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Designing for Impact and Emotion

Two recent design international conferences exult in the future of design, which can be harnessed to solve social problems as well as sell mobile phones.

Design matters.

A lot.

The Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago is determined to show the world how and how much. At two recent conferences it has hosted, one in May and one last October, the power of design and thinking in a designer-ly way were thoroughly discussed and demonstrated. As Patrick Whitney, the dean of IIT’s Institute of Design describes, understanding design “in both a deeper and broader way … can create value for both culture and commerce over the long run.”

And design isn’t just an esoteric pursuit; it encompasses all aspects of day-to-day life from the layout of the magazine you read on your iPad to the function and aesthetic look of the iPad itself. It’s how you feel in a comfy chair, how you react to the sight of a dentist’s drill or how you feel walking up a flight of stairs. Experts are finding ways to utilize design in new ways that will economize, green and sustain the environment — indoors and out. Design impacts all of these things. It’s a living, breathing discipline.

So, in May, the IIT Institute of Design organized its annual Strategy Conference. As the event’s promotional materials clearly state, this is "an international executive forum addressing how business can use design to explore emerging opportunities, solve complex problems, and achieve lasting strategic advantage.”

Attendees considered design as an instrument for effective change. It works its magic when its processes are applied to resolve complex problems in ways that support human well-being and organizational welfare (that would be via profit and competitive advantage, for the naïve). Design thinking is particularly useful for effectively and efficiently resolving the wicked problems prevalent today because it both structures and liberates inspired problem solving. It simultaneously harnesses creativity and rationality.

Because of its focus on understanding users, redefining problems and generating solutions that comprehensively enhance human experience, design can — and increasingly does — play an important role in resolving world problems.

For example, at the conference, Connie Yowell, director of education in the MacArthur Foundation’s U.S. programs, and self-described “chief of confusion” John Seeley Brown discussed thorny educational issues that on their surface might not seem ripe for a discussion on design. Her particular focus is harnessing digital media, and his is developing learning environments that cultivate imagination in a world of constant change.

Bill Moggridge, director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum spoke eloquently of the need for leaders to use design processes to better resolve the challenges that they face. Kun-Pyo Lee, head of the corporate design center and executive vice president at LG Electronics, revealed the importance of design thinking to his efforts. (An interview with BusinessWeek gives a taste if his comments.) Similar themes were struck by Ted London, a faculty member at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business whose passion is helping small-business owners in the developing world create enterprises that flourish.

Other speakers confirmed the value of design in additional contexts — economic, social and physical.

Robots that communicate in just the right way, traveler experiences at airports, dental drills that aren’t quite as terrifying, the way that cars “look” at us, the sound of heeled shoes and the distance between tables in restaurants. These things were among the topics discussed at the seventh International Conference on Design and Emotion last October at IIT.

The society’s membership is worldwide, and attendees tend to be a pleasant sort — they know more clearly than most the implications of a phrase or gesture, for example. There are academics and members of nonprofit organizations in their midst, along with people whose paychecks are issued by major multinationals.

Mark Johnson, a philosophy professor at the University of Oregon, set the tone for the conference. Johnson’s work explores the ways that aesthetics are the foundation of our experience and understanding of our world. He focuses on the way our bodies engage with our environments and how we derive meaning from these interactions. Meaning, thus, comes through sensory experience, and we inhabit the world through metaphors. His work blends philosophy and science, and epitomizes the interdisciplinary and innovative material presented throughout the conference.

His blend of science and philosophy resonated with the attendees. Johnson parsed the words and melody of the song “Over the Rainbow” to illustrate how sensory experience can generate an emotional response. He also discussed emotional reactions to curved versus jagged lines.

Johnson exposed the fundamental nature of our psychological interactions with the world around us, and then Cynthia Breazeal, associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, discussed how to develop natural interactions between people and robots.

She detailed MIT’s studies of robots that use their own experiences to learn from humans. The robots birthed in Breazeal’s lab are termed “socially intelligent.” As the introduction to her talk printed in the program describes, these sorts of robots “interact and communicate with people in human-centric terms, work with humans as peers, and learn from people as an apprentice.”

Perhaps humans aren’t as sophisticated as we like to think.

Several speakers discussed ways in which lighting can influence hotel stays and shopping trips, for example. While that might sound mercenary, the focus of most attendees has moved beyond simply creating pleasurable experiences to motivating sustainable and healthful behaviors. Presenters acknowledged that sometimes experiences can’t be made pleasurable but can be made better (the dental drill mentioned above) or that if handled in just the right way “negative” emotions can also be used to support rich product experiences.

People designing systems that encourage workers to burn off a few extra calories in their walks around their workplaces want to create a positive system-employee interaction instead of one that calls to mind Army boot camp (the old Army boot camp, not the newer, chummier boot camp). People developing medical decision aids truly want patients’ emotions to be influenced in an optimal way by the design elements conveying information.

One session talked about designers navigating through a space without using their sense of sight so that they could better design for blind people. Another technique, in-depth interviewing, was used to understand the interiors and furniture needs of people “in the third age.”

The idea of designing total experiences was also a conference theme. In the West, vision is generally the sense that receives the most attention and therefore is often the one upon which designers focus their attention. Extolling designers to move beyond what something looks like and to recognize the emotional experiences generated through the other senses, Juliana Neves and Vera Damazio from the Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Rio de Janeiro discussed the experience of being in the Blur Building.

The Blur Building wasn’t a building in any of the traditional meanings of the term; it was a cloud designed by the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro above Switzerland’s Lake Neuchatel. The mist and fog engineered into the structure actively and consciously engaged the sense of touch, for example. Neves and Damazio believe that design for all of the senses is crucial consideration during the development of situations and experiences.

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