A season of talks at Jacobs Hall: three themes we heard

This fall brought an exciting mix of speakers to Jacobs Hall, through our Jacobs Design Conversations series and a new pop-up series of informal talks, Design Field Notes. Over the course of the semester, we heard from wide-ranging voices on design projects, practices, and possibilities. Here are three themes we heard in this season of talks.

The physical and the digital are continuing to blur — and that’s an opportunity for designers.

In a September talk, James Tichenor and Joshua Walton, part of the team behind Microsoft HoloLens, explored intersections of the physical and the digital. Tichenor and Walton are no strangers to navigating these intersections: prior to their work on HoloLens, they created interactive spaces as part of The LAB at Rockwell Group, working on projects that ranged from Google’s Interactive Spaces to an award-winning lobby installation that brought digital art and narrative to large panels in Las Vegas’ Cosmopolitan Hotel. If these projects involved infusing physical spaces—lobbies, offices, parks—with digital interactivity, at HoloLens, they’re taking the flip-side approach: “Now,” Walton explained, “we can begin to give digital things more physical properties.” In the mixed-reality experiences that HoloLens makes possible, users can interact with digital content in a tactile way, incorporating it into the physical spaces of their daily lives. This reflects a moment, Tichenor and Walton noted, in which distinctions between physical and digital are becoming increasingly porous, giving way to rich new forms of interaction.

The speakers pointed out that this new physical/digital frontier opens major possibilities for designers, who are in the business of “reshaping interactions between people, environments, and objects.” In talks from designers throughout the semester, we got glimpses of these possibilities, from smart assistive hardware to tools that bring augmented reality to the wood shop. Like Tichenor and Walton, these guests spoke to designers’ roles as creative fusionists, connecting and remixing elements to make something new. As the blurring of physical and digital continues, designers who can navigate this terrain, comfortably moving between technologies and contexts, will be central in shaping 21st-century experiences.

Now more than ever, design helps drive products’ value (and values help drive design).

In November, Tesla co-founder Marc Tarpenning visited the Jacobs Institute, sharing insights on opportunities for meaningful innovation, particularly in the arena of sustainability. As part of this talk, he walked us through his experiences in the electric vehicle space, charting the thinking and the “questioning of assumptions” that ultimately led to the development of Tesla. In discussing how electric vehicles evolved from the unsuccessful offerings of the 1990s to the in-demand Tesla models, he highlighted the importance of understanding context — both in terms of systems like energy markets and public policy and in terms of customers’ feelings and the journeys that lead them to particular choices. The Tesla, he noted, reflects an effort to understand the complex values that people associate with their cars, from status signaling to personal expression. In many ways, it has been Tesla’s distinctive design, informed by this understanding of what people most want from their cars, that has drawn customers and reshaped narratives around electric vehicle technology, bringing this technology into the lives of people who otherwise may have not considered it.

Here at the Jacobs Institute, we think a lot about design’s role in bringing new technologies to daily life, and Tarpenning’s insights provided a compelling example. In other fall talks from design practitioners, we heard echoes of the ideas that Tarpenning laid out, applied in diverse contexts. One of our guests, LUNAR head of innovation strategy Misha Cornes, offered a birds-eye view, underlining how design serves as a powerful differentiator in a turnover-heavy marketplace and pointing to statistics that show design-led companies significantly over-performing. Layering these big-picture observations with experiences with products ranging from ice cream scoops to smart thermostats, Cornes noted that companies increasingly see design not as an outcome, but as a process — and they’re eager to get better at it. His talk and Tarpenning’s, along with others this fall, highlighted design’s central role in today’s market, and how design —deeply informed by users’ contexts and beliefs—can create lasting value.

Democratizing access to tools for innovation, and thoughtfully designing for collective innovation, can be a game-changer.

From the maker movement to crowdsourcing, the goal of democratizing access to information and tools is a common thread in conversations around design innovation. But what does it look like on the ground? In an October talk, Northwestern associate professor and Design for America (DFA) founder Liz Gerber dug into these questions, discussing how organizations can design structures and resources to facilitate collective innovation. She emphasized four factors that are central to enabling this kind of innovation, distributed across platforms and places: roles, communication, trust, and reputation. Drawing from her experiences with DFA, she pointed to student projects that have effectively managed these factors, using collective approaches to broaden access to design processes in areas from healthcare to civic engagement. As she argued for the impact that can stem from well-designed collective innovation, Gerber closed her talk with a quote from President Obama: “We need not only the folks at MIT or Stanford or the NIH” — or Berkeley, Gerber added to smiles from the crowd— “but also the mom in West Virginia tinkering with a 3-D printer, the girl on the South Side of Chicago learning to code, the dreamer in San Antonio seeking investors for his new app, the dad in North Dakota learning new skills so he can help lead the green revolution.”

Over the course of the semester, a wide range of speakers at the Jacobs Institute added to Obama’s list, pointing to new entry points to the tools of innovation — from Amy Wibowo, who visited us to talk about how she frames computer science inclusively with BubbleSort Zines, to Mark Hatch, who discussed his time leading TechShop and highlighted the societal changes that democratized fabrication can catalyze. These voices, and the broader stands of access and collective creation that we heard in Gerber’s talk, will continue to spark thought as the Jacobs Institute heads into a new year of lively experimentation, invention, and dialogue.

Spring 2017 will bring a new season of talks to Jacobs Hall. Want to be the first to hear about them? Sign up to receive the Jacobs Institute’s newsletter and periodic event updates.

By Laura Mitchell