It was 26 years ago that I first dipped my toes into the waters of industrial design and began to understand how professionals make a living doing it. I was a university freshman and took a special introductory seminar that set me on course for my still ongoing academic journey. From that seminar I remember the names of two exceptional industrial designers from the early 20th century. Those two were Raymond Loewy, whose MAYA (most advanced yet acceptable) principle became my favorite way to evaluate design (as well as many other things in my life), and Henry Dreyfuss, whose book Design for People, published in 1955, has an impact to this day. Dreyfuss illustrated various home and industry products designed to enable a comfortable life through scenarios with his imaginary couple, Joe and Josephine. With his persona- and scenario-based methods, Dreyfuss seems to be the pioneer of human-centered design.
That seminar changed my life. Back then I was about to dive into the natural sciences, considering a major in mathematics or biology. Instead, I transferred to the industrial design department. Since then many of my questions about design have been answered, but at the time the nature of design remained obscure and I wanted to have a better understanding of it as an academic discipline. My early design courses felt more like art practice than actual studying. My friends took exams while I was drawing and making things. I wondered if design was an academic subject at all. This confusion about the nature of design led me to more rigorous study areas, such as CAD and computer graphics animation, which were just emerging and about to flourish. In the end, my interests coalesced around interaction design, which positioned itself somewhere between IT and design. The uncertainty of design as an academic discipline led me to complete a Ph.D. in design, something rather uncommon at that time, and work as a professor in my school.
I remember two contradictory explanations of design from that first seminar 26 years ago. One was that design is not simply about making things pretty. Instead, it is more about innovation and changing the world for the better. It brings a better life to people through the power of creative thinking based on knowledge of science, technology, humanity, and business. The key message was that design is not just a visual art. Aesthetics is important, but styling is not everything. The second explanation was that the kinds of objects designers create range from needles to spaceships. Almost all artifacts can be the subject matter of design. I found it contradictory that if it is not specific to aesthetic form giving, the expertise of industrial designers seems too broadas if they are trying to manage everything. Can a single individual like Raymond Loewy have a mighty ability to innovate the entire world regardless of application domain? Although extremely intrigued by the successful professionals of modern design, I was skeptical.
This and other unanswered questions still linger in my mind. How can a designer master such a broad ability? Can a designer create new and innovative ideas for this complex world regardless of product category? What exactly is the design that I teach and research? Can we train great designers at a university? Design has been an exciting field of study for me, since I like to draw, make, and imagine. But the contradictory explanations have echoed throughout my career as a design researcher and educator. To make sense of it, I made myself believe that in addition to the ability of creating aesthetic forms, design expertise requires many things, such as never-ending creative imagination, structured methods to manage complexity, and unlimited sources of inspiration. I thought if a designer succeeded in pairing structured design methods with unlimited sources of inspiration, he or she could have such mighty powerregardless of the nature of the design problem or application domain and despite the consequences of a fast-changing technological world.
Where do designers get their inspiration? The most obvious answer would be from nature. Many aesthetically and functionally excellent designs borrow from the principles or structures of nature. Science and technology also propose new nature-inspired materials, mechanisms, or structures. Bio-mimicry is just one example. For instance, many architects consider nature as the origin of ideas and as the environment into which their designs are meant to blend. New discoveries in science offer us a glimpse into these new thoughts; for example, the research trend of organic user interfaces (OUI) emerged driven by new expressive organic materials.
A second answer would be from personal memories and experiences. Designers tend to be especially passionate about travel, seeing the world, and seeking experiential stimulation. Feeling and getting in touch with different worlds and cultures are considered excellent ways to get inspired. However, to experience everything firsthand and in-situ may not be feasible or practical. Therefore, designers also seek opportunities for indirect experiences, such as watching movies and reading books. To me, movies and books are a means of traveling without moving, and I prefer their experiential value over that of entertainment. From the stories in movies or books, I experience somebody else’s life. I empathize with the characters of the story while imagining new products and services for them. The more closely I see life through a character’s eyes, the more I am touched and inspired. While reading books or watching movies, I see myself diving into deep waters, fishing for inspiration.
A third answer to the question of where designers get their inspiration would be people. Above all, I think people are the best source of inspiration, because other sources tend to be exhausted at some stage. Designers’ knowledge of and experience with nature and scientific knowledge are both difficult to continuously renew. In contrast, since people always exist in relation to products or services that designers create, they tend to have infinitely unique thoughts, behaviors, and intentions. Each individual is different and creative, and in that sense is an unlimited source of inspiration. People are the well that generates the flow of inspiration. If we can pump out the ideas from the well, designers’ creative thinking can be unlimited. Designers don’t have to be anxious about their creative thoughts running out if they are armed with pumping and purifying tools and the well of inspiration. If I consider that we have a secret place of inspiration to depend upon, we can be comfortable about the future of the design profession and discipline. Our source of inspiration is not the lake, but rather the stream that always brings a flow of new water.
This implies that designers need to develop structured methods to get inspiration through deep observation and understanding of people. We designers need unique people-research methods to pump out and purify inspirations. Such methods cannot simply be replaced by user-research methods used in other fields, which tend to focus on understanding. Designers’ people-research methods are for inspiration rather than for finding factsthey should be generative. Ambiguity or surprise can be a fruitful basis for the designer’s methods. User research in the social sciences focuses more on analysis and discovery of facts. In comparison, designers’ methods should stimulate new design concepts. They are for the prospective imagination of the future rather than the retrospective rationalization of the past. Of course, inspiration should be further processed to be valuable. Inspirations pulled out from the well need to be purified and refined. Finding the springs, pumping up the inspiration, and purifying them to ascertain their meaning and value are must-have skills for designers. This is a key concept of co-design that I define.
Considering people as sources of inspiration may not be exclusive to designers. Recently I saw a movie star interviewed on a TV talk show. He said that when he meets people, he often asks them when he or she was the happiest. Then, based on the answer, he imagines becoming the person of that moment. He said that an actor lives many people’s lives. In that respect, he seemed to develop an everyday technique for becoming somebody else while interacting with people. I thought that designers could also use this technique when we search for inspirations. Designers can develop new ideas by accessing the experiences of people’s pasts, identifying their current desires and anxieties, and understanding their future dreams.
Why should I become an advanced people-research expert? Why should designers actively meet and interact with people, even though there are excellent applied social scientists, psychologists, and marketing experts to collaborate with? To these questions, my answer is this: People are great sources of inspiration. The designer’s task is to tap this infinite well of new ideas and purify them to drench the world with value and meaning amid an ever-growing drought of authentic imagination.
Is it possible for me to generate creative ideas endlessly? Is it possible to find the source of inspiration that never dries up? Designers who feel their creativity being exhausted should remain confident. Our sources are everywhere. People are the well of inspiration as big as the sea. We just have to dive in.
Tek-Jin Nam is an associate professor in the Department of Industrial Design at KAIST, Korea. His main research areas are augmented design, co-design, interaction design, and creative design methods.
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