12 October 2017

“Skilled designers can do something that other people can’t: they can take a step in a different direction and produce something that we didn’t know we wanted.” These are the words of John Gero, renowned professor from the University of North Carolina on a quick visit to LiU. 

John Gero and Stefan HolmlidJohn Gero and Stefan Holmlid, professor IDA  Photo credit: Monica WestmanJohn Gero is the professor of design who doesn’t carry out research into design, but works instead with the mental processes that lead to design.

“You can change the way people behave when you understand design,” he claims.

In his research, one of the areas he has studied is the comparison between industrial designers and engineers.

“Most mechanical engineers are designers: this is a design-based profession. But not all of them actually carry out design.” This is how John Gero explains the difference, which also depends to a certain extent on a language point. Swedish has two words to describe what English manages with one: “design” in English includes both what Swedish refers to as “design” and “engineering” (“design och konstruktion”).

Coded segments

He films conversations and discussions, and subsequently cuts the films into coded segments. The sections in which the participants discuss a solution are given one colour, and the sections in which they discuss the problem are given another. It turns out that discussions about solutions take place both early and late in the process, nearly equally during the two parts.

“Surely you should finish discussing the problem before starting to discuss the solution,” he jokes.

He has also discovered that industrial designers use significantly more time than mechanical engineers to study the problem itself.

“When the groups are mixed, the time taken to study the problem also drops noticeably. Engineers have a major influence, and they are more accustomed to taking risks and discarding what doesn’t work,” he says.

When mechanical engineers have an additional two years of education, it means that they invest more time into understanding behaviour, while designers spend more time looking into product functionality.

Prepared for the unexpected

Professor John GeroProfessor John Gero Photo credit: Monica WestmanIn another experiment he counted how many unexpected ideas came up during the conversation. He compared students with qualified professionals in this experiment. The professionals quickly started producing ideas, and their ideas came in a continuous flow, while it took longer for the students to get going. But once they had started, they came up with significantly more unexpected ideas.

“The difference is that the students don’t know how many good ideas they have, since they don’t have the experience that is necessary to assess them,” says John Gero.

It’s the same when he compares experts and beginners: the latter come up with at least as many good ideas as the former, but they are not able to evaluate them.

He has also tested whether it is possible to use fMRI, using a magnet resonance camera to measure the location in the brain of design activity.

“But the function moves around all the time, and no-one really knows what is happening,” he concludes.

LiU professor Jonas Löwgren wonders whether the results can be used in practice during the design process.

“One insight may be that even non-experts have fundamentally good ideas, while a professional designer has the expertise required to evaluate them. Design is copying, to a large extent, but skilled designers can do something that other people can’t. They can take a step in a different direction and not just solve the problem: they can produce something that we didn’t know we wanted,” replies John Gero.

And it is the roots of this skill that he is attempting to find in his research.

John Gero, professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and at the George Mason University, both in the US, is visiting LiU, invited by Tomohiko Sakao under the auspices of the Mistra REES research programme. He is an invited speaker at the annual LiU Design Talks, an event that gathers a growing number of industrial designers, service designers, engineering designers and specialists in visual media, PhD students and master’s students from different parts of LiU.



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