not vice-versa.

One of the examples Diamond brings is the one of the phonograph. If it was for its inventor’s understanding of people’s needs, it would not have been much of a success. Thomas Edison listed as potential uses for the technology the recording of the last words of dying people, announcing clock time or teaching spelling, dismissing music as a too trivial application. But it was with its use in jukeboxes that the phonograph technology became popular and a commercial triumph.

The invention of the paper coffee filter too came from a technological exploration. Having tried many other solutions to brew coffee without leaving grounds in the cup, German housewife Melitta Benz decided to experiment with a technology she was familiar with — the blotting paper used for drying ink that her son used at school.

Melitta Benz and her husband Hugo. She invented the coffee filter inspired by the paper for drying ink that her son used at school.

If those two examples are specific cases of curious people that saw in technologies around them an opportunity for a new product, in recent times some designers have developed a deliberate approach in using technological knowledge not only for engineering products, but for inventing them too. Under the term “material exploration”, this technology-led attitude has been guiding the work of a group of people, first at BERG and now at Playdeo, and its effect can be seen in some products they released.

BERG’s Little Printer was an Internet-connected product that could subscribe to online publications such as from Tumblr or Twitter and then print them on thermal paper, the one used in receipts from cash registers. Two of its features are quintessential technology-led. First the creative re-use of the ubiquitous yet overlooked technology of thermal printing. And secondly the original notion of connected objects as new physical nodes of the internet platform ecosystem — in a time where RSS and Web APIs were at their popularity peak — rather than using the web as a communication lane only.

BERG’s Little Printer. The celebrated invention that demonstrated that IoT could be more than devices turned on and off by mobile apps, and brought thermal printing tech from cash register to the MoMA design store.

The more recent Playedeo’s Avo, a hybrid adventure game and TV series for mobile, can be seen as a direct effort to reinvent the TV format for the smartphone age. Again an idea stemming from tinkering with technology, rather than focussing on an audience. As Dan Hil nicely sums it, “[the app] reveals this attempt to make something innately of its medium, or in fact, a new medium which is a hybrid of videogame and TV on phone”.

A special attention to the product is also the reason behind Why a Toaster Is a Design Triumph, in an article by journalist and philosopher Ian Bogost. The author’s enthusiast praise to a Belville toaster, relies on its unique “A Bit More” button, that when pushed brings the bread down to get toasted just a bit longer. To Bogost, this simple, yet delightful feature, is not the outcome of user research, but instead the result of the designer thing-centred mindset, which led him “to make an object even more what it already is.”

These findings align with my personal experiences as well. As a creative technologist at innovation agency IXDS today, as well as in previous experiences, I can see that the project that I’m most proud of, share a similar characteristic: they all can be seen, in hindsight, the product of technological explorations.

Patch of Sky is an internet-connected ambient light that connects far away people by visualising on the lamp the weather of one’s location. Developed in a team of other designers and technologist while at Fabrica, its idea came from the same thinking behind BERG’s Little Printer — an internet-connected device that would take advantage of the internet platforms (in this case the web API providing weather data from a different location) and not only using the web to make things talk to each other.

The three Patch of Sky lights — the light on each object represent the weather in somebody else’s location. The idea came from thinking of ways to take advantage of the internet platforms, in this case, a web API providing weather data.

The second project is one I’ve worked on while at Uniform. Solo is a radio that detects your mood by looking at your face and then plays a song to match. The project was the result of an initiative exploring artificial intelligence and home products and its idea came during a workshop based around a technological conceptual framework where we imagined different ways that an AI “agent” could behave.

A similar technology-led framing can also explain the work that my team-mates at IXDS did with Rambus. Rambus manufactures a low-cost visual sensing technology, that embedded in a tiny sensor can detect and movement in front of it. With the Assembly/Mantainence use case, members of the team asked themselves what application could take advantage of the fact that the sensor is so cheap that could be destroyed. The result is a solution for aiding the assembly of big structures and machines such as wind turbines or aeroplanes. The sensors placed in the attaching area of the two parts to be assembled detect when they are aligned correctly, and after the two parts are joined together they simply get crushed between them. It was the specific knowledge of the technology and what it could enable to do, the key to inventing a product that could not have been imagined otherwise.

To invent is about discovering new purposes for technologies, exploring what a technology can do and can enable us to do, especially beyond their initial, intended use. Through research, we can uncover the needs and desires of people and set a direction for our solution, and by testing, we can refine existing services and products from the feedback people give. But for that invention, for that leap from what was there before into something new, we need to focus on the tech.

And to be creative with this technology-led approach, two things are necessary. The first is a broad knowledge of how different technologies are used in different sectors. As the examples of the phonograph and the coffee filter showed, often new ideas come by bringing solutions from an area of application to another. The second requirement is the curiosity and eagerness to prototype. Without a hands-on knowledge, we cannot expect to find what new applications a technology can be used for, especially when we are thinking with technologies outside their usual field; and neither we would be able to communicate clearly a novel interaction or product idea without demonstrating it through a prototype.

An understanding of people is necessary for creating solutions we want to use. But if we want to create something new and beyond incremental improvements, it is ok to forget about people for a moment and instead focus on what technology has to say.

Designer and Technologist // PwC Experience Consulting