Engineering by Design
Professor Peter Robbie ’69 adds art to the science of meeting human needs.
By Elizabeth Kelsey
The chairs have been rearranged to make space for an impromptu stage. One by one, the actors leave their seats to join their classmates at the front of the room to enact a restaurant scene. One student eats with an imaginary knife and fork, while another stirs an unseen pot of food. Others heft invisible trays to wait on tables.
It’s an improv exercise, but it’s not taking place in the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts. Instead, it is in Professor Peter Robbie’s Design Thinking class in Thayer School’s MacLean Engineering Sciences Center. “This class on improv is a tool for brainstorming,” he explains. “I’ve always thought that the quickest and smartest folks at the brainstorming phase of design have been those who do standup and improv. They never say no. They never miss a beat. Improv requires players to accept what they are given, build on the ideas of others, and encourage wild ideas.”
This improv class may be unusual for an engineering course, but then again, Robbie is an unusual professor for an engineering school. His creative background and vision have steered numerous students into successful careers in product design (see Alumni in Design feature for examples), deepened the emphasis on design in engineering that former dean Myron Tribus introduced to Thayer School in the 1960s, and helped Thayer School earn a spot on BusinessWeek magazine’s list of the top 60 design schools in the world. Not bad for someone who’s not an engineer.
Robbie took a circuitous route to Thayer School. At Dartmouth he majored in English while also loading up on psychology, art history, and design classes before graduating in 1969. He completed an M.F.A. at Cornell, concentrating on sculpture and showing his work at New York’s Aquavella Gallery. He returned to Dartmouth in 1972 to teach visual studies and later became director of the design workshops at the Hopkins Center. All the while, his thinking about design was expanding. “Through my design teaching I became really interested in design problems that influenced people’s lives,” he says. “Instead of simply making objects that were visually beautiful and meaningful, I began to focus on addressing meaningful human needs.”
Robbie’s design collaborations at Thayer began in the mid-1980s. At Professor John Collier’s invitation, Robbie lectured on creative product design practice, began working with student groups, and served on the professional review board for Thayer School’s project-based introductory course, ENGS 21. “Peter focuses on the need for engineering students to go beyond function and performance and to include aesthetics, feel, quality, etc.,” says Collier.
Robbie also collaborated with former dean Carl Long, who, says Robbie, wanted to find ways to inspire students’ creativity before they dove into advanced design projects for the capstone course ENGS 190/290. In 1987 Robbie and Collier presented Thayer’s first product design course as an experimental offering. Attracting a mixture of studio-art majors and engineers, the course was the beginning of a curricular series that now includes ENGS 12: Design Thinking and ENGS 75: Product Design. Robbie also brings design innovation into two courses he co-teaches with plastic surgeon and adjunct professor Joseph Rosen — ENGS 5: Healthcare and Biotechnology in the 21st Century and ENGS 13: Virtual Medicine and Cybercare.
Robbie has extended his design expertise into research at Thayer as well. Collaborative work on medical imaging technologies for treatment planning led him to co-found a company that became Medical Media Systems (which later became M2S). More recently he has consulted with Thayer professors Keith Paulsen and Paul Meaney on a microwave imaging system for detecting breast cancer.
Thayer’s physical plant also bears Robbie’s influence. Serving on the building committee for MacLean Engineering Sciences Center, the expansive addition to Thayer that was completed in 2006, Robbie and other faculty members worked with architectural firm Koetter/Kim to refine building specifications. According to Professor William Lotko, who chaired the committee, Robbie pushed for the new student project lab in MacLean to function like a design studio — with movable furniture, whiteboards for brainstorming, a wide array of creative tools, and lots of flexible space. The result: Couch Student Project Lab is itself a model of designing to meet the needs of real users.
Lotko counts on Robbie to convey that kind of design insight to students. “For years he has given a number of guest lectures in ENGS 21 on the artistic side of design but also on the human-centered aspect of design,” says Lotko. “Technical aspects of design really have to meet human needs, and Peter has this really interesting perspective that he brings to any classes that he’s taught here having to do with design. He lives between the fine arts and engineering in his outlook and perspective and the kinds of things he brings to our courses. He’s a unique individual in that sense.”
Why Design Matters
According to Robbie, design is crucial for engineers. “Design begins with the recognition of need and follows an intentional process by which you apply knowledge and actually make products to effect change,” he says. “It is central to innovation. It essentially is the process of innovation.”
Not all design is created equal, however. In addition to the aesthetic side of design, Robbie distinguishes between technology-driven design and human-centered design. “Technology-driven design often results in products looking for a need. Human-centered design always keeps the needs of end users in mind,” he says. “Design for humans needs to begin with developing understanding and empathy for human experience. It applies science and technology but also includes insights from the humanities and the social sciences. Engineers often love to jump right into making things, but early in the design process it’s often preferable to focus on deeply understanding the needs of end users.”
