Monday, December 1, 2008

Artist Inventor

Today the light bulb flickered. Listening to NPR’s Studio 360, a special segment remembering Nikola Tesla and his lifetime achievements aired on the radio. I, like many other Americans, knew almost nothing about Tesla prior to the program other than the bad 90’s hair band that was named after him, as well as a recent electric sports car. However, I learned that Mr. Tesla’s genius life work, including his interests, methods, and results are very much in keeping with my own. The blend of science, art, design, technology, and application is a practice that I admire and strive for in my work.

Tesla shed brilliant insight in the field of electricity from a very early age. As a young man, he moved to the U.S. to work for Thomas Edison in 1884—the inventor and leader in the field of electricity at the time. Although both were considered geniuses in the field, Tesla disagreed with Edison on many large issues—the largest being direct current versus alternating current. In summary, Tesla invented and established alternating current as the standard for electric power despite Edison’s insistence on direct current (primarily because his monopoly revolved around it).

Soon after he was recognized for his elephantine contribution to electricity (and society), Tesla decided to build his own lab. A mad scientist-esque choice of location, he chose an extremely rural area of Colorado for his lab and home where he began to develop a distinct process and personality. Much like an artist or designer, Tesla was a visionary in a literal sense. He possessed the unique ability to spontaneously conjure mental blueprints of machines or ideas, which he would proceed to pursue to fruition. Locked away for months at a time, Tesla cycled through arcane inventions, spending thousands of dollars (even millions on a few occasions), and then showing off his work via private salons at his home. Yet the most fascinating and impressive aspect about Tesla’s process and inventions was that they always worked!

Inventions included radio, the electric motor, an x-ray gun, a hand-held lightning bolt, and even a Death Ray. All of these incredible projects were completely functional and infused new technology into the world by merging science and design through determined experimentation. However, his ideas and inventions were always products of his raw personal interests. Although his process could be compared to that of Max Lamb’s or Tobias Wong’s with their spontaneous and whimsical nature, he created scientific results with more potential applications. One of the most interesting projects he worked on was toward the end of his life, and it embraced this science-art blend beautifully. He wanted to photograph memories. Seeing that they’re merely jumbled electrical signals moving at incredible rates, Tesla was convinced a system could be created to harness them. However, his lack of interest in capitalism eventually led to his demise, and he died alone and broke in NYC in 1943.

I want my process as a designer to reflect a hybrid of Tesla and Edison’s. Straightforward and structured, Edison was similar to a designer or engineer working for a firm, and he enjoyed great success because of it. But I romance about the life and spirit of Tesla’s method—one where I’m free to experiment even the most emotional, esoteric ideas in a concrete, scientific manner. Tesla began with loose ideas, but he was able to harness them rigidly and produce applicable technologies that possessed huge potential for massive human impact. He knew science, but he expressed an emotional quality that he could tap into much like an artist. I strive for these qualities in my studio practice, whether I invent the technology or find an application for it, as an inventor artist.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Design: Hybridity without Compromising Expertise

Science and design are a happy, married couple. Interestingly, whenever I think of this union, my aunt comes to mind first. As a tenured biology professor at Case Western Reserve, Auntie Carol tried to compromise my interests in both science and design by suggesting I pursue medical illustration. According to her, it was the perfect blend. Unless I chose between one field or the other, it clearly seemed to be the most practical middle ground. I remember thinking immediately afterward that a profession in cake-baking sounded more appealing than medical illustration. Thankfully, through my experiences at RISD and Brown, I believe design and science are interlocked more than ever before.

Take materials, for instance. Materials science is one of the most interesting fields within engineering, due to its impact on global products and industry. Interacting on an atomic level, the foundation of materials science involves linking desired properties and relative performance of a material (in a particular application) to the structure of the atoms and phases in it through something called characterization. The primary determinants of both the structure and properties of a material include its essential chemical elements, as well as the method in which it has been processed. These, taken together and related through the laws of thermodynamics, ultimately govern a material’s microstructure and therefore its properties. This is roughly how new materials are created.

