By Richard Campbell
We were reminded as the automated fire alarms in John Hancock Tower kept interrupting the speakers throughout the beginning of the Changing Boston Designscape series of Hub Week (sponsored by AIGA, American Institute of Graphic Artists) that two virtues every good designer needs: patience and a sense of humor. This was in inordinately complex forum in some ways because the panel members were from very different backgrounds, and the definition of design here spanned everything from user experience design, to systems design in biomedical fields, marketing design- to civic design for the city of Boston. What do any of these things have in common? They all need designers who work on how to fix problems in order to improve the way that design impacts our world.
Unlike the more practical workshops and events planned for the AIGA Conference happening concurrently with Hub Week, this forum was more of a description of the personal journeys of four designers in the fast changing design landscape of Boston. One might have been given the impression that the talk would have been specifically about how Boston designs things, or how design influences Boston. Well, not quite. The moderator, Chris Bransfield, of Woods Creative, moved the dialogue around well enough, but there were times when the functional aspects of design were sublimated to organizational issues on an almost abstract level. The divergence of kinds of designers did not make his job as easy as one might think, but some of the meta-communication here was more valued on his part than actual questions.
In the case of Nigel Jacobs, by virtue of his role as a New Urban Mechanic, (a group of problem solvers named by mayor Menino and were kept on with Mayor Walsh) offered the most concrete examples of solving design problems in our city. Design in his case is more like combining logistics with behavioral research, trying to figure out what isn’t working in the city and what needs to change, in systems, schools, and communications. He clearly admitted he isn’t a designer to the audience but someone who utilizes them- or jokingly “steals from them”, getting chuckles from the audience. Influenced by the design thinking of Tim Brown, he is focused on the lived experience in the city. To meet demands of citizens through city planning, he noted, involves removing political barriers. Welcome to Boston! At any rate, if you are a garden variety graphic geek like myself: we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Neeta Goplani, the head of Experience Design at John Hancock /Manu Life fit the prototype of an analytical person who is a creative who seems to have an intrinsic ability to manage people and systems to satisfy customer outcomes, and leverage design to make data function with more transparency for the insurance world. Her understanding of core technologies from a career path of being an information architect, user interface and experience designer, allowed her to see how people are motivated to work within them to support the business ethos of her company. She came equipped with a flashy ad video of her CEO tethered to the top of a building. She explained that her collaborative approach for design changed from a waterfall method, where the process got passed on from team to team, and now happens simultaneously in Agile project management software. She noted that differences of opinion from hers were respected and desired. I got the feeling that she is the kind of gifted person who expects creative thinking, but understands how to genuinely motivate others with humility.
Lesley Mottla, SVP Product, Customer Experience and Engineering at M. Gemi, a startup shoe company, I thought was going to fill in the product design gap, but she was also more of a customer experience guru with an emphasis, upon building experiences online. Her candid remarks about the nature of selecting staff for start-ups that can be flexible brought some levity to the forum. She emphasized really finding out what the consumer wants, by living with their ideas about the product to discover why people have particular preferences to create holistic design solutions. Getting down to brass tacks of how the consumer thinks to formulate a strategy put her design work more in the realm of marketing research and design. She believes that now company CEO’s understand the nature and need to design things to work for humans.
Juhan Sonin, the Creative Director at Go Invo a software design company that specializes in creating solutions for personalized medicine through design and engineering gave the immediate impression as being a lightning rod personality reminiscent of Steve Jobs or Mitch Kapor in the original fertile computer revolutions. His heady fields of medicine, genetics, and future capabilities led his cogent comments to test the boundaries of science and design. He knew how to turn typical questions into serious ideas about how we could fix our troubled world. Things like reasonably reliable national voting machines came up, and he suggested with disgust that our rights are being trampled by the inefficiency of the government (bringing resounding applause). His comment that designers have become too complacent with success, were as refreshing as those he made on coming revolutions in genetic engineering. He was using the time in the session to challenge himself as well as the audience. It didn’t hurt that his Sugar Kills T-shirt was a great graphic design. I looked his company up and sure enough, he had worked at Apple, MIT, and the National Center for Supercomputing.
From a Hub Week perspective this was the forum type of experience that was focused upon working complexity of people using analytical skills and technology for design solutions. Now that it is over, and we are certain that good design may be the only thing to rescue us from climate change, crumbling infrastructure, lack of health insurance, outdated city planning and fraudulent elections- I can go back to designing fun, creating logos and collateral for print like the good old days.