Design Should Focus on People

Greetings-- this is Ben Thomas, the founder of Louisville Geek Dinner.  I'm spending most of the Idea Festival behind my camera, but will be blogging several sessions.  I attended the Curry Stone Design Prize.  It excites me because I've been interested in architecture and design since I was a kid.

When the lights dimmed, the Curry Stone Design Prize was introduced to the Idea Festival audience.  It is an annual award that was created by Cliff Curry and Delight Stone to promote "design innovations that contribute positively to living circumstances for broad selections of humanity."  The winner receives a grant of $100,000 and one to four finalist may be awarded up to $10,000 each.  There are no strings attached except that the recipient is expected to return the following year to give a presentation covering recent advancements.

As noted in Wayne's previous post, the winner of the first annual Curry Stone Design Prize is MMA Architects.
They are a South African Architecture Firm that designed low cost energy-efficient homes using primarily sandbags and timber.  Luyanda Mphahlwa from MMA Architects was unable to attend, but gave an inspiring video message showing the work they've already been able to complete and vision for the future. 

As someone who has long appreciated design, I was thrilled to see recognition given to those who are using architecture and industrial design to find elegant solutions to difficult problems.  Design is best when it addresses urgencies in life and is initiated by focusing on people.  Ideas should flow from the bottom up and it is the role of the designer to uncover those ideas. 

For me, one of the most compelling parts of the session was when Shawn Frayne (27) of Humdinger Wind Energy demonstrated the Windbelt, a micro device used to covert vibrations generated from wind into an electrical charge.  It was originally created to replace kerosene lanterns in Haiti.  The Windbelt is an enabling technology that has the potential to power any portable device that currently uses batteries.  It was designed to generate 1-10 watts at roughly $2-$4 per watt.  This is an innovation in wind power that moves beyond turbines and works on a micro scale.

An attendee asked him, 'How did you think of the Windbelt; are you a genius?'  Shawn humbly replied, "I don't believe in geniuses."  He said that the Windbelt is the result of 15 years of hard work.  He has been working on the problem since middle school.  Jokingly, he said that the first 10 years were used to come up with 100 solutions to the problem, and the next five years were used to eliminate 99 of them.  The Windbelt idea resurfaced when he saw a flag flapping in the wind in Haiti. 

After the session, I took a few minutes to catch up with Shawn to discuss the ingenuity that can only be found in developing nations.  Last April I took a trip to Cambodia and noticed immediately that the Cambodian people have the keen ability to turn any piece of scrap into something useful.  Shawn spoke of similar observations in Haiti and said that "harder problems make for better inventions."

Overall, my key take away from this session is that design must focus on people.  Elegant designs are developed when problems are framed properly.  Focus on the immediate needs of people, understand differences in culture, use locally available material, and involve all stakeholders in the design process. 

"Design should not be based on formal principles, but always on an idea of society."

Ben Thomas