"We wants it. We needs it. Must have the Precious."
Gollum, Lord of the Rings
As a designer I walk a fine line. On the one hand, I must listen to and positively respond to clients' demands for the allegorical "Precious." But on the other hand, I long to create meaningful products with which the consumer connects on a level beyond that of the bright facade of today's corporate packaging. Oh, don't get me wrong, I've fallen into the feverish thrall of consumerism, trying to find the Precious amongst all the wrappings and trappings at Target. And I say "trappings" with all the heartfelt enthusiasm of a mother whose three-year-old daughter recently proclaimed that "the Disney princesses" were "[her] life."
The Precious, in this form, is powerful. As consumers we are anesthetized to a product's real true identity-often one-dimensional in its application, mass-produced, and woefully unimaginative. The products have been reduced to literal shellsdesigned for shelf appeal and visual interest, but little else. Since when did design become about packaging the Precious rather than truly experiencing the Precious? By applying form to this outside perception, we may be missing the deeper connections to consumers that we all desire as designersconnections that are born from a philosophy known as inside/out design and are forged from the interactions themselves.
At a recent workshop the M3 design team shared a PBS documentary on Leonardo da Vinci to help our clients reframe their approach to innovation. Perhaps one of da Vinci's greatest gifts was to create physical manifestations of mechanical purity. In other words, form most certainly followed function, but the function was a mechanical genius that didn't hide behind the form. Rather, the function was an exaltation of the form. Da Vinci didn't know it, but he was one of the first "inside/out" designers.
Traditionally, inside/out design has been applied to architecture and automobiles. The interior design may have affected the outside form, although the relationship, if there was one at all, wasn't immediately apparent. As Kipling once said, "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." If form followed function, it was in the most basic sense and there was little interaction between the inside of the object or space and the outside form.
The 1977 Pompidou Museum comes to mind as a literal translation of early inside/out design. By placing all the inner workings of the museumescalators, ventilation ducts, and structural frameworkon the outside, large uninterrupted gallery spaces were created within. The Pompidou Center was motivated b y a desire to optimize interior space for functional benefit.
The rise of semantic design in the '80s sought to use inside/out design for a communicative benefit by suggesting the internal use through external form. The Tsui House in Berkeley, Calif., by architect Eugene Tsui could be described as using this type of inside/out design. With its oval plan and parabolic top, the structure is based upon the world's most indestructible living creature: the tardigrade, a tiny animal that can withstand extremes of temperature and pressure. Tsui's resulting exterior, visible to most passersby, was derived from the interior requirements borrowed from the tardigrade.
Nearly 25 years later, there has been a resurgence of inside/out design and a more carefully considered response to what designing from the inside means. Not only is inside/out design reappearing in architecture but it is also extending into consumer goods, software and hardware design, and design-agency thinking.
What, then, is inside/out design today?
The literal interpretation seeks to sensitize the designer to the series of interactions between the inside and the outside and makes an intentional commitment to the relationship between the two, not merely designing each independently. Form in this manner no longer strictly follows function but is designed to interact, reflect, and engage with the interior as well as the external audience. Thus, the user enters this interaction equation in a very deliberate way. The emphasis of the current philosophy is for an individual's personal benefit.
Memphis, Tenn., is not only home of the blues, Beale Street, and Graceland but also nine buildings that reflect today's inside/out design. Along the city's roofline sits a dynamic lighting display, which receives its input from motion sensors inside the buildings. The exhibit, as suggested by its inventor, was created to make people aware of their own movement. Described as a "living canvas," movement and energy become visible from afar and represent the interaction between people and architecture. In this way people become an intimate partner in the object's purpose.
Inside/out design has matured in its literal interpretation but now embraces a metaphorical interpretation as well.
