New Tools for a New Craft

Although much of the core design process is fundamentally the same as it was 30 years ago — beginning with exploratory methods including research and sketching, moving through models and prototypes of different fidelities toward a final product — the types of problems we’re trying to solve and the tools we need to explore those solutions continue to change and evolve. New types of products require new types of models and prototypes. Animation, electronics, 3D printing, and interactive programming are all necessary parts of the designer’s repertoire when working with emerging technologies and twenty-first century products.

Tools traditionally thought of as the domain of engineers, data scientists, and hackers are now entering the designer’s toolbox. For example, a designer working with emerging technologies such as sensor networks, data collection, and microcontrollers benefits greatly by learning some basic electronics. Being able to put together a quick prototype by using a platform such as Arduino means that the designer can experiment with the possibilities available to him based on the types of sensors and data at his disposal. Even if the final product will use a different engineering solution, this basic toolset gives designers the capability to model the interactions, data, and physical aspects of a new product at a high level, and with practice, at a detailed level.

Working with large and complex data sets is becoming the norm for designers working on new products. This data can come from custom collectors, such as sensors embedded in products, or from the tangle of information available through web services. When working with large data sets, there is no substitute for working with the data itself. Tools such as Processing or JavaScript and the browser canvas object provide an easy way to start creating rich interactive visualizations from any data.

Rapid fabrication starts to shift industrial design away from being industrial and back to a more artisanal craft. Designers can now imagine a new physical form, model it with traditional tools such as clay, do a digital CAD drawing, and have it fabricated in plastic or metal within a few hours. This facilitates a kind of rapid iteration and prototyping for complex objects that would have been difficult 10 years ago. It also allows for small run production; whereas purely artisan craftspeople could produce only a few objects, and industrial production could only produce high volumes of objects, these new methods make it possible for designers to produce dozens of objects, each the same or slightly different.

These methods can be thought of as a similar process to industrial designers making clay or paper models, or architects using foam-core to make scale models of a new building. None of these things is analogous to the final form, but they are hands-on ways of exploring integral aspects of the design in a fast, cheap, and easy way. Including this in the design process helps illuminate new possibilities and filter out ideas that don’t translate. These are ways of sketching with interactivity, responsiveness, and movement, iterating to a model of the product or pieces of the product.

Along with new tools come new collaborations. The Maker community and local hack- labs, both groups of people who deeply experiment with new technology for creative purposes, are now home to many technologists and designers working together to make interesting and future focused things. These collaborations result in products such as Berg’s Little Printer, the plug-and-play robotics kit, Moti, and DIY home automation tools like Twine. Bio-hack labs are also beginning to pop up, pushing into biology and chemistry, and experimenting with bioengineering in an accessible way. One such group in Toronto, DIYBio Toronto, hosts regular workshops. Companies such as Synbiota, an open source repository for bio-hacking, are forming to support the community.

These are just the beginning, as startups and large companies move into this new space. One of the most successful examples on the market today is the Nest thermostat, which combines innovative physical controls with small screens, microprocessors, and software to add a level of smart automation to the home. A product that started out as a better thermostat is poised to be the hub of a much larger home control system.

How do we begin to work with these new technologies, networks, and systems? There are a few ways to dive in that will help to understand the potential, constraints, and complexities involved.

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