A conversation between Tim Malbon of Made by Many, Oliver Marlow of architectural practice Studio Tilt, and Jon Marshall of industrial designers Map Project Office.
A person moves through a space holding an object that talks to the space, and that knows where the person has come from, where they are going and what they are seeking. Whether the person is in a shop, a museum, a kitchen or a car, software is suffused throughout the materials, invisibly connecting and enabling the entire experience.
Such a scenario is far from unusual today, and will be infinitely more common tomorrow. The question arises for designers: how to design within and between the spaces, objects and interactions that comprise these total — and in historical terms, totally new — human experiences?
Amid the ongoing Big Bang of technological change, code is the driver of a newer form of design creativity that connects objects (the kind usually built by industrial designers), spaces (traditionally envisioned by architects) and screen-based interactions, from front-end to back-end, on mobile, tablet and desktop. Objects have evolved from dumb blocks of atoms into devices which remember, sense and respond. Bricks-and-mortar buildings may be frozen in their foundations, but their inner worlds are becoming if not precisely intelligent, then certainly adaptive, “knowing” things about the people inside them.
If the effect of moving among those connected objects and spaces is an experience, shouldn’t practitioners be offering a total design solution, with a methodology to match? And what does it augur for disciplines which have operated in relative isolation when the boundaries they traditionally traced have become porous — when software has shot holes in the side of those silos?
They’re questions worth asking, not least because consumer expectations are high, and user literacy around software-powered experiences is fast refining. As existing ecosystems become more complex, we might also ask what designers can imagine about notions of emergence (designing with a presumption of changing parameters), co-design (working with users as partners to understand their goals, how they want to live, and making something that works for them), collaboration (designing between disciplines and breaking down the cultural silos that separate them) and adaptivity (when technologies and systems begin learning how their users use them).
In this conversation, three design practitioners from those fields discuss some of these issues, broaching important questions for their industries, as well as for those of us who will inhabit this unfolding techno-reality.
On Complexity (and the need for a new creativity)
Tim Malbon, Made by Many: In today’s world the complexity we’re trying to manage has increased exponentially. There’s rapid convergence of many previously different types of creativity. Behind the scenes they are increasingly software-driven, and can therefore be leveraged in new ways and at a new scale. It used to be simple, but it’s very rapidly become a continuously evolving discipline that ignores anything we can learn from precedent or legacy. It’s the most exciting time in human history to be a designer. We’re dealing with a network effect of different innovations.The runaway success of smartphones is a particularly critical part of what’s happening: both as the beloved object that we hold as we travel through all these spaces, and also as the container of ever-cheaper, smaller, more diverse and more powerful sensors and processors. We’re at a stage where it’s possible to build these into everything, and once everything is connected, “live” and “always on” we’ll have accidentally created a new experiential reality, one that is continuous, dynamic, emergent, intelligent and data-driven. And, critically, one that can and must be designed in new ways.
This seamless total experience canvas is powered by software and lives through and across spaces and objects. It must still serve the interests of people and business. What’s possible for real has outstripped what we might have been dreaming about for years. We’ve reached an inflection point. People aren’t just talking about it now, they’re doing it for real, at scale. If you’re not already thinking about how all this might fit together, and what you need to change in order to be able to design this level of complexity to serve the interests of both people and business now, chances are you’ll miss the future.
Oliver Marlow, Studio Tilt: Technology is placing a lead on everything else. In architecture we’re now looking to where space is adaptive and responsive, with technology embedded within it. With a computer you can play with code in the back end and it changes the experiential interaction in the front end immediately. With architecture we can’t work that quickly, but it’s changing. There are opportunities if we consider the space design realm — the kind of interior architecture where you say, what’s the platform we can create within the space that allows that same level of adaptability? That responsiveness is something we’re always striving towards in our design work.
On Emergence (and what can’t be known at the start of a project)
Tim Malbon: You can’t just make something now and imagine that it’s “done”. In the same way that, at Made by Many, we look to make the smallest initial part of an emergent software-driven product that emerges over time, Studio Tilt are trying to design emergent spaces that anticipate people wanting to adapt and change the use of over time — including new uses that can’t even be imagined when they are first built. That often means involving people who live or work, or visit those spaces. Involving people who work in a hospital to design it doesn’t sound like a radical thing to do, but it is.
Oliver Marlow: Emergence is crucial to our co-design methodology. You may have an idea of what something is, of what is required, but you probably don’t know it enough in detail to design towards it effectively. We suggest that if you establish a workshop setting and bring the right people into that setting, they will become the users themselves. You get many emergent realities from multiple perspectives that almost design the brief itself. People criticise the idea of malls as just gigantic hangars, that give the impression of much smaller spaces within it, but it’s quite useful as a precedent. Look at Thomas Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels’ proposal for Google in Silicon valley — a gigantic canopy and moveable pieces within it. It is nothing more than a mall.
The other side to this is building the kind of spaces you see in the theatrical world — you have a stage that can accommodate any presentation and any kind of experiential model. Things like this challenge the longevity and monumentality of space and the way buildings are conceived. It opens up a conversation and an invitation to interact with a space.
Tim Malbon: Designing for emergence is a highly disciplined type of design. You need to make sure that you’re making decisions that make things that haven’t been considered possible in the future, including things that other people might be designing on top of what you’re building. That’s expensive. Software is still, well, soft — and it’s easy to make 10 or even 100 releases every day — whereas making things out of atoms is much less easy to change.
