Good design matters. And what makes design (truly) good is when it captures a comprehensive set of objectives. We’re not just designing a house. We’re designing a house in the context of our lives.

Design Matters

We’re in the process of renovating an old Queenslander. We could go in one of two directions: (a) major extensions and major costs but a much bigger house; or (b) minor extensions lower costs but clever design. Option (b) is more taxing. We’re really having to think hard about every square centimetre and come up with all sorts of creative solutions to fit a functional kitchen into a much smaller space.

But option (b) wins for several reasons. The main one is that it’s a design solution that takes into account a broader context. It still lets us invest in plenty of holidays at Noosa (at our favourite location), education, entertainment and evenings at the theatre.

Getting the Design Context Right

Design is a space where analytical and creative thinking styles are mixed. Brilliant design emerges from comprehensive thinking. Brilliant design captures all relevant perspectives, thoughts and hard and soft constraints. Brilliant design understands the broader context. It’s rarely a linear process. Good designers continually revisit and question the fundamental objectives of the problem being solved. Every time a new objective or constraint is introduced the design process is complicated. But if the complexity can be handled the solution is enriched.

The hard part about design is understanding and handling complexity. When design fails it can often be traced back to a failure to comprehend the full set of objectives. What are we trying to achieve via solving the design problem? If we answer this question correctly it can take us down some interesting paths.

I’m not sure whether it’s an urban myth – it appears widely in the blogosphere – but I enjoyed hearing about the lateral-thinking engineer who solved the problem of elevators being to slow in a New York high rise. Rather than spend hundreds of millions on engineering to make them faster, the engineer installed mirrors. People could sneak glances at themselves, and others, in the mirrors and did not mind about them being slow anymore. The design objective wasn’t to make the elevators go faster – it was to make people have an enjoyable ride.

Another brilliant (albeit fictional) design solution is described in a book I read to my kids “A squash and squeeze” by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. In this book a little old lady finds her house is too small. So the wise old man tells her to take in her cow, pig, goat and hen then  to take them all back out again. By the time she’s done she feels like she’s living in a mansion.

So creative design solutions can take us in interesting directions. The trick is understanding the objectives of the design problem in the first place. But how do we do that? How do we know what the future user of our design product actually wants? Design thinking must, by definition, be about the future. The designer is creating a product, process or policy that delivers a better future. Our challenge in design is to understand the future enough to ensure we solve the right problem.

The only problem is that the future hasn’t happened yet. This will stretch our imagination and analytical skills. At CSIRO Futures we love solving this dilemma.  We are often called in to craft a narrative about the future – one that is engaging, imaginative, informative and evidence-based. Our narrative is then communicated to the company’s decision makers or the design team to help them think about their objectives. A narrative of the future can be the first step in a design process to ensure the objectives are comprehensive and correctly set.

In September 2012 CSIRO released an update of the megatrends report. Megatrends are major shifts in social, economic and environmental conditions that will change the way we live. They have implications for decision making by companies, governments and community organisations. They are our core narrative of the future which we adapt and build upon for specific industry sectors or companies. The megatrends (briefly) are as follows:

  1. More from less. The earth has limited supplies of natural mineral, energy, water and food resources essential for human survival and maintaining lifestyles.
  2. Going, going … gone? Many of the world’s natural habitats, plant species and animal species are in decline or at risk of extinction.
  3. The silk highway. Coming decades will see the world economy shift from west to east and north to south.
  4. Forever young. The ageing population is an asset. Australia and many other countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have an ageing population.
  5. Virtually here. This megatrend explores what might happen in a world of increased connectivity where individuals, communities, governments and businesses are immersed into the virtual world to a much greater extent than ever before.
  6. Great expectations. This is a consumer, societal, demographic and cultural megatrend. It explores the rising demand for experiences over products and the rising importance of social relationships.

These megatrends are described in more detail on the CSIRO Futures website. They are our narrative of the future. By telling this narrative we aim to inform designers of products, processes, policies and systems. Our belief is that designers mix the evidence based narratives of the future with their own gut feel and intuition. This allows them to comprehend the design environment, set design objectives and, ultimately, design a winning solution.

How far can we zoom out?

The challenge is to zoom out to solve design problems. I can think of one issue that illustrates the challenge related to the “forever young” megatrend. My question, and challenge, is what does the Brisbane City transportation system look like when we factor human physical and mental health into the design problem?

Australia is facing a major challenge with the rise of lifestyle related and chronic illness. Physical activity is a known means via which this problem can be alleviated. Getting to work, the shops, school etc provides an opportunity for physical activity and transportation all in one. But do our design solutions sufficiently capture the health objective? It’s easy to get caught in the simple design solution of just transportation – moving someone from A to B. But there should be more than that. What if we can move them from A to B and improve their health in the process? That’s a good way of doing it.


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