However, the material application process is equally important and interesting. After the material has been created, tested, and approved, designers have the power to employ new materials to new functions. The process of utilizing new technology to different functions and applications lies within a huge range of intent—from a sculptural and artistically experimental method, to a more rigid scientific progression, and yet both can yield groundbreaking results in innovation. Designers possess the ability to experiment as engineers AND sculptors, going back and forth to fully develop an ideal solution to whatever the need requires.

That is one reason why medical design speaks to me. It blends the hard facts and figures of engineering and science with human factors, ergonomics and sculpture. Take the new Philips Achieva 3.0T X-series MRI system, for example. The most important aspects that must be addressed are; state-of-the-art imaging technology that can facilitate a diagnosis promptly, a user friendly interface for health care personnel, and a focus on appearance and comfort for the patient. Using the latest imaging and coil advancements, along with a touch screen interface and one-click processing options help to make the machine one of the best MRI systems today. Yet the patient sees none of that. Instead they see the sweeping curves and neutral colors— they feel the cushioned bed and hear the low hum of the magnetic coils. To address the human factors successfully, great care must be taken to ensure the whole system is as unobtrusive and painless as possible; otherwise all the expensive technology is only marginally effective.

And yet there is tremendous room for improvement, especially in health care. I see design as an opportunity to combine specific fields of expertise, using experimentation and process as tools. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to pursue the required expertise in these fields, as no generic design curriculum can fully provide that without the infusion of outside knowledge. Once achieved, however, designers are the most influential, well-rounded experts of all, possessing the ability to affect masses of people on a global level. So take that, Auntie Carol.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Biogurt: A Tasty Example of Probiotics and Biomimicry

A few weeks ago, the “Better World by Design” conference brought together leading designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs in their respected fields by holding panels and workshops to share the latest green technology. Among the many fascinating topics introduced, biomimicry was particularly interesting to me. By observing nature and discovering how it has perfected solutions to many of the same problems that humans grapple with makes a lot of sense.

As a non-profit organization, the biomimicry institute’s mission states “to nurture and grow a global community of people who are learning from, emulating and conserving life's genius to create a healthier, more sustainable planet”. Their primary goal encompasses the idea that nature has already perfected and solved many of the problems that we humans are struggling with.

A recent example of a fascinating biomimicry project called Biogurt deals with Probiotics (synthetic biology) and is being conducted at both Caltech and MIT. Synthetic biology consists of designing and building new organisms that perform useful functions to improve human health (past projects include malaria medicine and targeted delivery vehicles). In the project, researchers and students develop synthetic microbes to fight cavities, produce vitamins, and treat lactose intolerance by capitalizing on edible bacteria and its capabilities. Christina Smolke, a synthetic biologist at Caltech and advisor to the university's team gave advice on the group strategy by saying "If you really want to apply a bacterium to a person, think about where they naturally exist and survive in a human while still trying to engineer new functions."

So by looking to nature, the team used the human body a model by analyzing some of the billions of bacteria colonized in the average human. The mouth in particular is a hot breeding ground for both good and bad strains. For example, Streptococcus mutans (a strain that lives in dental plaque) feeds off of sugar on our teeth and then excretes acids, which eventually wear away the tooth enamel and lead to cavities. In order to create cavity-fighting microbes, the team first created a peptide (a short protein segment) that has previously shown to prevent the bad bacteria from attaching to the teeth. The team then constructed a piece of DNA possessing both the gene that makes the peptide as well as a gene for a molecular signal that triggers the bacterium to excrete it. The DNA will then be introduced into a microbe found in yogurt called Lactobacillus bulgaricus. Although the team hasn't done this yet, they have successfully inserted foreign DNA into the microbe, which prepares the microbe for continued genetic engineering.

If the team succeeds in engineering the microbe, the simple act of eating yogurt would deposit it on the teeth where it would produce the protective peptide and prevent cavities. This method could prove far superior to antibacterials because the microbes target only the bad bacteria, rather than destroying both the good and bad. In addition to improving oral hygiene, the edible bacteria project could also have a more profound impact with future projects focusing on cheaper means to medicine production or diet improvement in impoverished countries.

