If you ask Tucker Fort, a partner at Smart Design, the London- and New York City-based design and innovation consultancy, he’ll tell you that the most important quality for a good designer is optimism. “Anytime we start a new project, it's easy to be jaded and say, ‘Aw, does the world really need another one of these?’ or ‘Can we really make a difference?’” he says. “But you have to be pre-wired to believe that you can, even if maybe you can’t. You have to believe that there’s always something better around the corner.”
Of course, it takes more than positive thinking to bring a new product to life. It takes a functional insistence that even the most mundane of our objects can be made new again.
Take, for instance, the measuring jug that Smart Design developed for a high-end home-products company. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with your typical measuring jugs, says Richard Whitehall, also a partner at Smart Design. “But there was this behavior—everyone who uses a measuring jug, they bend their head down to the level of the table to look at how high the liquid is, or they pick up the jug and then the liquid moves around,” he says. “It's a small problem, but it's universal.”
“The ability to prototype things very quickly is something that’s transformed design in general. Whether that’s prototyping something digital and getting it online, or whether it’s prototyping something physical and making a three-dimensional model of something, I think it enables you to get those things out into the world sooner rather than later so you can figure out whether they work or not.”
Smart Design, NYC
Having identified this minor nuisance of an issue, Smart Design was able to use it as a guiding light in the design process. The result? They came up with the idea of having a scale that could be viewed from directly above. And just like that, baking enthusiasts no longer had to crane their necks every time they craved a fresh batch of cookies. In this way, Whitehall points out, they really weren’t designing a measuring jug at all. “Well, we wanted to do a jug,” he says, “but what we're really trying to do is solve this problem of people bending down.” That was the true purpose of the design: to solve a problem by creating something new, which is a principle that holds true across firms.
Understanding the Problem
“Before we start to design, we ask ourselves: Why do we need this new product?” says Mimi Jiang, a design manager at Kohler. “What are the benefits, what are the new functions we will bring to our consumers that will help them?”
But here it’s important to make a distinction: Such simplicity is rarely simplistic. According to Fort, design is not a linear process. “If you start a design exercise and know exactly where you want to end up, then you’re not really embarking on design. You’re just embarking on implementation.” That’s not to say a designer ought not have a hypothesis or a goal in mind. After all, the impetus for every one of Smart Design’s projects comes from somewhere. “It can come from a business need, it can come from a brand need, it can come from a new technology or a consumer-behavior need,” says Fort. “But it's really a journey. I think every project that I've ever been on that’s ended in a successful place has ended somewhere very different from what I expected. So you have to be comfortable with that ambiguity, otherwise you're going to miss the best path.”
It's About the Journey
“The hardest part can be deciding why we need this new product, and how we can remake it without reusing the existing design.”
For Whitehall, this means giving himself the time and space to make unexpected associations. “Your mind is already working on the problem in the background, so once you ground yourself in the context of the situation, then you’ve got to let go and look at things that are very different from the problem you are trying to solve,” he says. “You look at the world around you and everywhere you see ideas. You see things that you can repurpose and use and connect with.” If that sounds abstract, consider the way you hold kitchen tools. It’s easy for many of us, but for people with arthritis, holding a standard potato peeler presents a challenge. Smart Design figured out how to change that in the material and texture of the kitchen tools they went on to design: “We understood all of the ergonomics,” says Whitehall, “But then we were actually inspired by looking at motorcycle handlebars, at the rubber grips.”
“I find, when I’m working on a very intense project, there’s something about the idea of moving. I think it’s just the fact that it’s engaging that broader awareness in your mind. That state of thinking is something that’s very good for connecting ideas, that’s where these unexpected connections come from in design.”
Smart Design, NYC
Prototyping is also key to unlocking the possibilities of the design process—of the journey. “The general philosophy is to get things into a very simple form very quickly,” says Whitehall. “So it's a prototype, but it’s such a simple prototype that you can understand the basics of the problem on the first day of the project.” According to Fort, prototyping can also help speed up the design process while sparking true innovation. “No matter whether we’re prototyping something physically, digitally, service wise, business models, whatever it may be, we say you can learn one of three things almost immediately: It’s either a good idea, a bad idea, or it generates a new idea.”
