Founder and Creative in Chief, Molly Patton gave a talk last week at the 2018 International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICONN) in Wollongong, NSW on the importance of art, design and storytelling in science research. If you’re curious, below is the text friendly version of what she had to say.
Nanotechnology is pretty amazing. I remember the day I was first introduced to the concept of the nano scale. I was asked to synthesise gold nano particles at university and was quite shocked (and disappointed) to reach the end of the class and my “gold” product was in fact red.
Up until that point, my interpretation of “nano” was quite different. Referring to technology such as the “iPod Nano.” Clearly, I was a little behind the times however, relatively speaking, nanotechnology is a fairly new frontier for science research. It has unveiled the latest renaissance, one that has opened up an entirely new world of possibility for innovation and invention. Such innovation is essential to our ability to create novel devices and products that address so many complex global and societal challenges. But the road to commercialising innovation can be a bumpy one.
Sometimes, new inventions take so long to jump through all the hoops, protocols and prototype iterations that by the time it’s unveiled to consumers, the world has moved on. Conversely, sometimes products are a little too eager to hit the market, skipping over periods of prototype critique, sometimes with somewhat unfortunate consequences.
Design, is actually one of the most powerful tools we have for smoothing those bumps and accelerating the journey from research to marketable products. (1) I’m not referring to superficial aesthetics – although there is an element of that. What design is truly about, is perception. (2) Not only how we see something, but what it makes us think, how it makes us feel and how it impacts our lives: it’s about user experience. This is particularly pertinent for anything that is new, anything that challenges convention, anything that is innovative.
You might think how can two disparate industries come together and smooth out this notoriously bumpy process? Especially two industries that have been known to, at times, butt heads. Leonardo Da Vinci, incredible artist, scientist and innovator sums it up very nicely. Suggesting that there is an art to science, that science is very much a form of art and we need to both in order to see to whole picture.
Despite their differences, the developmental processes of science and design are almost identical. In this way, we can unite two disparate perspectives under the same thought process and this is what elevates innovation to another level. By finding not only functional solutions to problems, but also practical ones that consider how such solutions might be perceived by target markets and the end users. If we apply this notion to today, there are three key ways in which implementing creative media can be beneficial to science research and the commercialisation process that follows.
The first two are reducing costs and accelerating the process from research to retail and they both require design and creative media to be involved in the science at the commencement of technology development process. Using design techniques as a tool for visualising methodologies, hypotheses, for recording observations and communicating results can become interesting and insightful resources.
Patton’d Studios recently produced a video for a conference. This video was part of a live demonstration however was unable to be performed on stage. It was a simple corrosion experiment involving a change in pH and hence we observed a colour progression from yellow to blue over the course of the reaction.
However, by recording a time-lapse, these researchers saw not only the end result, which was as predicted, but also, how this result came about which was less as predicted. It was incredibly fascinating and raised a whole new set of queries as to why this experiment occurred this way.
If we continue this example into the commercialisation of an anti-corrosion product, knowing this additional information potentially reduces the number of prototype iterations necessary because researchers knew more about the dynamics of the corrosion reaction. As a result, the journey to commercialisation is accelerated, costs are simultaneously reduced. Furthermore, this provides the additional bonus of providing visual assets that can assist in marketing this product to industry or investors who might be interested in the technology.
Case studies from four UK universities show that design support not only accelerated the transition from research to commercialisation, but also generated greater interest from a broader range of industries. One example from the University Nottingham found that designers didn’t just help in commercialising the technology in one instance but came up with 45 ways of commercialising this single technology (.1) It worked so well, that they now invite everyone to trial their latest prototypes and provide feedback which they then build into their development process.
Another great example was a team of researchers from the University of Leicester who discovered that exposure to very specific, coloured LED lights alleviated symptoms of tinnitus up to 40%. (1) This research team also had a design consultant who worked with that team on developing that device because they recognised that in today’s world, it’s not enough to have a device that just solves the problem, it has to assimilate with how people live their lives. In this case, it had to be, portable, adjustable in case the patient’s conditions changes, convenient, but most importantly it must be enjoyable to use, otherwise people wouldn’t use it and then it doesn’t solve the problem.
Design was the tool that brought the user perspective to the table, that took into account the end user and consequently, the final product was more viable, more desirable and more usable. (1) The entire process was sped up by the use of design. Once again, removing the need for additional prototype iterations, saving on time and funds. Not only this, but that designer could then work with industry and marketing agencies to continue to see the product through to market with all the visual content generated throughout the development process.
These are merely a couple of instances in which design helps the commercialisation process of science before the end phase of pitching to industry, media engagement etc. and illustrate how involving design earlier in the process, can reduce the cost and time it takes to make that journey from discovery to device whilst providing the additional benefit of having assets that can be exploited and used in many different ways to attract greater interest and more funding.
Therein lies the third benefit of utilising art in science research. The assets that are generated, throughout the developmental phase of a product can be further exploited for the communication and promotion of that research. To tell customers, (which could be industry or the public), what it is about, how it works and why it’s important.
It tells the story of how that new technology came about – and people like stories, people remember stories and people invest in stories. The effectiveness of this media extends from conferences to grant applications, industry pitches, media releases – you could go even further to use creative data visualisation in ways that engage broader audiences in the form of modern art. This intrigue generates a positive feedback system that enriches opportunities for publicity and importantly more funding.
Particularly in Australia, there are currently few if any positions for designers in research and innovation centres. To help remedy this Patton’d Studios is a design and innovation hub that along with the usual services of a typical design studio like illustration, animation and media packages, it also provides consultancy for research institutions in assisting the development new discoveries and seeing them through to new technologies and devices.
Because innovation requires both knowledge and respect of known techniques and practices, but also creativity and boundless imagination. Formulating novel solutions to global issues sometimes means letting go of “what works” and making a little more room for “what if?” What I discovered about nanotechnology in my prac class, is science throws a lot of preconceived conventions out the window and we end up with this wonderland where gold can be red and scaling the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica to fit on the on the head of a pin is a perfectly conceivable idea. (3)
The best part is, it’s not science fiction, it’s very real, it’s very cool and by involving designers in the scientific process we can launch more discoveries into the world, provide faster, more cost effective solutions to global issues and you never know what other solution we might dream up along the way.
- Design Council UK. Innovation by Design. (2014).
- Faste, R. A. The Role of Aesthetics in Engineering. Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers (JSME) (Stanford University, 1995).
- Keiper, A. The Nanotechnology Revolution. New Atl. (2003).
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