The metaphorical interpretation aims to provide an emotional benefit that speaks to the core desire of the consumer. In this new definition, inside stands for the inner emotion of the consumer, and outside is the outward expression of the product that serves or satisfies this emotion. Using this definition design teams can generate highly desirable solutions, as they appeal directly to the core of the consumer. The leap that we've made is that we no longer merely define inside/out in a "literal" manner at the forefront of design. Rather, we think of inside/out design as an interaction spectrumfrom literal to figurativeand expertise is developed once a team understands when to use the literal and when to use the metaphorical.
"...I suggested that a telephone's appearance should be developed from the inside out, not merely created as a mold...and that this would require collaboration with Bell technicians. My visitor disagreed, saying such collaboration would only limit a designer's artistic scope."
Henry Dreyfuss, Bell Labs, Designing for People
For those who have read Dreyfuss's Designing for People, you know how the story ends. The "visitor," a Bell representative, changed his mind. The commissioned artists, tasked with designing phones of the future, returned beautifully original drawings that were not practical to create.
Rather than limiting a designer's scope, inside/out design focuses the scope of interaction so that the designers can unleash their creativity on innovation that is practically beautiful. The result of Dreyfuss's approach, which involved collaboration with the engineers and an understanding of the customers through ethnographic research, became the Bell 300 with the first rotary dial. However, Dreyfuss's philosophy was based on early inside/out thinking. Roughly 75 years later, one wonders what sort of telephone he might design today.
Inside/out thinking is adaptable and can be considered on a literal level or on a highly metaphorical basis. This adaptability, as well as a focus on the interactions between the touch points, brings an altered perspective to design that has differentiated results. Three specific designs illustrate inside/out thinking on various levels of pragmatism.
The second annual Muji Awards invited competing designers to Re-think, Re-design, and Re-imagine an everyday thing. The challenge was searching for the right "RE" statement to guide our design and ultimate submission. After extensive brainstorming, the M3 team narrowed their focus to "Design a product to positively impact the environment by REversing the way that product and packaging relate."
Team members brought in products and packaging that effected a positive or negative impact on the environment. Our inside/out design thinking began with this: What were the literal implications of reversing products and packaging for beverages, film, coins, cartridges, and the like?
We refined our design statement to be: "Reverse the relationship of a compact fluorescent lightbulb and its packaging while having a positive impact on the environment."
The relationship and interactions between the packaging and the lightbulb were explored during the conceptualization phase. For example, we analyzed what other functions and relationships the packaging could have with the lightbulb, in addition to protection during initial shipment. The packaging was given additional functionality by analyzing the full journey of the lightbulb from production to sale, to use, and ultimately through disposal/recycling.
Packaging became part of the lightbulb product and part of the end use of the product upon purchase. In the final concept the inside of the package becomes the literal outside of the package and demonstrates a symbiotic relationship between outside and inside.
To understand the impact of inside/out design thinking on something as simple as a driving glove, a recent project challenged our team of designers to approach the problem as a series of interactions that operate independently and together to form the driving-glove "experience." Each interaction was discussed, both functionally and emotionally, as a design problem to solve and as a deliberate part of the design.
Desired aspirations, such as "feeling the road," "reacts to my touch," and "molds to my hand" took on enhanced meaning when working through the interactions. The designers found a need to translate the mechanization of the hand to the glove as well as subtle changes of the hand to the feedback of driving. How can a glove perform better than skin? Materials that transfer energy, touch, and the importance of sensing vibration led to the inclusion of tactile touchpoints designed into the fingerpads of the glove. Our solution, micro-needles that organically conformed to the nerves on the fingerpads, subtly transfers feedback (e.g., force and vibration) and serves as a direct link between the steering wheel and the fingertip without the dampening of associated fabric.
Further consideration of the desired grip, more surface area on the wheel, and more distribution of force across the hand led to our concept of air bladders. As the user increases air flow by opening and closing the hand, the glove's comfort increases but reduces some of the feedback. This might be more appropriate for a cruising type of drive. Releasing air in the bladder provides enhanced feedback, more appropriate for performance driving.
Another important aspect of the design was temperature sensing and regulation. Coolmax is a material that already has this ability, so we leveraged the fabric for the back of the glove.
