So way back in 08, I was nominated for the RISD IDSA Student Merit Award Competition. Unfortunately I lost. The experience did, however, allow me to write about my personal design philosophy which has helped me to focus my energy since the event. I hope you enjoy it.
Thank you all for coming. My name is Seth Snyder and tonight I will share with you how I think, how I work through problems, where my thoughts turn from line to form, and from thought to action.
In a class of seventy others, how have I become unique? How have I managed to stand out from the rest of my equally ambitious peers? Seventy students, all trying to live the same dream. But is it really the same dream? Because, deep down everyone wants to be different. We have all been equipped with the same tools, like an army, ready to battle the world of design and any corporate naysayers that try to get in our way. We are told that with these skills we will be able to blossom into our own unique species of designer. We are told to craft our own voice, our own opinions with the all seeing eyes of plagiarism and intellectual property looking down on us all the while. We are told that to claim someone else’s voice as our own is a crime and yet we are not told how to speak. Before we are even taught how to use our creativity to make positive change, the constraints flood in around us. A tightrope of aspiration, obsessions, and dreams taughtly holds us up. If we can balance long enough, everything we have ever desired, obsessed over, or dreamt about can come true. Inspiration becomes the key to the door of which we had all previously had access only to the peephole. Can you be inspired to form an opinion, both in thought and in design that is in some way one of a kind? To stand out, not only within our university but in our highly consumerized world. The challenge is to find inspiration from others and to use it to guide you, not to represent you. As a designer with only four years of actual design education under my belt I have begun to feel the pressure to stand out, to voice my opinions on the subject of design and to use that knowledge to prove my worth in the job market. I am here to speak with you tonight about my challenges and efforts to put some kind of “me” into design, both on a personal level and in a more global arena.
Being a student is truly an amazing thing. Infinite learning, freedom to explore, and all night work parties. Everyday we are told that even if we fail, as long as we put in our best effort its ok. Decisions can be covered up by the concept that it’s all a learning experience. But at what time does it stop being a learning experience and start being real life, where, I would assume it’s not ok that you fail? Or is life a learning experience too? From my various internship experiences in the design world I have learned how to respond to client needs, while maintaining an open mind to innovation, and inherently some risk of failure. That delicate balance seems to me to be absolutely critical. On the one hand, the designer risks producing a design that lacks innovation but might perform well in the marketplace. While on the other hand, too much radical design can push a product over the edge of consumer interest and fail financially while perhaps asking fascinating questions about society or speaking some personal message about the designer. Therefore, I feel that it is essential for us as students to learn to analyze our own individual intentions in the design process of each project. In art, the intentions of the artist are rarely totally apparent. Sometimes we are given artist statements or museum docents but most of the time we are left on our own to see in it what we will. If its purpose is only beauty and it is truly regarded as being beautiful it’s a success. If it’s a more complex piece, however, and there is no way for the viewer to connect to the work, it’s a failure. It must be a full loop of communication with the viewer. In design, the user and the designer must have an intimate relationship that emphasizes empathy for the user’s wants and needs. Intention is the constant in both examples and must remain so. Whatever the intention of the designer, it must be executed in relation to the user to create a closed loop, so to speak. A complete circuit of user needs and design solutions.
