Science leads design just as technology does

jellyfish are pumps

Jellyfish may lead to new pump designs.

A recent article at gizmag reported on a new notion for flexible pumps based on how jellyfish work. Such pumps would be very useful for various medical uses because they could be more easily implanted in humans. This is obviously a case of the beginning of a biomimetic design.

More importantly, though, I think this is an excellent example of how science – an understanding of the natural world – can drive design just as well as technology can.

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Technology, needs, and analogy in design

T-shirt reading "life is like an analogy"

Analogies can be very useful.

I’ve been thinking about Don Norman‘s notion of technology driving needs ever since I read and wrote about it some months ago. I’m still trying to understand the implications of it, and how it fits into my own views. One thing I’ve realized is that a design is constrained by the designer’s ability to recognize analogies between needs and existent technology, and that, as an educator, I have to urge my students to remain current about available technologies and to understand them as deeply as possible, because knowledge of those technologies and their impact on people will inform their designerly acts as much as their knowledge of process and method.

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The impact of balance in design

Balanced rocks

Designing is balancing.

I have written previously about balance. I proposed that one can model a situation as a set of forces (economic, technological, societal, etc.) that balance one another, and that if the current situation is not coincident with the balance point, then their difference represents a perceived need.

Design plays a pivotal role in this model as the means by which imbalances are addressed by trying to move the current situation toward the balance point. As such, I think of designing as more balance-seeking than problem-solving.

In this post, I want to examine some of the implications of this for design thinking and designing as a human activity.

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Balancing Need and Technology

invention or design?

Does need drive invention? Or is invention really a mother?

Conventional wisdom tells us that we design technological artifacts in response to perceived needs; that is, needs drive technology.  The formidable Don Norman recently wrote a web article suggesting that, contrary to convention, technology can drive needs.  Norman’s article caused quite a fuss in the design research community, in which only some agreed with his novel perspective.

I don’t see the benefit of arguing one way or the other; it’s on par with trying to decide which side of a coin came first, the head or the tail of it.  I think a better way to view it is as an infinitely looping process whereby designers adjust reality to balance our needs with respect to a number of other forces, one of which is technological change.

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