Design origins

The previous example expressed the importance of maintaining a dialogue between the users and the designer and though I stated earlier that it is the children who are the inventors and the designers the translators, in fact the design development process is more complex than that.

Initially, most design projects begin in outline form, described in a project programme. This programme usually includes a list of pragmatic criteria, a budget, and a time frame. A programme for a new play activity might incorporate criteria for its size, age group, material, sales price, and level of customization. Such a programme is just the beginning of the project and no matter how detailed the programme is, it does not generate new ideas on its own. These must come from a thought generated by an inspired moment. We all have ideas and we all know that they come to us at the most unlikely of times. Where exactly they come from is hard to say, but I find that it is usually when I am relaxed and away from work, yet still immersed, albeit subconsciously, in the problem of invention.

Briefly, the work of the design profession can be divided into three major groups, ranging from innovation, to evolution, to formation. Innovation implies an entirely new symbiosis of form and function, whereby the user now has the ability to make use of a function previously unknown. Evolution describes advances made to a known function, whereas formation is about giving a new form to an existing function. As a designer of children’s play equipment, I am most interested in the first two areas of design – innovation and evolution – because it is within these areas that new functions are developed and where involvement with the users is critical.

But, what brings about innovation? In my expe­rience, no idea is created by one independent thought or vision. Rather, innovation and evolution are the outcome of a web of ideas and inputs. Some are what I would call pragmatic decisions, others are wholly intuitive. However, functional ideas are deeply connected to the time and place in which the design is conceived. In other words, an innovative idea is the product of a unique synthesis of people, places, need, and the time at which it is developed. From this synthesis, new ideas arise in many different ways.

One such way is via a ‘break-through’ – when an idea seems to come unexpectedly and out of the blue. In my experience, break-throughs seem to come most often when I am doing something that does not require my full attention and when my mind is allowed to float and make chance connections with disparate thoughts. Recently I met a film writer and producer who agreed with this theory and confided in me that for a long period of time his best ideas came when he was vacuuming. He was vacuuming until his carpets wore thin. Then one day that ceased to be a source of inspiration, instead his ideas began coming to him while he was in the shower. I told him that oddly enough, my best ideas are also inspired while showering or at times when biking. The editor, Mark Dudek, finds the best time for thinking is when he is jogging. Ideas seem to emerge in the most unusual moments, not always in time for deadlines, but most often when the mind and body are relaxed.

After the initial idea, many months of development work are required; with designers usually working in collaboration, ‘ping-ponging’ ideas back and forth. Often it is chance happenings within the process that lead to the best designs. A colleague once told me how a mistake led to one of his best designs. He was working with a partner who lived in another city. They were developing a new wood-burning stove, sending drawings back and forth by e-mail. At one point the partner wrote that he was very pleased to see the latest changes that the other had made and he could see that the modifications made to the stove would greatly improve its efficiency. My colleague responded that he had not drawn it with these intended modifications. In fact, his partner had misread the drawing. They developed the ‘error’ and it significantly improved their earlier idea. Generally, the richer the process, the more chance there is for the unexpected to occur.