Human-centered design ups the engineering ante. “Making a product that looks great requires designers with a good eye and artistic skills. Making a product that is a pleasure to use requires that designers consider all aspects of user interaction with the product,” Robbie says. “In addition to a pleasing look and feel, human-centered design explores opportunities for innovation in interface design, ergonomics, function, and use. Great designs do it all.”
Design increasingly makes a difference in the marketplace, he adds. “In the period of scarcity after World War II in America, companies could essentially sell anything they could make because people were happy to have whatever they made,” he says. “But since the explosion of competition globally, design has become the best way — or only way — that companies differentiate their products. It has developed into a key aspect of innovation and a requirement for success.”
Design is a Process
“The most surprising thing to me about design is the fact that you can learn it,” says engineering major Francis Fortin-Houle ’10. “When I first came to Dartmouth, I thought it was a skill that you either have or that you don’t have. Little did I know how wrong I was.”
Robbie demystifies design by breaking it into systematic steps. “I believe it’s important to create classroom experiences that will increase students’ confidence in their own creative design abilities,” he says.
Using improv to get students comfortable with brainstorming is a case in point. “Everyone thinks that they know how to brainstorm, but in fact, brainstorming is usually plagued by problems like self-censoring, competitiveness, and ridicule,” says Robbie. “Improv is a great way for students to learn to defer judgment.”
Acting out the user experience of a product or service also gets students thinking about human-centered design, he adds. Then, because “good designers are astute observers of human behavior,” he sends students out in the field as anthropologists to notice, question, and analyze what they might otherwise ignore. One recent assignment, for example, required students to watch how fellow Dartmouth students carried books and other belongings around campus. Then the class had to design and make better gear-toting solutions — such as bags that can be used easily by students on crutches or packs that comfortably distribute weight.
“As with learning foreign languages, fluency and flexibility in design thinking come from repeated practice, so my design courses include multiple projects that allow for iterative practice of design processes,” says Robbie. “Because every design problem is different, it is important for students to be flexible and know how to use different methods and approaches.”
Dartmouth’s approach to engineering lends itself particularly well to human-centered design, Robbie maintains. “Engineering in a liberal arts environment is not just about science. It includes the opportunity to apply science from a humanist perspective and to integrate insights from many other disciplines. Dartmouth students understand this challenge and are well prepared to use all the knowledge and talents they have.”
That’s why Robbie’s design courses appeal to non-majors as well as engineers. “Designing is all about invention, creation, and brainstorming, which people from all different fields and backgrounds can contribute to,” says Amanda Marston ’10. “I am a psychology major and art history minor. Before I took Design Thinking, these two disciplines seemed unrelated. But during Design Thinking, I began to realize that the two actually connect at the intersection of product design.”
Design thinking becomes a way of life, according to Robbie. “I think students who become really good at design become experts at a process that they can apply to anything, from designing medical devices to improving the lives of infants in their car seats. The same process can be applied, no matter what the problem is,” he says.
Meredith Lunn ’06 Th’07 agrees. An analyst at the management-consulting firm McKinsey, she says she regularly uses the design processes she learned at Thayer. “With free brainstorming, we end up with a really big list. Some of the ideas are totally unfeasible but they get us thinking outside the box. This has been very helpful when looking at a huge global health problem that doesn’t appear to have a solution at first. Another thing I use all the time is hypothesis-driven thinking. At Thayer, we did a lot of prototype building, and we do this exact same thing with business concepts. The third step is being able to break down problems. Usually when I start a project there’s a huge issue — we’re trying to save lives in a country that has no health system in place. Being able to look at the problem from start to finish and identify main points makes a huge difference. The fourth step is always remembering your end user, always remembering the people you’re trying to help.”
The process of design thinking is increasingly critical for meeting the ultimate need of humanity: finding ways to live sustainably. “Everything that’s man-made has to go through some design process,” says Robbie. “The world is at the point where we can’t just keep doing things the same way. There’s going to have to be more emphasis on rethinking the design of everything with a focus on life-cycle analysis and searching for radical new solutions.”
Engineering students equipped with both comprehensive technical knowledge and creative design abilities will be in great demand — and will have wide-open opportunities in the next wave of technology innovation. “Going forward, these students know that they’ll be required to rethink assumptions about how we make everything in the built environment,” says Robbie. “It’s going to require an enormous creative effort.”
—Elizabeth Kelsey is a writer at Dartmouth Engineer.