Even the smallest insight can have wide-ranging implications. Years ago, for example, Fort was working with a tech company to help users take fuller advantage of the features available on their printers. “They had done all this research and figured out people were only using five percent of the features,” he says. Naturally, Fort and others believed their task was to design a better navigation system. They came up with a range of hypotheses and conducted volumes of user research. “The problem that we thought we were trying to solve was getting people to the thing that they wanted to do faster,” he says.
But they were wrong. “We discovered the most unexpected thing,” Fort continues, “far more important than going forward was going back. It's a very simple idea, but if you want someone to feel like they can explore and try new things, make it easy for them go back!” Indeed, the navigation system they designed ultimately placed more emphasis on the back function than anything else, and in so doing they tapped into something increasingly important these days: When digital is involved, the whole process changes.
“We try to help people live better lives,” Kohler’s Jiang says. “Technology helps us along the way, but we’re still focused on the whole experience.”
In fact, this was one of the earliest (and most valuable) lessons Whitehall learned as a designer. Adding technological features to something can always sound enticing, but it needs to add value to the holistic system. A designer needs to consider human needs above all—and specifically, other humans’ needs, not necessarily the designer’s. “Personal experiences, sitting next to someone trying to do something and understanding why they’re doing it, living in their shoes for a little bit—I think those are the things that really make designers create brilliant things,” he says.
“When you include things like electronic touchpoints, they need to be combined with the product. They can’t be divided: It’s a holistic system design.”
In other words: empathy.
How else could a group of young men and women come up with, in Whitehall’s words, “a radical redesign” of a self-injecting syringe for arthritis patients? That is exactly what Smart Design did with a revolutionary injection experience. “We realized the patients couldn’t exert a lot of force through their fingers,” he says, “so we introduced these broader surfaces. Even things like pulling the cap off the syringe—for us that is really easy. But for them, we had to introduce a kind of loop on top of the syringe.”
Seeing the world through the eyes of another—understanding why someone else is using a product, and even predicting what they will want to do with it next—can enable a designer to create products that feel more and more human, says Fort. “The more that a product or service can anticipate your need at any given moment, the more human it's going to feel and the stronger connection you're going to feel with it,” he says. Whitehall adds that this aspect is becoming increasingly important as new technologies enter the consumer landscape. “You're really not just designing for someone to buy this thing,” he says, “but you're trying to design for his or her whole relationship with this thing over time.”
“I always think if you try and describe great design in words, sometimes it seems ridiculous. Try and describe an opera to someone. How would you describe that in words? Why is it great, and what is it that it does to you? But yet, when you’re there, that effect is very immediate.”
Smart Design, NYC
That is not a responsibility he takes lightly. “These things live for a long time,” he explains. “Especially physical things. They don't really go away. So if you're going to put another thing in the world, you want it to be something that's useful.” After all, a designer never knows when he might encounter one of his designs again, somewhere in the real world. In Whitehall’s case, he remembers doing a drawing for a particular ballpoint pen when he was in his early twenties. Years later, on his wedding day, he couldn’t take his eyes off the hand of the City Hall official. Why? She was holding the very same pen.
He knew it was a good sign. ❖
It takes a functional insistence that even the most mundane of our objects can be made new again.
Understanding the Problem
“Well, we wanted to do a jug,” he says, “but what we're really trying to do is solve this problem of people bending down.”
It's About the Journey
“If you start a design exercise and know exactly where you want to end up, then you’re not really embarking on design. You’re just embarking on implementation.”
“You look at the world around you and everywhere you see ideas. You see things that you can repurpose and use and connect with.”
“We say you can learn one of three things almost immediately: It’s either a good idea, a bad idea, or it generates a new idea.”
“The more that product or service can anticipate your need at any given moment, the more human it's going to feel and the stronger connection you're going to feel with it.”
“Especially physical things. They don't really go away. So if you're going to put another thing in the world, you want it to be something that's useful.”