design problem solving

What we learn from broadening our world view

Having just recently moved back to the United States from Italy last month, the cultural differences between my two homes is still fresh in my mind. There are considerable contrasts between foods, transportation, social habits, and just general ways of doing every-day tasks. I find some things comforting and familiar and others odd and foreign after six and a half years away. Some habits I like better here, some I like better there. I am officially a woman of two countries. The beautiful part is that I can chose the best of both worlds when it comes to personal habits like cooking, the downside is that I am always missing someone or something.

Some of these things I miss are simple, tiny details that made little tasks easier. For example, many public restrooms in Europe have toilets and sink faucets with pedals on the floor. You never have to touch a handle with your hand, yet unlike touch-sensored hardware, they only flush and turn on and off when you want them too...toilets don't flush while you're still sitting, you don't have to wave your hand in front of a panel emphatically to turn on the sink. The foot pedal is so, simple, so clean and sanitary, and there is so little waste. I'm sure it seems odd that I would actually miss something like a public bathroom, but as a designer it's hard to turn off the "seek best solution" button in my brain. When I find something awesome, I want to see it everywhere. 

I have always been of the philosophy that the answers are all around us. While I am often thinking of nature, it also applies to solutions of other cultures. If we were to travel the world for simple solutions to daily problems, I believe we would find a plethora of answers. 

Coming soon: Why I am so glad the U.S. does not have turkish toilets.

Communicating Medical Data

Imagine being able to understand your medical test results, complete with context, personalized information and...color. Once again Design saves the day in creating a communication tool that meets the desired function of effectively communicating crucial patient data...to patients. It's easy to read, understand, digest, and it's nice to look at. Wired Magazine designed the tool, now the question is, how do we create an incentive to get the medical community on board? 

Designs That Inspire: IDEO Designs School Lunch

I love this project. This is how design improves lives. Define the problem, research, brainstorm, prototype, choose, implement. Design thinking works. Read their story.

Read more about this project in the San Francisco Examiner and on ABC News.

Answers all around us

I love this design, not only for what it does ( I have a very rational fear of being eaten by a shark in the ocean...and an irrational one of being eaten in a swimming pool) but for what it represents. As humans I think we sometimes forget that we are a part of nature, and therefore we forget to observe our natural environment to manage our surroundings and solve problems. I admire these designers for looking to nature, studying the psychology of an animal and creating a solution based on basic animal to animal communication. It proves that the answers really are all around us.

Paradigms...and Italian Laundry

Every so often my mind wanders back to moments that have challenged me in some way. Sometimes it's a way of working out the conflict or dilemma in retrospect in order to resolve lingering frustration and future challenges in more constructive ways...and sometimes the memories are just good for a laugh...

One funny moment often resurfaces from my early design school days in Italy...it all started with a washing machine. Even as a new design student I was always most interested in the front-end problem solving side of the design process. I wanted to analyze what is typically done and compare it with alternative solutions to find the best material, layout, etc. that would meet the specific needs of the project. This way of thinking led me to laundry while working on an apartment layout is in design school.

I grew up in the midwestern United States (OH to be precise) where laundry rooms exist (assuming there is adequate floor space). Another typical solution was a laundry closet, usually in a hallway or landing somewhere. I also had a grandmother who had one such laundry closet in her master bedroom. In summary:

American paradigm = washer AND dryer in a designated laundry space.

Enter Italy...

In Italy it is rare that a home have a washer and a dryer. There is usually one (relatively) small washing machine to wash and then the clothes are hung to dry (yes, the towels are always crunchy...expatriate living is not for the rigid mind or delicate skin). This washing machine is usually placed in the kitchen. In summary:

Italian paradigm = washer only, placed in kitchen.

As I set to work on my single-occupant apartment, I began to think the  laundry process through. The diagram looked something like this:

Laundry Diagram 1.jpg
clothes diagram 2.jpg

I believed that by putting the washing machine in the bedroom closet, I could reduce the amount of time and energy spent carrying laundry all over the house. You could take off your clothes in the laundry area and save folding time by placing them directly back on the hangers in the closet.  Nothing complex, just a simple idea to reduce the necessary steps of a tedious household chore. This did not go over well with my Italian design instructor who told me "the washer is always in the kitchen, that's where it goes.". I found myself in the middle of the first of what would be many battles over cultural paradigms and their place in design.

My stance is that paradigms can be important...we all must drive on the same side of the road...people should be paid for their work, etc...they are also important in defining problems and working towards solutions, but they are NOT the "be all, end all" to be adhered to in problem solving. In fact, they aren't often our biggest challenges? Shouldn't we, as designers, look past these "norms" to make improvements in the way we interact with our products, environments and services? Isn't the breaking of paradigms essential to real innovation? Yes. And so I went forth and put the washer in the bedroom closet (by hand...on a roll of vellum...did I mention this was Design 101?).

One of the most interesting things about living in another country is the collision of your old ways of doing things and the ways of your new home. What you start to realize is how similar people really are...one may always use an electric dryer, the other may always put the washer in the kitchen, but they both believe one thing...that they are RIGHT. The beauty of living on both sides? The concept of "right" ceases to exist. And that's when the magic happens.

For more on the twisting and bending of cultural models, please stay tuned for "The Bidet is Essential; and Other Battles Lost"

Design Fails

I have a pet peeve (yes, I hate when people chew anywhere near my ear, gum puts me out of my mind, but no...) I have a DESIGN pet peeve. I share this video with you because the same thing that bothers me seems to similarly irritate Seth Godin. I hate when things are broken. More specifically, I hate when a design fails to meet a basic function. If you can't sit on it, it's not a chair! If the foundation of the home is collapsing, the house is defunct (hire an engineer!), If you didn't deliver a useful service, you haven't provided a service at all. I think you'll find Mr. Godin says it best with humor. Enjoy.

Designing with a sense of sound

 All too often we forget that we are beings with multi-senses. We design for the eyes and forget the touch, or we fail to consider the smell of materials. In neglecting to examine all applicable human needs, we fail to meet primary objectives of the spaces we build...any musician who has performed in a theatre with poor acoustics has surely felt the consequences of this inadequacy. As Julian Treasure aptly points out in this talk, we often fail in even more crucial environments like hospitals too noisy for rest, or classrooms that muffle a teacher's voice. It begs the questions: how many problems could be solved by applying a more holistic approach to problem solving? What solutions can we find through cross-disciplinary research? I have to believe that if we can build Carnegie Hall, we can improve a classroom...