Nature is an important source of inspiration for design. Many of you have already read some of our articles that talk about a user’s interaction with a product in relation to the larger industry, society, and culture. (If not, check them out in our Library!) For now, let’s look outside at the nature that surrounds all of those spheres. Needless to say, nature is a completely different domain than manmade domains. Let’s try to look at some of the facts of nature and how that relates back to the world of Industrial Design – starting with evolution.
First, 3 quick observations about the word “evolution” in nature vs. “evolution” in the design world:
1. Evolution by definition is an excruciatingly slow process. In the world of innovation though, slow doesn’t sell. When we say “product evolution” as we evolve our product from generation 1 to the generation 2 etc, we’re referring to a process that is actually quite fast and can go through multiple iterative cycles even within a year.
2. The other part is that evolution in nature just “happens”. There is no end point or final goal or anything that says “this is where we want to end up” or “let’s try to ‘evolve’ and see what works and what sticks”. Evolution goes anywhere and everywhere and whoever happens to be the fittest survives. But in the world of design thinking, we start the process with a hypothesis or two or three, and then we map out the end ideal user experience that we want to get to. Once we have that ideal user experience in mind, we plan for that goal and generate that future. We’re not just looking at the probable future or the possible future or the plausible future, we’re working in generative future scenarios.
3. The third part of evolution is that it never regresses. It never goes backward. It’s a one-way street. However, in design, we’re always in loops of iteration. We try something new, fail fast in the shop, and then try again and move forward.
In nature, evolution is what has enabled us to survive. Of all the species that have ever existed on earth, 99% of them are now extinct. Extinction is actually the norm. Survival is the exception. Isn’t it truly incredible that we have advanced so far as a species, that we’ve been able to survive, and have found so many ways to make our lives and our civilization better even in the midst of troubled times like these?
Some of you might already know this, but in nature, we often think “wow, look at this or that animal and how well it is adapted to fit its surroundings”. However, it’s actually the other way around. The animal is the way it is because it’s surroundings themselves have been the acting force causing that species to evolve to fit its surroundings. Amazing eyesight or the ability to fly or crazy colorations in nature are all there because the conditions around that organism molded it into what it is. This is an important principle to keep in mind as designers: The conditions around us mold us. In one of his books, Richard Dawkins states something that, while uncanny, is insightful: “We are molded by the dead hands of our ancestors”. Essentially what he’s saying is that the genetic pool you come from, makes you. The genetic pool that made you has been molded by the unstoppable forces of nature acting on your species over millennia. This goes for any animal. If you see a gazelle in the Sahara, that gazelle is only alive today because the surrounding conditions have molded its species into what it is to be able to survive, run fast to avoid predators, and reproduce in its current conditions. A lion has also been molded by these same conditions to be able to hunt in packs and be stealthy to catch food.
So as designers, understanding even these macro-level conditions and principals helps us derive insight to bring back to our world of product ecosystems. If you want to design a toaster, it’s not just the toaster you should be looking at. You have to understand the “genetic pool” of not only that toaster but all the products surrounding it in its product ecosystem. In this emerging reality of smart cities, you have to consider what a smart city means for a smart house? Then, what does a smart house mean for a smart kitchen? What does a smart Kitchen mean for a smart toaster? Is it Alexa or Google compatible? Is it touch-free? Gesture controlled? Voice controlled? Understanding all these conditions and evolving lifestyles is essential for designing your product to make sure it can survive in its surrounding ecosystem and have lasting success on the market.
Our surrounding conditions influence us as humans too. We always think that we are who we are because of our internal value structures and makeup. Typically, however, the situation we’re in and the surrounding conditions overrule what we think. Right now, even though I’m at home, my behavior is different when I’m speaking in a virtual event or work meeting. The minute I walk out my home office door though, I’m immediately horsing around with my kids. As humans, our behavior at a wedding is different than our behavior when we’re just hanging out with some friends, which is different than our behavior in a gym locker room. No matter what, our situation determines the way we express ourselves. Dr. Stanley Milgram did some rigorous experiments on this phenomenon. It’s because we are part of a larger society and ecosystem, and unlike animals, we also have empathy and sympathy. Understanding the ways humans think in all these different conditions and their mental models is important for us as designers because it directly impacts the user’s interaction with a product in a given scenario. We not only have to understand the person or user we’re designing for – yes, we have to be aware of the demographics and psychographics of the user too – we also have to understand the situation and conditions the product and user are in, and how that affects user behavior. The same person will act completely differently when they are doing an obstacle course race vs. when they are at their accounting job during the day and wearing a shirt and tie. You have to understand the mental model of that person in the specific conditions in which they’ll be using the product.
