Is Good Design a Result of Science, or an Evolution of Ideas?

Innovation is all about people. And the world of innovation is a world in which humans define what is new and accepted and embraced.

Innovation is all about people. And the world of innovation is a world in which humans define what is new and accepted and embraced. So, yes, human interaction is essential when we innovate. And, yes, again, 21st century innovation has to be people-friendly.

Unfortunately, though, because so much innovation today is trans-disciplinary, not every innovator in every discipline understands that innovation is people-centered. They think about science scientific discovery or technical specifications that drive design, aiming at business models that were defined before design starts. But these specifications have to revolve around how people will experience innovation when they encounter design. Understanding the patterns of how people adapt design to their needs can shape a completely new strategy for business and development. People centered design becomes the driving force for responsible and successful innovation.

For me, any innovation has to fit into people’s daily routines and lives. And, for me, the human element is the measure of all things innovative. I want to make the world work better, and technological innovation that reflects the needs and desires of people who will be affected by change is a means for this.

Take computers, for example. By themselves, they’re just impersonal boxes, and they can’t do great and meaningful things unless we design them to be really usable. Here’s a good case in point. When the Three Mile Island nuclear accident unfolded, the operators in the control room couldn’t make sense of the data presented to them because the system showed them all data at once, regardless of how data elements were related and what mattered in critical instances. So, the accident ended up being worse than it might have been if the computer systems were designed to provide meaningful information in context.

Which brings me to two central questions for innovators today -- “How do we represent information so it makes sense to people, taking into account the situation they are in and what they want or need to accomplish?” And “How do we show users the information they need and when they need it, and in the form they need so that they are able to act?”

[Ken Segall, who worked closely with Steve Jobs, created Apple's "Think Differently" campaign as well as the i-naming convention beginning with the iMac. Here he answers the question all Apple customers are asking.]

This is the province of Interaction Design. And, as the Three Mile Island episode illustrates, it’s often a matter of making the information actionable so that people can be kept safe, whether at a nuclear reactor, during wars, or in airplanes. Also in medicine and aviation, when designers have to have to work with practitioners and engineers to understand the conditions at work in order to innovate -- and innovate with regard to human life.

Participatory design in work settings emerged in Scandinavia in the 1970s when industry and worker unions collaborated on fielding new information technology in the printing industry. Today participatory design approaches help shape urban development, transporation, education, and healthcare. Although the term Designing for People was coined by the Industrial Designer Henry Dreyfuss in the 1950s, it would take another four decades before people-centered design approaches gathered momentum and were brought to the attention of virtually every organization world wide, including the corporate sector, start-ups, non-profits and even government, by the San Francisco based design firm IDEO.

IDEO’s website presents a number of recent examples of people centered design practices, methods, and case studies. In its essence, people-centered design is empathic design where designers and researchers move into the world of the people whose lives will be affected by design. In contrast to the old world, Henry Dreyfuss was convinced to pay attention to the people that were confronted with technology; design today can be initiated by community representatives that are connected with the real needs of people. As connectors, they serve as a bridge to facilitate the work of designers with people in need. People centered design works to better connect people with the world, opportunities, and possibilities around them.

That’s why I believe that some of the best innovation is pragmatic innovation. What makes sense, and what is it good for? What difference does it make?

Much of the past century’s design debate has focused on the aesthetics of design. Based on visual aesthetics, clear understandability, usefulness, and usability, good design is beautiful desirable. But besides looking great, design has to go beyond this by being appropriate, based on understanding exactly who people are, what’s at stake for them, and how they’re living their lives. In other words, how will the innovation actually help them impact the world?