For more information check out engineering edible bacteria

Monday, November 10, 2008

Volunteers and Vaccines: A Look at Polio and its Path to Eradication on a Global Level

In its two-decade long campaign to eradicate polio from the world, the World Health Organization has already reached and immunized over a billion children in both advanced and underdeveloped countries. If it succeeds, it will be the single greatest accomplishment of mankind. However, during the summer of 2003, a young boy in a rural town in southern India contracted the virus. With the potential for a massive epidemic, the WHO responded with a budget of billions and the help of hundreds of thousands of volunteers to halt the spread of an outbreak.

Polio occurs almost exclusively in children under five. Ruthlessly tough and adaptable, the virus can survive more than sixty days outside the body—and in places with poor sanitation, it spreads quickly and unopposed. This, coupled with the fact that Polio is extremely hard to identify in its early stages, makes the disease a huge concern among public health officials. “With every person that becomes paralyzed, between two hundred and one thousand people show little more than flu-like symptoms, and remain silently contagious for weeks while the symptoms abate”. Multiple rounds of vaccination are therefore required, especially in children who often contract diarrhea and pass the medication straight through. So when a boy from the southern Indian state of Karnataka contracted symptoms, it triggered a giant bleep on the radar screens of Indian medical officials.

In less than 24 hours after the case had been reported to higher authority in first Mumbai, and then New Delhi, both the World Health Organization and UNICEF were notified and key people alerted. Technicians in WHO began constructing a mop-up plan. A “mop-up” is a “targeted campaign to immunize all susceptible children surrounding a new [outbreak]”. This particular mop-up needed to cover fifty-thousand square miles in a time period of no more than three days in order to immunize the population effectively, and also to recruit the most volunteers. And to add complexity to an already daunting task, coverage of less than 90% of the target population was considered a failure. The budget plan included the following in order to vaccinate approximately 4.2 million children:

• 37,000 volunteers
• 4,000 supervisors
• 2,000 vehicles
• 18,000 insulated vaccine carriers

Amazingly, WHO hires no vaccinators and doesn’t distribute vaccines. It only organizes a plan and then distributes the necessary funds, leaving UNICEF to supply the vaccines. Government health officials (who possess no affiliation with WHO or
UNICEF) then must recruit, train, and distribute the legions of volunteers. Local health officials finally face the task of reaching thousands of people scattered over hundreds of miles by organizing and budgeting a micro-plan to divvy up and cover their individual districts.

What it really came down to in order to execute the massive undertaking was hard work and dedication from thousands of volunteers. During the three days, UNICEF personnel distributed over five-million doses of the frozen vaccine for the mop-up. Hundreds of thousands of banners and handbills were printed and posted by Rotary of India, and public service announcements looped constantly. It took diligence and numbers, as well as readily available supplies, transportation, and medicine. After the fourth day, the mop-up was deemed a success, yet the WHO’s mission wasn’t over. Officials were able to continue where they left off before the outbreak occurred, working day in and day out to ensure a complete eradication of the virus.

Works Cited
Gawande, A. (2007). Better. New York: Picador.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Swiffer: Mass Appeal, Mass Control

It began as a quest for a better method to clean floors. It turned into Proctor and Gamble’s second most profitable consumer product—one that has generated over $300 million dollars in the past eight years alone. As a society of obsessive germaphobes, clean-freaks and brilliant, greedy CEOs, it was only a matter of time before conventional floor-washing was targeted and exploited. Therefore the history of the Swiffer exists as both an intriguing and frightening story from the standpoints of research, innovation, and marketing.

When a sponge is plunged into a bucket of soapy water and slathered around a soiled floor, it appears that the dirt disappears with every swipe. Wrung back into the bucket, the dirty water from the sponge finds itself mingling, hobnobbing, and finally contaminating the clean water. This process is repeated until the water becomes so visibly dirty that it requires replacement. However, on a microscopic level, the soap acts as a substrate, bonding to both the polar molecules (water) and nonpolar molecules (grease and oil). Once attached, it suspends both the dirt and water off of the floor. By spreading the sponge around the floor, the molecules remain suspended and intact, and merely slide around each other. After wringing all the dirty water back into the bucket, the floor remains just as dirty as it was prior to the washing. Researchers at Procter and Gamble liked to call it “a complete waste of time”.