Most of us are probably familiar with BHAPs (Big Hairy Audacious Problems). These are things like poverty, obesity, pollution, etc. To all of these problems, the solution is usually simple to identify at a high level. The way to execute that solution, however, is incredibly complex and hard. That’s why the tools of industrial design thinking are important to map out the way to solutions in our current ecosystem.
Take for example the BHAP of preventing obesity. The solution is simple in most cases: Exercise regularly, eat clean foods, and control your portions. That’s what it comes down to. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be aware of these things. The way to get there, however, is so hard because there are always so many distractions in life. Bringing it back to evolution, the human species wasn’t evolved alongside fast food and vending machines! We don’t have the instinctual defenses (yet) to see fast food and think “that’s dangerous”. We have been evolved to know not to jump off cliffs and to run away from predators because those conditions are what have molded us into the species we are today. However, to do the things that will keep us fit, like not eating fast food, is a conscious decision and effort every time. The same is true with many of these BHAPs. It’s an evolutionary arms race between the human species and the forces of nature to survive and thrive on this earth. That’s where structured industrial design thinking comes in and can help uncover the path to get to that ideal state from where we are now. How? By considering all these forces at work and how that affects the user’s behavior. From there we can design products, services, and experiences that will embody our ideals and help us reach our desired aspirational lifestyle.
In all of life, pain is a given, but suffering is not. Right now, we’re all experiencing pain of some kind, whether that’s a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, issues of social injustice, or just grieving the loss of our routines and lifestyles prior to the events that have unfolded over the last few months. However, we shouldn’t be allowing pain to rule our lives or give up in the face of it. We are arguably intelligent enough to find creative ways to still find joy and mitigate suffering. This is the role of innovators, designers and creatives. Design gives us this amazing opportunity to create products and services that directly affect the quality of life of those around us to bring joy. Even on a personal level, though, we can still fight the pain in our lives by expanding our own brain muscles in this time, or tackling a project that we do have the ability to control despite the tumult around us (like deep-cleaning our house, or reading a good book), or we can reach out and help someone else in pain. There are so many things we can do right now. We should focus on that.
Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors, said (and I paraphrase) “consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a time older than the earth’s sea, oceans, river and mountains, each and every one of your ancestors on both sides were attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce and blessed by fate and consequences to live long enough to do so. Not one of them was squashed, devoured, drowned, stranded, stuck fast, starved, untimely wounded, or in any way deflected from their life’s quest of transferring their tiny amount of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only hereditary combinations which eventually, astoundingly, but all too briefly result in you!”
You and I are literally the spear-head of the entire evolutionary line behind us. We’re at the forefront of civilization to determine what to do next and how to continue our history. There is an amazing amount of burden resting on us to make sure we make progressively a better world for the collective benefit of humanity as a whole.
That’s the big picture we should always be thinking about as industrial designers and innovators. We simply cannot isolate ourselves and just solve the individual problem in front of us currently. We have to ask ourselves what is going to define us as a culture going forward and what will be the measure of success for the human species. Right now, we’re in wartime with Coronavirus, but when we finally get to peace times, how are we going to define the measure of our success? Does a successful solution to what we’re going through right now look like thousands of intercontinental ballistic missile silos across the world? Or does it look like retrofitting our available aircraft carriers to be 3000-bed hospitals, similar to the idea of the USNS Comfort, so we can send these fleets of hospitals to any country and take care of an epidemic at its source? Or does it look like cohorts of WHO workers regulating all the wet markets in the world? Together, we all have to think about this. Design isn’t just solving one problem here and there to create benefits in a product for the end user, or for a client, or for a brand, or even for society. It’s all of these and the entire biosphere too. We simply cannot afford to let something like this pandemic happen again now that we’ve gone through it and have the opportunity to learn from it. That would be true failure. This is the time to pivot, as designers and creatives of all kinds, to see how we can define our culture going forward to be stronger and more resilient.
This is why we do what we do as a human-centric design studio at Sundberg-Ferar for over 86 years. Now we need to think about not just human-centric design, but humanity-centric design to solve these Big Hairy Audacious Problems in the world. Whether you’re a designer or innovator or just a creative human being (which is all of us), use this time to deepen your understanding of all these conditions surrounding us – not only to design better products, but to generate a better future for humanity.
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Principal, and Director of Strategic Growth
Jeevak, Principal and Director of Strategic Growth, brings energy, passion & curiosity to his role at Sundberg-Ferar. With his unique blend of education and experience in industrial design, engineering and business, he is a rallying voice for the alignment and optimal inclusion of the end user’s un-met needs, and unspoken wants in the core value proposition of a company’s products & service portfolio to generate sought-after shareholder value.