However, I also believe that there are three additional paths one can take when designing objects or experiences; aesthetic motivations, personal exploration, or “change the world” aspirations. Whether you make things just to make something beautiful, or because it makes you feel good to push yourself in a new way, or if you want to somehow affect the world with your design work, intention must be present. Similar to how I described intention earlier, reflection is an essential element in art and design. Good art should always make the viewer think, it should inspire them to consider something they may not have ever thought about otherwise. Good design can make the user think, if that is within the intentions of the designer. More often the thought is more heavily weighted on the designer’s side. If the designer gives their idea enough thought the user won’t have to spend time thinking about how to use it or interact with it. Design is allowed to melt into the world of the user and become, like a piece of art on the wall could be, beautiful in its constancy and ease. Thoughtlessness in our everyday activities is possible only because of good design. Sometimes we don’t even know its there at all. Jane Fulton Suri, director of human factors for IDEO describes thoughtless acts as “all those intuitive ways we adapt, exploit, and react to things in our environment; things we do without really thinking. Some actions, such as grabbing onto something for balance, are universal and instinctive. Others, such as warming hands on a hot mug or stroking velvet, draw on experiences so deeply embodied that they are almost unconscious. Still more, such as hanging a jacket to claim a chair, have become spontaneous through habit or social learning. Observing such everyday interactions reveals subtle details about how we relate to the designed and natural world. This is key information and inspiration for design, and a good starting point for any creative initiative.” In other cases, making the user think in a certain way is what makes the design effective. Good design can also open a window of new thought for the user to look through, sometimes with a new tint on life, other times with all new eyes. The key point here is, depending entirely on intention, design can inform certain actions, evoke a new way of seeing the world, or even inspire a novel form of interaction with others. Learning how to analyze my intentions as a designer has helped me to refine my process and ride the fine line of highly practical yet radical innovation.
As an Industrial Designer, my daily interactions are often my greatest source of inspiration. By maintaining a constant awareness to the designed world around me, much like Suri at IDEO, I see opportunities everywhere. I know that our daily interactions with designed spaces, objects, and experiences weave the threads of our lives into what we perceive as the world around us. Sometimes, resistance and opposition to change make the designer’s job more difficult. As advocates for change, we are often faced with the “we like it the ways it’s always been” response. In order to help the public see the changes being made to the sometimes intangible society around them, designers have a responsibility to form new ideologies around new designs.
Design is a powerful tool. It elevates the likelihood of certain kinds of choices and shapes certain kinds of behaviors. Most designers cringe at the idea that design is a form of social engineering. In contrast, I believe we have a responsibility to examine the effects of design and assure that we are using those effects to achieve the goals of social justice and responsibility. We shape almost every moment of people’s lives and to ignore our responsibility to both our users and to our ecosystem would be a crime. Products that combine balanced form, intuitive useability, and a wise use of materials allow for a truly memorable product experience. From the coffeemakers that help us stay awake in the morning to the toothbrush we use before bed at night, designers must be hyper-aware of our vast obligation to the everyday consumer.
I thrive on constantly challenging what it means to think like a designer. I aspire to become “a new breed of designer, one who [is], in the words of Buckminster Fuller, a ‘synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist.’” For me, exploration and incessant mindfulness to new, cross-disciplinary opportunities are essential to achieving cutting edge interesting design. Bruce Mao, founder of the Massive Change project, “an ambitious project that humbly attempts to chart the bewildering complexity of our increasingly interconnected (and designed) world” speaks to my personal philosophy on multi-disciplinary design. In a passage from his book he shares that, “Instead of looking at product design, we looked at the economies of movement. Instead of isolating graphic design, we considered the economies of information. The patterns that emerged reveal complexity, integrated thinking across disciplines, and unprecedented interconnectivity.” Cross-disciplinary explorations are always critical elements in my design process. Whether it be collaboration with a psychologist, research with astronauts, or concept validation with five year olds, interconnectivity is vital. Today, we live and breathe design. We have absorbed it so deeply into ourselves that we no longer recognize the myriad ways in which it prompts, disturbs, and excites us. It is my role as an industrial designer to provide users with beautiful everyday experiences. To move them. To make them laugh. To help them discover. I aspire to move beyond their basic needs. To surprise them, maybe throw in a bit of suspense. To orchestrate a symphony of behavioral, sensory and reminiscent needs; to inspire, educate, involve and entertain. As my department head Leslie Fontana put it in her letter congratulating me for my nomination for this very competition, empathy is the key to my design process. This rare and real ability to ask the world questions, gently listen, translate, and respond through design is what makes me unique and I’m proud to share that with you tonight.