Raves and Faves
Peter Robbie on examples of great design
1. One Laptop Per Child XO Laptop
The mission of One Laptop per Child (OLPC), formed at MIT in 2005, is to provide all children in the developing world with a “rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.” Governments purchase the laptops directly and distribute them to their schools. Beautifully designed for children and challenging conditions, the laptop is sunlight-readable, shock and moisture resistant, easily portable, and energy efficient. OLPC is a great example of taking a compelling need and thinking big.
Designer: Torben Vestergaard Frandsen
Half the world’s poor suffer from waterborne disease, and nearly 6,000 people die from diseases contracted from unsafe drinking water every day. LifeStraw® is a portable water-purification system that can filter 15,000 liters of water — about a two-year supply. Consisting of a 100-micron pre-filter, 15-micron polyester filter, a chamber of iodine-impregnated beads, and a chamber with granulated active carbon, LifeStraw operates without electricity or batteries.
3. Freeplay Fetal Heart-Rate Monitor
Designers: Freeplay Energy, Cape Town, South Africa (Philip Goodwin, Stefan Zwahlen, John Hutchinson)
Freeplay is a hand-powered fetal heart-rate monitor designed to make childbirth safer in areas with no electricity. Cranking its built-in charger for one minute provides 10 minutes of operation. By signaling fetal distress, the monitor indicates when emergency care is needed. Getting an aid like this into the hands of midwives in the developing world can mean the difference between life and death for mothers and infants. The price: around $150.
4. Embrace Infant Warmer
The product is designed to help millions of low-birth weight babies born in the developing world without access to electricity or expensive incubators. The sleeping bag has a removable heating pouch containing phase-change material that, after a few minutes in boiling water, maintains a temperature of 98.6°F for four hours. Embrace Global grew out of a student project in the Extreme Affordability class at Stanford’s design school. Whereas incubators cost $20,000, this product costs $25.
5. Apple iPod + iTunes
Designers: Jonathan Ive et al.
Apple redefined portable MP3 players by creating a seamless personal music experience — allowing users to easily find, sample, buy, organize, store, and play music. The iPod + iTunes system is a great example of using a disruptive design strategy to change not only the rules of the game, but also the meaning of a product space; iTunes now accounts for about 90 percent of legal music downloads in the U.S.
6. Aeron Chair (Herman Miller)
Designers: Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick
Designed as “a machine for sitting” the Aeron Chair redefined seating for work. Ergonomic research led to an adjustment strategy so the chair will fit almost anyone. Observational research led to insight into why people move around when sitting: to dissipate heat. The chair has a specially woven seat and back suspension material that conforms to the body, maintains even pressure, and keeps users cool. Almost two-thirds of each chair is recycled materials, and almost the entire chair is recyclable. Ten years after its launch, it’s still the most coveted office chair.
7. Nikon D3X
Designer: Giorgetto Giugiaro, Italdesign
The Nikon D3 continues the D-series’ outstanding integration of thoughtful human factors, including an intuitive interface and backward and forward compatibility — it fits virtually every previous Nikkor F-mount lens made since 1959. Not many products have a 50-year standard that is still competitive. It’s an iconic example of great product design.
Designer: Evan Gant, Alex Tee Th’04, Altitude (U.S.)
Winner of Newsweek’s Best Designs of 2009 Gold Award (sports category), LightLane provides an alternative to expensive bike lanes. Using a laser connected to the rider’s bike, LightLane projects a virtual bike lane onto the pavement. It’s a creative use of a lateral thinking strategy — asking “what’s the inverse?” Instead of cyclists following established bike lanes, the bike lane follows the cyclists.
9. Human Centered Design Toolkit
For NGOs and social enterprise, this is a free toolkit for applying human-centered design to inspire new solutions to difficult challenges within communities of need. Over the last 20 years IDEO has refined its human-centered design process to create thousands of innovative solutions for companies and organizations. This is a great example of a growing commitment in the design community to serve global human needs.
10. Ted Talks
What a generous and wonderful concept: Invite the smartest, most insightful technology and design thinkers on the planet to share their thoughts at an annual conference and then post them all on the web for everyone to share. A great example of computer pioneer Doug Engelbart’s vision for improving humanity by “augmenting human intellect” through networked computing.
Designed for Thought
Peter Robbie recommends:
- Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown (Harper Collins 2009)
- The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage by Roger Martin (HBS Publications 2009)
- Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge (MIT Press 2007)
- Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian National Design Museum, New York City
- Museum of Modern Art, Architecture and Design Collection, New York City
TED TALKS (ted.com)
- Tim Brown urges designers to think big
- Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity
- Janine Benyus: 12 sustainable design ideas from nature
- William McDonough ’73: Cradle to Cradle
Alumni in Design
Find out what Alumni in Design, including several of Professor Robbie’s former students, are thinking and doing.
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