This project benefited from inside/out design in several ways. Instead of brainstorming a new driving-glove concept, this allowed the designers to focus on manageable interactions required by the product. The flow of thinking is controllable because of the stage-gate approach to innovating on specificities. It generates more ideas on targeted problems.
"This is my butterfly," Monica said as she described her painting. "How so?" I asked her. She smiled to herself, put down her paintbrush, and replied, "Epilepsy is like a caterpillar, but this bracelet would be my butterfly." This was a woman who had dislocated her shoulders nine times in epileptic fits and had no recollection of any one of those incidents, whose very life, and the safety of her three-year-old son, depended on medical identification. Her painting, and more important, its interpretation, told me what designers long to hearour design had achieved a true emotional connection.
Monica was one of 18 people we brought in to emotionally evaluate five medical-identification concepts our team had designed. Metaphorically, I knew what we hoped our design would convey. Each of our concepts were designed and chosen as an embodiment of two inner yet conflicting emotions at the core of medical identificationpeople yearned for an invisible product that hid in plain sight but was also immediately recognizable. Our research, including participatory design, resoundingly supported this conclusion.
By using inside/out design we hoped to approach the challenge, particularly the conflicting emotions, from a fresh yet focused perspective, which would generate a solution that satisfied the identified needs. In addition to addressing the feeling of invisibility and recognition, it needed to embody vital information and be personally expressive.
The concept that inspired such a connection for Monica was a design that suggested a literal and metaphorical inside/out design, and perhaps that was its greatest strength. The bracelet was designed using clear silicone material with a circular raised medical symbol on the band.
Innocuous to the untrained eye in its simple design, vital information was housed inside the bracelet. Only a push on the medical symbol "button" would cause the chemical reaction inside the bracelet to reveal the wearer's information, much like an allegorical day-glo stick from childhood. Inside and out, the design met the emotional and functional user requirements.
"They do not see what lies ahead, when Sun has failed and Moon is dead."
Gollum, Lord of the Rings
As designers we have the ability to change the very definition of the Precious. We are in powerful positions to influence our clients' perceptions of the types of connections to forge with their customers. Through design research, we have that uncanny ability to see what lies ahead when others do not. Ultimately, we are curators, forecasters, and distributors of tomorrow's experience, of tomorrow's products. Inside/out design is a philosophy that designs to the heart of the matterthe meaningful interactions at the core of great product design. We can only hope that consumers echo Gollum when he says, "So bright... so beautiful... my precious." When a design provides a personal benefit, it becomes a possession worthy of a consumer's loyalty. There is no room for the "tricksy" and "false" in that kind of equationit's a true experience in every way imagined.
Laura Seargeant Richardson
About the Author
As director of design strategy and research for M3 and a five-year veteran of frog design, Laura Richardson specializes in innovative thinking, research methodologies, and strategic solutions for a wide array of projects encompassing consumer, industrial, and healthcare applications and form factors. Laura has played critical roles in developing solutions for companies like Ford, AMD, Alltel, Motorola, GE, HP, Microsoft, and Sun. As a research specialist in her field, Laura's expertise is in emotional, sensorial, and participatory design with particular emphasis and focus on pushing the boundaries of design researchboth human and machine. "Deeper, wider, and through differently colored lenses" is her approach. Laura most recently spoke at the 2007 IDSA World Congress on The Art and Science of Measuring Emotion (in product design). She has also written for the gadget blog, Gizmodo.com, and frog's Design Mind.
The I-O approach is founded on two basic elements:
- An intentional committment to the relationship and interaction between the inside and the outside. Not just designing each independently.
- The definition of inside and outside to not only include the literal, but also the metaphorical (internal desires for example).
The driving glove concept focuses more specifically on the physical definition.
Within the I-O philosophy, the driving glove can be considered as a series of interactions with individual needs as well as relationships to each other. This is used as our framework for conceptualizing a final solution.
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