Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What I Learned In Design School

Readers of this blog (if there actually are any, that is), might or might not know that I went to design school. Yes, I studied at what is said to be the best design school in Indonesia, at FSRD ITB. I put in 'said to be', because I don't really know how they determine this. But that's another matter altogether...

After 1 year of general courses (where we were taught basic foundations for art and design), we then had to choose the study program we wanted - since I loved drawing cars from childhood and am a Lego fan, I chose product design. But even before we started studying within our chosen study fields, the curriculum (and the student body, KMSR), tried to make sure we were brainwashed clean from 12 years of formal education based on memorizing facts, and tried to get us to see the world through a different perspective.

It was often said that those talented kids who already had advanced drawing skills would never be accepted to FSRD ITB, as it would be difficult to guide them through the curriculum which basically refreshed everything back to basics and built from there - to this day, I don't think I could draw better since before I studied at FSRD ITB, but I'm sure that I can convey my ideas visually better (even if it's through a Powerpoint). More on that later.

So, product design, in a nutshell, basically designs things - objects of daily life, manufactured or not. Shoes to cars, computers to phones, even clothes hangers. But good product design - or good design, generally - is not a matter of how things look - but it's how a problem is solved in a novel way. The look, the style, is an outcome of a process of attempting to find a solution.

Many people see design as making pretty stuff on the computer so that it looks good. Well, I can tell you, anyone with a little talent and a computer can make things look good, and a lot of software already helps people do this without much hassle. And Indonesia is full of talent, whether or not trained in design. But go to any web company and they'd be talking about ease of use, user interfaces, user experience design... and you'd see, the companies with the best UI and UX are the ones who include the visual design in the overall design process (see there, the word 'design' is used in different contexts in the same sentence).

Anyway, back to school. I thought I was going to be lying back and make cool sketches of cars and whatnot, then suddenly graduate. No such luck guys. We were taught a very scientific process, where before you even put pencil to paper, the design process already begins by identifying a problem. Of course, our creative and aesthetic sensitivities were trained and honed, but only to be used as an element or tool in helping to solve a problem.

In product design, we identified a problem we wanted to solve that we thought could be solved by introducing a new product. Then we had to study all about the surrounding circumstances. For instance, I designed a container for carrying radiopharmaceuticals. So before I even drew sketches, I had to learn about radiochemistry, I had to learn about the radiopharmaceutical industry, I had to learn about nuclear medicine installations, I had to study how staff used existing tools and systems for pharmaceuticals, and I had to learn everything about sociological impact, psychological impact, habit, ergonomics; I even had a special consultant from the National Nuclear Energy Agency.

Before even proposing any drawings, we had to do our research on the problem, and research on the research. We had to present a 'problem case' to our professors to argue that the problem we are attempting to solve, deserves merit for a design-driven approach (as opposed to a simple redesign or even, just an adjustment of the visual look). Then only after we had the go-ahead, we started sketching and building a solution to the problem. And as a solution-finding process has emphasis on the visual, we tried to optimize semantics and gestures. For instance: see how for some door handles, you simply already know how to open them, even when there are no signs saying 'press here' or 'turn here'? Or how to open or close a faucet? Or how to best tie your shoes? The best product designs solve problems in such a way, that we do not need writing to operate them.  Would you need arrows showing 'turn left' or 'turn right' on a steering wheel? No, right?

And good product design is a synergy and collaboration between the designer, the engineer and any other fields tied in to the product - ideally, an anthropologist and psychologist as well - to make sure the product can be used, used well and avoid 'malfunction' (where the product is used outside of its function parameters). Good design completes the equation of the solution; it is not just window dressing. Look at how x-banners in front of stores and billboards are designed slightly differently - because they fulfill a different function and optimize for a different kind of message conveyance (and that's also why, I consider billboards with too many words to be bad design).

Creativity and innovation is not 'just' about doing stuff differently than others. It's finding new, elegant solutions to the right problems and questions. And design, is a thought process, not just the visual end-product. So looking to be creative? Find a problem that you want to solve for yourself, and go through the design process and start from zero, don't start by assuming all existing answers are correct. Just go back to square one and research everything, and see where it leads you. Brainwash yourself. It's never about being 'different', but it's about asking all the questions all over again and challenging existing answers.

Just my opinion.

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