How to design with people in mind

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 January, 2012, 12:00am

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A genius like Steve Jobs, who successfully combined groundbreaking technology with advanced design, may be rare, but increasingly, creative minds are bringing together the disciplines of design and engineering with useful social applications.

Such innovations can be seen, for example, in the form of a tailor-made flat for elderly people with limited mobility, or environmentally friendly public transport - two projects being undertaken by researchers at Polytechnic University's school of design, a regional leader in design education.

The school has taken this idea, of using design as a social tool, a step further with the launch of its Design Institute for Social Innovation (DISI).

The institute will be housed in the university's Innovation Tower, designed by renowned Iraq-born British architect Zaha Hadid and now under construction at its Hung Hom campus. It hopes to nurture a new generation of design professionals who are not only innovative but also socially conscious.

The new facilities were made possible by a record HK$249 million donation by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust. The university will shoulder a quarter of the construction cost.

The school of design's dean-designate, Professor Cees de Bont, emphasised the instrumental value of design in dealing with social problems.

'Design tools, methods and theories are very much about what people find important and understanding why people behave in a particular way,' said De Bont.

He cites as an example easily accessible venues that can be turned into popular places for elderly people to gather and meet. Such spaces help tackle the common problem of loneliness among the ageing population by broadening their social networks.

'We can consider what kinds of interactions are relevant to elderly people, whom they would like to meet, where to meet them, and how they can get to one place from another. Designers need to be aware of the environment and make things that are fitting and appropriate to it,' says De Bont, the former dean of industrial design engineering at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

He once supervised a PhD thesis project on the design of an information centre to help women in India who lacked the knowledge to deal with menstruation in a hygienic way. The project involved the design of a user-friendly, appealing setting that provided useful services and materials, including short videos, to impart knowledge. Importantly, the design process also involved medical professionals and an understanding of local culture.

'We can apply this to other problems like Aids. A good design project can lead to a positive change in people's behaviour,' De Bont said.

Patrick Chan Kai-ching, a researcher at the PolyU school, has another socially conscious idea in mind - the creation of light, smart school bags for the thousands of cross-border school children that will automatically alert their parents on the mainland to their child's safe arrival at school in Hong Kong.

The school's master's degree in art and design in education course, he adds, was being taken by professionals from various sectors such as social workers to understand how to use design as an educational tool.

'In this day and age, design education is not just about one area, like interior design, but multi-disciplinary knowledge.' Chan said. 'Teachers from our school, for example, also teach MBA (masters of business administration) students concepts of strategic design,' Chan said.

When completed next year, the social innovation institute will conduct research and training under four strategic themes: design for various service industries such as hospitality and tourism; sustainable environment; holistic health; and adolescent and family development. Interdisciplinary teams will be formed with external parties including non-government organisations, investors and industry partners.

A project funded by Create Hong Kong, the agency set up under the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau to drive the development of the city's creative economy, and led by the school's associate dean, Professor Lee Tak-chi, resulted in a development model for the Lok Ma Chau Loop, an area of about 84 hectares on that straddles the border with Shenzhen. The idea was conceived in the light of the agreement on closer strategic co-operation by the governments of both cities.

Lee's team proposed the creation of an 'innovation platform' at the site, comprising a lifestyle zone, higher education zone, research and development zone, logistics zone, and ecological zone - backed by such incentives as low rents and taxes. The site is envisaged to be a base for showcasing new products and services for the Pearl River Delta region, supported by a cluster of design and other support services for companies to market their products.

The same model can be applied to other mainland manufacturing bases struggling to boost business at a time of economic downturn in the West, says Chan, who also worked on the project.

'The experimental platform can achieve synergy by forming a complete supply chain,' he said. 'As an example of social innovation, it helps enhance the chance of business success.'

There appears to be vast scope for other creative projects on the mainland, given the rapid social changes that have taken place there. More importantly, China's 12th five-year plan (covering 2011 to 2015) includes among its goals achieving sustainable economic growth through innovation. The policy blueprint also calls for the coastal manufacturing hub to be a centre of research and development, high-end manufacturing and service industries.

The PolyU school is poised to extend its presence on the mainland. Its projects include a digital database of Asian head and face sizes for use by manufacturers and designers internationally.

Currently, it is running a student exchange and joint doctoral student supervision programmes with Shanghai's Tongji University, on top of extensive training for practising professionals and officials in the Pearl River Delta. One-third of its master's students in Hong Kong are from the mainland, according to associate dean Lee.

Faced with such demand, the school plans to offer degree courses on the mainland in the long run. 'All major universities in China have design programmes, but the problem is they don't have enough teachers with practical experience,' he says.

At its campus in Ningbo, the University of Nottingham launched a design engineering course last September to help provide much-needed skills in sectors ranging from aerospace and the car industry to home appliances manufacturing.

The famed Parsons The New School for Design in New York is also seeking a foothold in China, and is close to reaching a deal with a Shanghai partner in offering executive education courses next year. Its presence could bring fresh impetus to a relatively suppressed academic environment.

Parsons, located in Greenwich Village, has a long tradition of liberal education. Its founders include the famous educational philosopher John Dewey, who enjoyed a wide following among Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century.

Parsons' president, David van Zandt, said during a visit to Hong Kong that the school would focus on design management training. He also hoped to see staff and student exchanges between China and New York.

'Our mission is to give people the ability to think about problems and issues from a design perspective,' he said. He is not bothered that social media originating in the West, namely YouTube and Facebook, are banned on the mainland.

'Our entrance is giving people the opportunity to learn, think and do with broader skills,' he said. 'This may be a test of how serious the government is about their five-year plan. We bring to it a tradition of openness and inquiry.'

Similarly, De Bont sees more opportunities than constraints in design education on the mainland.

'People are creative everywhere in the world; maybe there are differences in culture and education, but designers need to be aware of the environment they are in and make things fitting and appropriate to it,' he said. 'In design education, we teach students how to deal with constraints.'