from problem to prototype in 60 minutes

Join us at 12:00 on Friday 3/9 in the Brown Design Workshop for the Creative Scholars Project, where you are invited to take part in the one hour design challenge outlined below. Participants will learn how to go from an idea to a prototype quickly, critically, and iteratively, and gain the expertise necessary to facilitate similar design workshops on their own.

The following is a variation on the exercises that I often begin the semester with in the design classes that I teach in the School of Engineering at Brown University. It is meant to initiate students into the design processes and creative practices that they will explore throughout the course of the semester. By the end of the hour, participants will be familiar with following concepts, and with a little luck, also be several iterations along towards an innovative solution to a novel problem that they have identified for a near future scenario. These concepts include:

Divergent Thinking/Convergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is the practice of conceptualizing many different ideas. It is the art of cultivating an openness to diverse possibilities. It’s complement is convergent thinking; working towards a single, “correct” solution to a well defined problem. Divergent thinking is an essential element of brainstorming, and especially important early in the creative process.

In the workshop, we will introduce techniques for overcoming availability bias — getting stuck on the initial, immediate examples that come to mind — by thinking laterally, building upon associations across disparate categories, and cultivating a mindful orientation towards what is beyond our initial ideas.

Modes of Representation

We will apply divergent thinking to generating new insights, questions, and ideas that we can prototype around. These prototypes are iterative. They will be manifested in many different forms including sketches, performance, and low fidelity cardboard prototyping . We will frame the creative process as a progression from the abstractions of ideas to representable, concrete things. Any object can be appropriated to stand in for an imaginary object. Anything can be a prototype.

Part I: What’s in your pockets? (15 minutes)

You can learn a lot about someone by the things they have in their pockets. You can learn a lot about the culture and society we live in as well. We begin the workshop by asking everyone to place the objects in their pockets on the table in front of them. We then act as design anthropologists, examining these artifacts of an ever present material culture that we carry around with us. We examine the behaviors and habits these objects afford. Most people will have a phone, keys, and a wallet of some kind, but there are many variations on how these objects are organized and used. We look for similarities and differences, as we interrogate patterns. We consider what is missing.

We frame our investigation around questions: What will you carry in your pockets five years from now. What will your phone look like? How will you use money? How will you access things around you?

Part II: Professor Plum in the study with the candle stick (5 minutes)

From these initial observations and questions, we begin to ideate, thinking divergently as we come up with as many different possible answers to the kinds of questions posed above. Essential to this process is making our thinking visible, which we do with quick sketches and critical conversation (paper and markers should be left on the table, and drawing while talking encouraged… “show us, don’t just tell us”). These sketches are not meant to be fine works of art, only to communicate the idea, and get us to the next idea.

When we encounter a creative block, we can use various techniques to move forward. These might include lateral thinking — mining the associations with what we have already come up with, but applying them to other categories of things. A wallet might hold money, but what else could it hold? A key might open a door, but what else might it open?

One such exercise I call the “Clue Game”. Like the eponymous board game, we go around the table in turn, each outlining a user scenario with the following questions: who, what, and where. The “who” is the user. The “where” is the context it takes place in. The “what” is the solution the problem the user encounters in that context. We can then use this list to think laterally, and see other unexpected relationships.

Part III: Design Fiction and Diegetic Prototypes (25 minutes)

There is often the tendency to fall in love with the first idea. But how can you truly know it is the best idea without other ideas to compare it to? So, we push ourselves to come up with as many different possibilities as we can in the time allotted, even fantastic or absurd ideas, which sometimes evolve into practical and innovative concepts.

Taking one of these ideas, students are given some time to make a low fidelity diegetic prototype. They are asked to “tell the story”.

A diegetic prototype is much like a prop in a movie. It is an object, or the indication of the object, that facilities the narrative. It only has to function within the context of the scenario that is being conveyed, whether that scenario describes a factual account or is a complete fantasy. It doesn’t even need to be an object you make. As in the video below, the story can be told with a gesture or by assisting a found object. The performance makes it real. As long as it is internally coherent within the laws of the story being told, it is useful to the design process.

Diegetic prototypes are ubiquitous in Science Fiction and related genre. For example, Black Mirror episodes offer the viewer an opportunity to consider the consequences of objects that do not yet exist. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001:A Space Odyssey” gave us the very first glimpse of a device that looks a lot like an IPad. Sometimes things exist as fiction before they exist as fact.

Participants are given some basic materials, usually including cardboard, paper, tape and Sharpies, and short window of time to develop a diegetic prototype. They are asked to create a 1–2 minute performance that tells a story about the near future scenario. These prototypes are meant to be low fidelity ways of quickly translating a concept into something concrete, something that can be encountered, something that can be discussed.

Part IV: Presentation and Critique (15 minutes)

Finally, after each scenario is acted out, and every prototype presented, each design is carefully and critically considered. We ask how we might improve the design going forward. Sometimes, students will take the project further beyond the initial workshop, as was the case with the example below that translated the initial sketches, and other modes of representations, into a computer model and a 3D printed prototype.

Prototype by Hannah Langmuir, Mikaela Karlsson, and Dmitrijs Celinskis

Creativity is a skill that anyone can develop and master, but there is no single design strategy that is appropriate in all contexts. Therefore, students should be encouraged to cultivate their own approach to the creative process. Anybody can prototype, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves a designer. Anything can be a prototype, and a prototype can ask any question. By iteratively prototyping and critiquing, through many modes of representation, and thinking in both divergent and convergent ways, anybody can develop the design skills necessary for creative problem solving and translating an abstract idea into something real.

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