Designing For People

I’ve always had a keen interest in design.

In high school, I joined yearbook (persuaded by a friend who told me, “people throw away papers after they read it, but they keep yearbooks for life,” when choosing between journalism and yearbook; no offense, I love newspapers, too!) and was introduced to the world of editorial design: pretty fonts, polished photos, and picas in between. I admired all the graphic elements on an InDesign spread and by hobby, began to flip through magazines and scroll through websites to look at beautifully designed pages. To me then, design was a symbol of aesthetic beauty. 

Although I loved design in that sense, I didn’t pursue studying it further because I thought I wasn’t talented enough; there was no way I could create something so modern and beautiful, enough to satisfy my own taste and others. However, in college, I stumbled upon a course on hotel design and had an opportunity to gain exposure of another type of design: architecture. Curious, I found myself interning in the business office of an architecture firm that following summer. There, I saw the similar elements of design—beautiful facades, shiny interiors. But there was a greater sense of function and purpose added to form in these architectural projects; the buildings weren’t just to be looked at, but to be occupied in. The idea of “function” grew even bigger after I attended a lunch & learn hosted by urban designers at the firm. Wow. You didn’t just design books and buildings, but also cities and spaces. 

More intrigued, I spent a semester in Copenhagen, Denmark to further explore urban design. I was fortunate to meet several great minds in my design studio, including Rasmus (speaker of the TEDx video above), who was the instructor. As we walked through and discussed designs of streets, parks, squares, waterfronts, and residential communities, we carefully observed the sites and the people that were there (rich and poor, young families and elderly, students and drunkards). In designing a space, the purpose and function always had priority over form. It was most important to consider the users and the future users in their shoes. Design perhaps is one part creating something beautiful, but through my study abroad, I realized that it is more a tool to make positive change for the future. 

Design, as a process and a way of thinking to improve something—building, service, communication, process—can be utilized by anyone and is enriched through various perspectives. It’s not just for the artsy creatives; it’s for whoever needs it.

Lessons From a Boy

While I was flipping through channels on TV, I came across a short feature on a sixteen-year-old named Jack Andraka. He had recently won the grand prize from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his groundbreaking research in cancer diagnosis—a new dipstick type test that allows for rapid and inexpensive detection of a protein that indicates the presence of pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer during early stages. I was instantly wowed. And although it’s easy to pass off people like Jack as geniuses that have a different world of mind, I believe that Jack shows us a few lessons on how anyone can and should approach innovation.

Don’t settle. Question the status quo.

When we face difficulties, it’s easy to accept the situation and move on. It was a widely known fact that pancreatic cancer only has about 6% survival rate because it’s hard to detect in the early stages. Many people would just say, what a tragedy. But Jack decided to question the status quo and began to think of ways to detect and prevent cancer growth in the early stages. To achieve innovation, you have to be optimistic and believe that the better can be realized.

Creativity is about connecting the dots.

Jack’s test strips were inspired by combining the mechanisms of (1) nanotubes, which his civil engineer dad had been working with, and (2) antibodies, which he was learning about in biology class. Of course it may take a bit of luck in coming across the independent ideas. But creativity, as some define it, is about connecting the dots; it’s seeing the the connections between seemingly unrelated things in an efficient way.

Don’t give up.

As cliche as this may sound, persistence is key. In order to start his project at a lab, Jack emailed 200 professors at Johns Hopkins and NIH and was denied from 199. And when he was given that one opportunity, he gave it his all. He spent weekday nights and weekends, and even holidays in the lab, sometimes frustrated by mistakes that nullified the data and made him start over and over again. Although innovation seems like it’s just a spark of a great idea, most successful innovations are results of tedious and persistent questioning, hypothesizing, and testing ideas.

Jack may be a Thomas Edison of our times, and those don’t come around very often. But everyone has the potential to be more innovative by approaching reality with a different lens and constantly and optimistically challenging the current world.

True Innovation

Perhaps nuclear power is an economical and clean form of energy as proponents argue. However, to me, the risks seem far too great. As the tragedies of Chernobyl and most recently, Fukushima, show, there is no such thing as “absolute safety,” and all nuclear power plants are vulnerable to natural disasters and poor management. Also, while a plant is in operation—typically for 30 to 40 years—it may be an efficient producer of energy, it leaves behind tons of radioactive waste that cannot be recycled. So, in the end, is it really economical?

On a brighter note, TerraPower, a start-up funded and led by Bill Gates, is a promising work in progress. This venture is working on developing a new kind of nuclear reactor that would be fueled by today’s nuclear waste, supply all the electricity in the United States for the next 800 years and, possibly, cut the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation around the world. While it faces many challenges and may not be available until 2030, it still gives me hope. This isn’t an all-in-one solution for the risks and problems of nuclear energy, but it sure is a noble effort to resolve a big part of them.