Jon Marshall, Map Project Office: Industrial design is in the middle. Although there is a defined point with physical product where you push the button in the tooling and after that you can’t change it, they are still tweakable, living, breathing things that you can adjust. Every time you make a batch of a product, you iterate it a little. There is an adaptive process going on with mass-produced physical products.
On Collaboration (and what doesn’t work any more)
Tim Malbon: All of us, the end users, have more power in this process than ever before. Humans and their needs must sit at the centre of the solution, and working with them collaboratively to design things with them instead of for them is one way of making this happen. Businesses are starting to realise the value that can be unlocked by making design more collaborative — in terms both of co-designing with their customers but also of extending the design process more broadly within the business, way outside the people formerly called the design team.
Oliver Marlow: Projects with a brief that has a singular impact don’t work anymore. You simply can’t design any more without thinking about sustainability and user experience, about change over time, about how things impact social and political aspects. It is our responsibility as designers to try to understand and integrate those things.
Given the advancement of the city as almost our best integrated invention as a species, and how it evolves itself, almost as an organism, there is the realisation that you don’t need to keep building all the time: knocking one building down and building another. That high-modernist idea has been superceded, you can work very effectively with what is there, repurposing, working quickly and cheaply, leaving room for play and change
Jon Marshall: What also doesn’t work is giving a designer a brief and leaving them for long periods of time — stagnation and taking ages to launch technology products which are irrelevant by the time they arrive. We have a version of agile that we use to develop physical products really quickly. With a physical thing, you can’t prototype and build the final thing at the same time, but you can achieve a much greater level of resolution on the prototype and a much greater level of interactivity into it using Arduino, rapid prototyping and 3D printing. You can create something that looks and behaves like the final product, and then go into manufacturing very quickly. There is a move away from the silo approach. Typically what we see with some of our clients is that from research to strategy to design to implementation, the baton is passed to different teams. A stronger approach is that the same group are involved throughout, with the client at the centre.
Tim Malbon: Let’s be realistic, clients need certainty: what they want on the whole is to know what it will be, how much it will cost, when it will be ready, and what return on investment it will deliver. But all of those are really difficult to know when you’re buying something innovative and emergent. By definition with innovation projects, you don’t start out by knowing these things. Smart clients get this of course, and over the years we’ve developed all sorts of tools that support them at every stage of what can feel more like a leap in the dark. We’ve had to learn how to help clients manage and communicate the vision and the process within their businesses.
This often involves someone from the client taking on a full lifecycle product management role within their organisation. We’ve been successful with that approach. It involves working much more like a consultant. Generally speaking, the higher the level of project sponsor we have access to within the client organisation, the better. Designing projects to deliver an early taster of “visible success”, rather than holding on for too long, is also really useful, if you can do it.
On Adaptivity (and what designers need to do about it)
Jon Marshall: The future is now. If you are adaptive in the process, you can adapt to almost anything. If you’ve got an idea, you need to go to market really quickly with the minimum viable product and launch it. Try to do it in six months — with Hackaball, we will ship the product to backers but with the next batch we make there may be subtle changes, different approaches to electronics, lower cost, more features, firmware upgrades, and iterations in the physical moulding.
Tim Malbon: we’re now thinking of all this as experiences, and if all of that is true the implications for design are massive. Design has to change in each of those disciplines, and start spilling over from one to the next, seamlessly and continuously. Once you shift from things to experience as the output — made up of the physical experience in a space, the additional experiences coming through your devices, and the interactions of you moving through those spaces — then the complexity of that design is huge and traditionally, no one has a point of view about the way all of that fits in together. It is a massively underserved need.
Oliver Marlow: There is also the one-plus-one attitude to all this: put silicon chips in every conceivable thing and there will be so much data we’ll be able to find something interesting. This isn’t and never will be enough. The integration of design teams is super-important — having that clear tri-party of object, tech and space means one remains pragmatic. To have differing perspectives in the design team as ideas develop is enough to be mutually beneficial for each team, and to the project as a whole.
On Joy (and what all this means for the rest of us)
Jon Marshall: by 2020 there will be 50 billion devices connected to the internet. When it reaches a critical mass, it will make a much smoother, moreseamless experience for us as humans. What we are working on is to make people’s lives better, more playful or more fun. There are opportunities for pure joy — it’s not just about utility. At the moment there isn’t really a single language or platform for connected products, and companies are too siloed. As designers, we want it to become more unified.
Oliver Marlow: We need to be careful that we don’t get lost in the idea that suggests that everything which is fast, complex and emergent is somehow going to solve basic things. It’s important to always question, and work with humility. The only way we can be sure things are developing well is to return to user experience as one works through the design process.
With our lived experience of the legacy of modernist architecture, for example, you’d somehow imagine that those people were sadistic in their approach, but actually they were coming from a very positive, well-thought-through understanding of doing the best they could for people. But the impact has been far different. The biggest challenge is, how do you mobilise people towards something positive? Design has a part to play in that. We need to be serious about improving things and looking for meanings that resonate.
Tim Malbon: The complexity of the interconnected systems we’re all trying to design for is so great that you can’t help be humbled by it. But that’s something to celebrate: we’re accelerating towards a more inclusive design future — one that’s accessible to more and more of the end-users, and one that is ever more adaptive. Designing systems that will evolve and become even better than your original vision is something to be very excited about.