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Sunday, 29 March 2015 22:00

Q&A: Liz Sanders, Professor of design research at Ohio State University and founder of Make Tools

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Liz Sanders, professor of design research at Ohio State University and founder of Make Tools. Liz Sanders, professor of design research at Ohio State University and founder of Make Tools. COURTESY PHOTO


The design process doesn’t have to be inclusive solely to designers. That’s the philosophy of Liz Sanders, a professor of design research at Ohio State University and founder of Make Tools. Sanders, who originally studied anthropology and who holds an advanced degree in experimental psychology, has spent her career encouraging designers to collaborate with end users and other disciplines to produce better products. Prior to her talk April 10 during the West Michigan Design Week, she spoke with MiBiz about her design philosophy, its impact on businesses and society and how design will be shaped in the future.

You talk a lot about ‘co-designing’ in your work. Can you explain that concept?

With co-designing, what I’m implying is that people beyond designers (should be) involved in the design process. That might be bringing in potential end users into the front end of the process. The idea is to bring the people that we will eventually serve to make sure we are designing something that is worth doing. It could be taking place with the future end users or within all the different groups within the organization, suppliers or between organizations.

What’s the end result of that?

It can usually shorten the product development process because instead of spending a lot of time and money generating alternatives, you’re more informed to start with. Invariably, it will lead to products that are more useful, sustainable and addressing people’s needs. I think one of the most important benefits is that the people that are brought in have a level of ownership that they never would have had if they were treated as customers or consumers.

How does that relate to the concept of human-centered design?

By co-designing, you can achieve human-centered design, which is about figuring out what people really need in the future and delivering it in sustainable ways. It’s not just focused on the person but the whole environment in which the person lives and works. Co-designing is the approach and human-centered design is more of the objective.

What are some of the future problems that you see human-centered design solving?

Have you heard the term wicked problems? Basically, they’re problems that are so complex that if you solve a part of it, you’ll mess up another part of it. So the more you can get the people with various expertise co-designing together, then at least we’ll have a chance of addressing some of those issues.

How do you get people from those different disciplines to collaborate?

My approach is to give them a language that nobody owns so no one can own it with their own jargon. I spent a lot of years watching designers communicate with each other, and they use a lot of visual materials — two-dimensional, three-dimensional — along with hand waving and enacting. What I’ve done is translated those modes of communications into forms that non-designers are comfortable with.

How does your design philosophy transcend physical products into systems and society?

I’m always focused on people’s experiences, and that is common to products, services, systems, devices and events. I’m focused on the people side of it, and how that manifests in design is the next step. Even with clients that make products, if you’re working on the front end, you’re keeping that in mind, but you’re always broadening out to ask about the experience. Human experience is a factor in anything that we can influence through design.

Many businesses separate design from other functions. How can design innovation impact businesses and leaders?

I think the big question is who is going to be leading whom. I see signs that business is trying to take design thinking and own it. I worry that it is more like a battle and a contest rather than something that could be more positive. We have business (schools) teaching design-based thinking and they’re not hiring designers to teach it, they’re doing it from within. So then you have MBA students coming out thinking they know what design is and how to do it, which may not be true. That’s a little scary.

Over your career, what’s been one of your biggest takeaways about design?

I’m not trained as a designer. I have advanced degrees in experimental physiology and a degree in anthropology. I was hired as an experiment in 1981 by a industrial design firm. The experiment was what would happen if they hired someone in the social sciences and brought them into the design environment. … I think it’s exciting to bring everyday people into the process early enough that they can impact it. It’s something I’ve always believed in and practice, but 20 years ago, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it.

Interview conducted and condensed by John Wiegand.

Read 3462 times Last modified on Monday, 30 March 2015 15:47

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