So in 1999, P & G developed a quick, simple method to effectively clean floors. Dubbed a “dipey wipe on a stick”, the product they initially created projected a low user-acceptance analysis. The technology, however, used thousands of microfibers on an absorbent cotton cloth to collect dust, dirt, and hair. It was also statically charged so the particles stayed attached and didn’t spread around. A wet version of the cloth was also developed for tougher scrubbing, yet possessed the same properties as the dry cloths. With the technology employed and a catchy form designed, the Swiffer needed testing.

The target user group consisted of homeowners with a huge emphasis on women (ages 25-45, specifically). P & G conducted both open and closed surveys as well as focus groups of women to sample the product. As a result, they responded well to its usability and also its price. Yet the critical selling point emerged in how the product was used after the floor cleaning. The act of removing the dirty cotton pad from the stick and throwing it away exemplified a very satisfying action. Women could see the dirt and then effectively rid their home of it with one swift action. They felt more control over the cleaning process, and therefore more control over their home’s cleanliness, keeping them revered in society.
Once the Swiffer moved into production, it utilized a common P & G marketing cycle called the “razor cycle”, where the product began with a starting kit that included the Swiffer stick along with a package of cotton pads (either wet or dry). Additional cleaning pads were then sold separately, thus keeping the consumer engaged and addicted.

Here the designers and engineers created an extremely profitable product based on effectiveness and simple sensory satisfaction. The Swiffer cleans well and also gives users a feeling of control. Women who normally wouldn’t get on their hands and knees to wash a floor suddenly sweep and wash it multiple times a week. The Swiffer manipulates users into becoming more conscious of the dirt on their floor (due to societal expectations and trends), and with its addicting process and affordability, keeps them hooked on it. By making the user feel in control, designers have effectively controlled the users.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Nokia Morph Concept (Nanotechnology)

Nike Zoom Victory track spike

An Examination of Raw Materials and Technology As Major Factors in Developmental Applications

Materials are fascinating. Fascinating because they possess the ability to alter or even invent an application or process. For instance, steel played an incredible role in the domination of massive Mesoamerican empires by only handfuls of conquistadors during the 1400s. Likewise, in 1907, Bakelite opened the door to plastics and polymers, thus revolutionizing the world in every aspect imaginable. With new synthetic composites and nano-materials, such as Graphene and Nehalem, areas such as medicine, weaponry, and consumer products continue to change and improve. A good micro model of this process of material exploration and application lies in shoes. Athletic shoes are particularly interesting because they blend science and technology with intriguing sculptural forms, requiring a variety of disciplines to collaborate and new processes to emerge.

A recent example of material exploration and application was behind the development of Nike’s Zoom Victory track spike (image above). Constructed specifically for athletes competing in the Beijing summer Olympic Games, the goal was to make the lightest pair of shoes in the world—a straightforward yet remarkably complex objective. Track shoes endure an incredible amount of stress and strain in a very short period of time, and therefore require additional stitching and adhesives to bind the upper to the sole securely. The extra reinforcement, however, adds a great deal of weight to the shoe and accounts for huge research and engineering budgets to develop and employ better materials to solve the weight issue.

Looking to nature for inspiration, Nike drew ideas from spider webs, and later suspension bridges as they focused on points and lines for flexible skeletal structures. An extraordinary new system resulted. By focusing on the greatest points of tension on the shoe from the athlete’s foot, the team meticulously placed “tension wires” from one point to another, connecting them much like suspension cables hold up a bridge. The material they chose was Vectran thread. Spun from liquid crystal polymers, Vectran is much stronger than Kevlar and was initially used to sew the balloons on the latest lunar rover. The filaments were then coated in a TPU upper to resist any snagging or tear, and to define the overall shape of the shoe. Unlike traditional uppers though which constitute a large portion of a shoe’s weight, the Victory’s entire shell was only two microns thick and virtually weightless.