[Bill Nye explains how design and manufacturing are coming together to create amazing technology]

The form that design takes is changing from the creation of novel artifacts and representations to the integration of new systematic connections in existing hardware structures. Think about it this way: In an industrial scale innovation context, the idea of novelty was still bound with the concept of creating new products to be produced and distributed with the intent to replace existing products, despite the fact that what they replaced was still working. The car industry and rapid and costly replacement cycles for entertainment and computing hardware are poster child examples for this wasteful approach. New systems-oriented service design approaches have countered this development. Über and Car to Go have provided individual transportation alternatives as a service model. Combined with networked public transport that can be monitored in real time from mobile devices, transportation on demand has many of us reconsider the ownership of a vehicle altogether. Streaming content such as Netflix and Spotify, based on cloud computing have affected how we own and use computers, entertainment electronics, and media. The emergent Internet of Things (Think Nest, Drop Cam, and Amazon Echo) goes several steps further, providing seamless connections between people, products, and environments to shape entirely new forms of interaction. Surprisingly, most of these innovative new platforms were not driven by large corporate design strategies, but are some of the most successful examples of design output from small start-ups that were able to commit to new ideas because of their compact organizaton. In their essence, these services enable new patterns of use and new types of content that emerge in older hardware structures. This has real impact: Smartphones replace laptops, and as processing from smartphones moves increasingly into the cloud, replacement cycles for mobile hardware will slow down, potentially resulting in more universal, valuable, and reusable products that are accessible to a broader audience.

Innovative design is different from science. Design doesn’t usually start with a problem that requires a solution. Instead, innovative design is hypothesis building for what ought to be – what might be promising in the next stage of a given situation. Designing requires challenging inititial problem statements and digging deeper to identify the real issues. This analytical stage of design can employ scientific methods, but there is more to it. Shifting analysis to synthesis means engaging in exploration. Designing is studying adaptations in the world by changing the world. Design innovation presents new opportunities and ways to do things differently. And then the problem of getting people to change and adapt arises. Innovating is hypothesis testing. Design innovation casts light on unknown territories that the designers didn’t consider. To address the resulting limits of the design, redesign is necessary. Fixing design problems (that wouldn’t exist without design) generates design knowledge. Innovation is a bit of a Pandora’s box in this way – at the same time it’s not so different from how evolution works. 

So, after you’ve designed something new, you are handing it over to people to make it their own – to find the breakthrough’s meaning in their lives and make change useful. You have designed it so that it can be adapted to a variety of uses, including those you would never think of. What you have overlooked leads to user-initiated work-arounds. Stay with the product and observe these adaptations. If cutting-edge equipment doesn’t work the way doctors want it to, for instance, they might tweak things to function in a more useful manner, use it in a different way, or not use it at all. Aesthetics play a role, too. If a product is beautiful, but hard to use, people will opt out. But if it works and looks good, they will use it over anything that works the same but isn’t designed with the same quality and aesthetic standards in mind.

Apple’s products demonstrate this: Their technical performance is comparable to their competitors, but they embed this technology in great Industrial Design that sets the benchmark in the market. People feel connected with their products and identify with them. Other companies can get here by taking design more seriously – and invest in the design of how people experience their products and make them part of their lives. Think about it this way: Well designed products are being resold on ebay, regardless if their technology is outdated. Mediocre designed products become landfill—and we have enough of that for generations to come.

Being a great innovator today means staying ahead. Many times, when we innovate, we are creating newness based on our previous or current understanding of the world. We don’t always innovate based on our projected world-view. So, it’s essential that innovators keep up with how the world changes as they grow, expand, change or move in new and unexpected directions and dimensions and be a step or two ahead. Design is providing a vision of the future that defies many traditional engineering approaches. You can’t test what doesn’t exist yet and we need new ways of thinking to address challenges of unprecedented scope. Design makes a difference.

To be a great innovator, then, you have to do things – bring people together, explore ideas and experiment with different forms of realization. But you also have to be an exceptional reviser when you see early on that ideas don’t play out the way you expected. In the end, we’re dependent on fresh innovation that addresses the unknown and the unstable side effects of prior breakthroughs. That’s the realistic -- and truly human -- way that innovative cycles work on behalf of people.


The University of Washington believes that nurturing boundless innovation and creativity empowers students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners to create a world of good. Through the Innovation Imperative, the UW is creating inclusive solutions to society’s grand challenges. This article is one in a series commissioned by CoMotion, the UW’s innovation hub. To learn more from UW innovators, visit Axel Roesler is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Interactive Design Program at the University of Washington.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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