Lab Focused on Human-Centered Design Moves to Put San Diego on Map

For Michèle Morris, the big question hanging over organizers as they laid the groundwork last year for the first Design Forward Summit was whether the innovation community in San Diego understood the value of design.

“We didn’t know who was going to show up—and 600 people showed up,” said Morris, who is associate director of the Design Lab at UC San Diego and a founder of the Design Forward Summit.

Now, with the second Design Forward Summit set to begin Wednesday on San Diego’s downtown waterfront (and Thursday in Liberty Station), Morris said the question to be answered this year is “What’s next?”

The Design Lab was the driving force behind the first summit, and the driving force behind the Design Lab is the octogenarian Don Norman, a former Apple fellow and a leader in “design thinking.”  UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla recruited Norman in 2014 to serve as the lab’s founding director, with the mission of making the Design Lab a magnet for the local innovation community and a beacon for design leadership in San Diego and beyond.

Morris said Norman asked her to organize the first Design Forward Summit with the idea of helping San Diego stake its claim as a global capital in the field of “human-centered” design. (She’s still a key organizer, as part of a non-profit organization that took over planning for this year’s summit.)

Don Norman at 2016 Design Forward Summit (UCSD Design Lab photo used with permission

Don Norman, director of the Design Lab at UC San Diego, at 2016 Design Forward Summit

In a phone interview Wednesday from Montreal, where she was attending the World Design Summit, Morris said design is no longer merely about how things look—especially in tech.

From the iconic design of Coca-Cola bottles to Herman Miller chairs to all things Apple, Morris said design has evolved to become a way of thinking, a process that focuses on how things work—and how users experience the way things work.

“The value of design thinking is that you’re first and foremost identifying the right problem and asking the right questions—rather than coming up with a solution first, and hoping the market embraces it,” she said. What was once industrial design has evolved to become an approach to problem-solving, a framework that can be used by disparate groups to collaborate, create better products, and to help people make faster decisions.

Morris said the answer to “what’s next?” for this year’s summit may depend on the small-to-medium-size businesses that pervade San Diego’s regional economy.

Bigger companies like Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM), and Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO) have been expanding their design teams and have more resources for training and workshops. But Morris said small-to-medium business owners, constrained by time and resources, have been slower to absorb the value of design. As a result, she said much of the Summit’s program has been organized with business leaders at all levels in mind, along with civic leaders and community activists.

“We aim to demystify human-centered design and inspire business and civic leaders with actionable ways to embrace the process in their organizations,” said James White, a co-chair of the Design Forward Summit, in a recent e-mail.

As the broader digital revolution evolves toward artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality, and other complex systems, Morris said human-centered design is playing an increasingly central role in technology innovation and development. “Life and change are going to happen,” she said. “I like to say it’s either ‘design or default.’ Either we need to design for [changing technology] or we’ll end up having to react to it.”

Aesthetics continues to be part of the design process. “But now design is really about intent and defining the set of actions behind achieving better outcomes,” Morris said. “If you’re not doing that with your user in mind, then your chances of achieving sustained better outcomes is limited.”

To Morris, who has worked at … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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