Most impressive, however, was the application of a surgical process during the manufacturing of the shoe. With integrity and strength being crucial, the shoe construction required a center seam, which also ensured a truer fit for the athlete. However, the thread added extra weight. To achieve both structure and weightlessness, the shoe was sewn up the middle but utilized a thread comparable to water-soluble sutures (used in surgical practice). After the entire spike was finished being assembled, it was wiped down with a wet sponge to dissolve all the thread, thus reducing the weight by 1.2 grams.

Altogether, the spike weighs less than 100 grams and is considered the “Holy Grail” of track shoes. The material research, application, manufacturing process and sub-processes all facilitated a remarkable product, and with it new discoveries were made concerning material applications and manufacturing processes.

Ultimately, as a designer everything relies on observation. One can possess expertise in the sciences, engineering, human factors, financial markets, or sculpture. Yet it takes tremendous research, the ability to "see" objectively, and sometimes pure accident to find new applications for new or already existing things. The research, development, experimentation, and application of materials and technology consequently facilitate potential for revolution.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sitting: Stomatological (Dentist's) Chairs

The timeline “Stomatological Chairs” reveals various examples of dental chairs and their evolution throughout history. The dental chair presents a fascinating example of functionalist design because over time, its user-specific functions shifted from one group to another. For instance, the earliest dental chairs were designed primarily with the dentist in mind, using hydraulics and movable parts to orient the patient for the dentist.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s when chairs began being more comfortable for the patient, while also helping the medical professional maneuver them efficiently and easily. Today dental chairs take a lot into account, especially their appearance. With increasingly simplified and visually-pleasing arrangements, psychological tranquility is preserved and the patient remains more comfortable and less stressed about the upcoming root canal.

Lighting: Artificial Tanning

“Leisure Tanning” examines the process of tanning both from the sun and an artificial light source. The first image depicts a Finsen light therapy set-up. This procedure (named after Niels Ryberg Finsen) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1903 and used ultraviolet wavelengths to destroy skin tuberculosis. As a side effect, the skin exposed to the light was darkened. It wasn’t until the late 1930’s, however, that similar UV lamps began being used for tanning purposes. The popularization of tanning can be traced to Coco Chanel who, in 1922 accidentally sunburned while visiting the French Riviera. Ironically, her look was widely accepted by her fans, and darker skin tones instantly became more desirable.

Throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s, tanning grew in popularity with metallic UV reflectors being common on beaches and personal sunlamps existing in many homes across Europe and the U.S. Then in 1978, the first tanning beds were introduced by Friedrich Wolff. They spread extremely rapidly and by 1990 there were an estimated 10,000 outlets in the U.S. alone. Today, there are over 50,000 outlets with beds featuring ergonomic contours, audio, and sessions lasting under twelve minutes.

Recently, however, scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Children’s Hospital developed a cream that prevents malignant melanoma, while also darkening the skin without any UV light. The drug has only been tested on mice, but many see potential for it both as cancer-prevention tool and a harmless tanning procedure.

The Past: Technology, Process, and Preservation

The timeline “Utilizing the Past” dissects various technologies that all connect in interesting ways with the past. For example, formaldehyde and plastination are more literal translations of preserving history, as the development of these chemicals and processes results in the preservation of organic tissue. The offshore oil platform represents the deep reliance on ancient, fossilized plant and animal matter (petroleum), allowing the past to directly influence everyday life in an extremely dynamic way.

The Large Hadron Collider takes particle physics to an unfathomable level, as scientists collide lead protons at incredible rates in an effort to mimic the Big Bang. Researchers also hope the experiment provides clearer insight on the mysterious “God particle”, the Higgs Boson, which gives all matter mass. And lastly, new tests have been conducted on salamanders’ fascinating genome in an effort to shed light on their limb/organ regeneration capabilities. By learning these molecular “tricks” in the amphibian’s genes, scientists hope to employ these abilities to humans, allowing old brain and heart tissue, or possibly even lost limbs, to grow back new.