Designing Products that Come to Life through Electronics with Carla Diana
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re excited to present a series of profiles on incredible women innovators. At Fahrenheit 212, we believe that the exchange of ideas and inspirations is a crucial piece of the innovation equation. We hope that each profile we share serves to inspire you to not only join us in celebrating the accomplishments of women innovators, but also to inspire your own thinking.
This week, we profile Carla Diana, Product Designer, Author, and Faculty in UPenn’s IPD Program. Follow the entire series here.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Carla Diana. I am a product designer focused on emerging technologies, and my practice is currently focused on smart objects and robotics. I also do a great deal of writing on this subject. My most recent essay was called, “Don’t Blame the Robots; Blame Us” for Popular Science’s November issue about design and usability issues in autonomous vehicles. I’m co-authoring a book called The Social Lives of Products for Harvard Business Review Press and writing 101 Things I Learned in Product Design School for Penguin Random House. And I teach in the Integrated Product Design program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Why do you do what do you do?
I always knew I wanted to make things, but I also was very seduced by digital tools and the power of programming. (I was the kind of geeky teenager that spent my spare time programming video games on my Commodore 64 computer.) At some point about ten years ago I realized that the digital and the physical would be coming together in my lifetime and would be a juicy opportunity to really design products that met new user needs and provided interactive experiences in real time and space. Essentially, I love designing products that come to life through electronics.
What are the life moments that most influenced who/where you are today?
When I was in the tenth grade I got accepted to a special summer program for 40 NYC area high school kids. It was put together by a computer science professor from NYU named Henry Mullish, and in eight weeks he taught us seven programming languages as well as the basics of algorithms. We kicked off the course by learning how to program with punch cards. It was amazing, and I emerged with a clear vision for the power of programming.
What is the first thing you do every morning? The last thing at the end of every day?
Lately in the mornings I reprogram my Nanoleaf, which is an internet connected set of LED tiles. I’m working on having them glow in a sunrise color pattern to help reinforce bedtime and wake time for my little boy who is not yet two… so maybe it’s the baby that I’m really programming? The last thing at the end of every day I make a drawing for Massimo on my iPad that represents a memory from the day. I like to try to capture the simple moments that aren’t captured in photos, like splashing in a puddle or petting the cat in the bookstore.
What do you never leave the house without and why?
Well, there’s my phone, but I think that’s true for most people. It’s my mini computer. I’ve gotten good at doing all kinds of work on it. But besides my phone, I would say my bicycle because it’s the absolute best way to travel in urban areas. It allows me to quickly go from one appointment to another on my own schedule without worries about waiting for a bus or an Uber or finding a parking spot. And then it doubles as exercise. Win-win!
What is the last book you read and why?
Robot Futures by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh as research for my smart objects book and course content. It has descriptions that vividly explain the potential of applying robotic to everyday objects and what the impact of those new product experiences can be on daily life.
What is your favorite app?
This may sound really boring but Dropbox is my favorite app. It has saved me on more than one occasion by letting me access train tickets, work documents or medical information when I was on the road and didn’t have access to a computer. I think it’s the one service that has allowed me to change my work habits so that I can leave the house with nothing but my bike and my phone and still know that I can handle a work emergency from wherever I am. The fact that it’s not particularly slick or sexy is its beauty; it gives clear access to files in a way that feels native to whatever device it’s on.
What is your greatest life hack?
Wearing my hair in pigtails every day. It means I can count on my hair always be the same shape, it takes me 2 minutes to fix, and it’s not going to get messed up by my bike helmet. It makes me instantly recognizable in a crowd, and I’m secretly proud that I’ve gotten away with something that’s supposed to be just for kids.
What do you think will be the next big wave in innovation?
AI in our everyday objects. We’re already seeing it in products like Amazon Echo, Siri and Google Home, but will start to see it in more specific applications, such as a video conferencing system that can recognize faces and selectively listen for salient points to include in a meeting notes document. Or a vacuum cleaner that you can talk to and give instructions to, like, “clean up that mess over there”.
What product, service, or industry do you think is most ripe for innovation?
The medical industry. At UPenn, our students work with an innovation group on the hospital to help them solve real problems. The projects vary from logistical things like wayfinding and waiting room experiences to more tactical things like insulin pens and cribs for newborns, but inevitably we find that design can make a big difference in the patient experience and in some cases even save lives. There’s just such a density of tasks that products and services need to tackle that the need for design is enormous.
What makes a great innovation?
A great innovation changes our lives so deeply that we come to depend on it on a daily basis.
What do you think the biggest disruption of the next year will be? What should we have our eye on?
Connected transportation will be the biggest disruption of the next year. We are starting to see pieces of this with Uber and bike and car sharing programs, and we’ll see a lot more connections happening between public and private transportation. Ultimately, autonomous vehicles will be a big resource that can change traffic patterns and optimize vehicle usage. I’m hoping that the days of everyone having a big car sitting in a driveway or parking lot for 90% of the day will soon be over.
What is your favorite quote?
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Enjoy a few of Carla’s drawings for her son, Massimo…