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How science can inspire design projects

Tue, 14 June 2016

Elena Dieckmann, Shell LiveWIRE Winner and AEROPOWDER founder, contributes her thoughts on science and design inspiration
Contemporary design projects that tackle complex problems (such as climate change, ageing societies, electronic waste or air pollution) all face the same problem. The more effective and truly innovative the idea becomes, the more speculative and unrealistic the design gets. However, creating a design project on a working prototype level seems often only incremental and not ground-breaking enough to make it into the agenda of design blogs or innovation magazines. The designer is caught in this dilemma: creating a hypothetical but ‘sexy’ project that does not work, or create something that actually functions, but that no one takes interest in.
For the modern designer the pressure to achieve both is increasing, as the job market becomes increasingly competitive as the roles for designers, scientists and engineers are merging.
As an example, in recent years we have seen a huge interest in the field of synthetic biology, but upon a closer look, some of the most fascinating and intricate looking projects are nothing more than a well-made silicone look-a-like model of a technology that is not anywhere close to being realised. Only a very small branch of synthetic biologists, that have been working for several years at designated research facilities, are creating functioning prototypes. In contrast to this, designers only spend some months on the visual model of the speculative design. I believe that there is a need for designers to leave their comfort zone of CAD-modelling, Photoshop and blue-foams and instead venture into the field of scientific research. Websites like ScienceDirect or ResearchGate offer a vast source of fresh and real ground-breaking approaches from around the world. Many of the papers research brilliant ideas in real depth and go beyond a quick-and-dirty problem solving approach that is just brainstormed. Decades of intense research have been undertaken by these scientists and considering the complexity of issues we are trying to solve, this amount of time is well justified.
However, often those papers are failing to ‘sell’ their idea to a wider audience beyond academia. This is the point where the designer with his expertise in visualisation and imagination can play a key role. Designers are able to visualise complex ideas, create sophisticated models and can therefore help research projects to leave the lab and make them relevant for a mass audience. To make this symbiosis between science and design work, it is essential for the designer to learn the vocabulary of research papers. It will take a while to get acclimatised to the academic talk and extract the relevant key points for design concept creation. Additionally, one needs to be aware that very few papers can be translated into a design project 1:1. But maybe a principle, a working model or the utilisation of a special material can put a design project on solid ground. For the researcher, a collaboration with a designer means accepting look-a-like, visual ideas of the scientific project that imagine a projected context, a user scenario, or simply a future vision of the research, even if it never becomes a reality.
If this collaboration becomes fruitful and has the potential to turn into a business, then both the designer and the researcher have to work on pushing the idea towards a route to market. For the designer it is important to create a strong visual identity around the project that attracts the interest of science-stakeholders, but which looks professional to have enough credibility among potential investors. In terms of commercialising the idea, there are several routes towards success:
Most of those options always go hand-in-hand with signing over equity of the company, however it is very risky to sponsor a business out of personal funds and can only be recommended if no greater harm is done, in case the business goes bankrupt. Governmental funding schemes, like Innovate UK always have a specific topic that needs to be addressed. But the range is very diverse and usually it is possible to find a suitable category. The application process is often long and interested start-ups should start working on the application some weeks before the deadline. Private equity funds are usually individuals or a group of individuals that are willing to invest in new aspiring business ideas. Almost always that means giving up equity. Even in very low amounts one must be aware that this can add up quickly in case one gets several VCs on board. A theme-specific incubator is often a good solution, as their offer usually comes with workspace, business advice and access to a broad range of experts. Sometimes this also involves the transfer of equity, mostly something between 1-8%. Once the funds are secured it is down to the research and lab-team to deliver a proof of concept focusing on a marketable product or service, if that was not done already.
Scientific research and design can work great together. It is important to respect each other’s expertise and, once a credible concept has evolved, it is important to take the idea to the next level with the help of business partnerships. Once the designer understands the language of science and its basic principles, and once the researcher has accepted imaginative glimpses of research-utopia, great science-design projects can help us to imagine and create a better tomorrow.

About Elena Dieckmann (Co-founder of AEROPOWDER)
AEROPOWDER will create high performance insulation materials that make use of feather waste. Such products include foam insulation boards, insulation granules and blanket material. AEROPOWDER will save the domestic energy that is used for heating. If all homes in London were properly insulated, the resulting CO2 emission savings would equal 10% of London’s total carbon footprint. Existing feather disposal methods either involve incineration or processing into a low-grade animal food which are both energy/carbon intensive and involve a hazardous rendering process. By using feathers to create insulation products using comparatively simple techniques, these current environmentally harmful methods can be avoided.

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