The tasks of design are becoming increasingly complex. This also opens up new spheres for design research. In the following, we present three current projects by design students that show how theory and practice can be effectively integrated into the design process and how value-added applications can be generated from this synergy.
By Karianne Fogelberg
Design research is now considered an integral part of the discipline and has also established itself in teaching at German universities. However, it is still interpreted and handled in very different ways. But this diversity is also its strength. The design theorist Uta Brandes speaks of “a productive ambiguity”. According to her, design research can produce innovations precisely because of its ambiguity.
The following projects exemplify how design research is being worked with at German universities today and how the transfer of design research into practice can succeed.
A ring-shaped handle for pain-free surgery
With her design qio, Cosima Pauli has optimised instruments used in minimally invasive surgery in such a way that, for the first time, surgeons can work with them as precisely as they do painlessly, regardless of the size and condition of their hands. Laparoscopic instruments are used for minimally invasive procedures in the abdominal cavity. The alternative design, which Pauli developed in her bachelor’s degree at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences in cooperation with the Bundeswehrkrankenhaus Berlin, enables comfortable grip and hand positions during surgery. With conventional laparoscopic instruments, the scissor-like handle is not adapted to individual hand sizes, which leads to chronic pain and damage such as slipped discs or deformed bones for surgeons. These undesirable side effects have already been documented in studies without a solution having been developed. “I was surprised,” says Pauli, “that this ergonomic grievance is present in the surgical work environment, conscious and even almost accepted by users.”
Accompanied by a visceral surgeon who acted as design mentor with his surgical experience, Pauli designed a ring-shaped handle that can be gripped equally well by smaller and larger hands. The rotating star positioned at the top, which is used to align the respective instrument, can be operated comfortably and safely from different directions and distances, so that surgeons no longer have to bend their wrists uncomfortably. Silicone grip surfaces and a rotatably mounted cable guide further improve the operating activity. The reduction to the initially not obvious, formally aesthetically simple ring shape led to a convincing solution: “It is often reduced shapes that have the broadest ergonomic spectrum,” Pauli states. This is particularly ensured “when users can partly decide individually how and where they grip best”.
Pauli gained the required non-specialist knowledge through specialist literature and a systematic analysis and evaluation of product groups. She has sat in on operations, conducted interviews with workers from the operating theatre environment and participated in a surgical laparoscopy training course. In addition, she has incorporated the knowledge of fellow students from other faculties, in this case manufacturing technology and engineering, to test the feasibility of her concept. With qio, Pauli shows what contribution design research can make to everyday surgical practice when the development of medical technology products focuses not only on the well-being and safety of the patient, but also on the question of the extent to which they enable ergonomic handling for surgeons. She is already in talks with a medical technology manufacturer who is interested in realising the design.
Intuitive programming of robots with augmented reality
Carolin Horn has also developed a project that can be connected to practice. In collaboration with the robotics start-up Wandelbots, she developed a new type of augmented reality (AR) interface in her bachelor’s thesis at TU Dresden, which could make programming robots less time-consuming and require less expertise in the future. AR opens up new possibilities for interacting with robots by controlling them with hand gestures and by overlaying reality with virtual simulations. As a working student at Wandelbots, Horn had become aware of these potentials and set herself the task of developing an AR interface for robotics and designing it in terms of a positive user experience. With more intuitive and accessible interfaces, people without prior knowledge can thus also create robot paths safely and quickly.© Carolin Horn
To this end, she conducted interviews with robot programmers and sketched out possible application scenarios in order to use these findings to develop an interface prototype for the Microsoft HoloLens 2 AR glasses, which she then reviewed in user tests with regard to functional suitability and product acceptance. In the process, she brought together knowledge from production technology and automation, interface design and product design as well as software development. Above all, as a designer, Horn was able to complement the technical focus on automation with a decided user orientation. To this end, she used, among other things, methods with which “product use and experience can be analysed not only on a functional level, but also with regard to needs and emotions”. It is precisely their consideration that is important in the application of new technologies in order to avoid fear of contact.
Wandelbots now shows her prototypes at trade fairs: “As a demonstrator, the application has enormous potential to open up spaces of possibility and show how processes in production can be made simpler and safer,” says Horn. Today, she works for the company in an incubator for product innovations, where she researches specific issues in the field of robotics, software and production in an interdisciplinary team – work for which she says her studies prepared her well.
A custom-fit personalised protective waistcoat for on-demand production
In his bachelor’s thesis with Air Craft at OTH Regensburg, Johannes Schmidtner investigated how manufacturing processes can be made more open to applications and more efficient with the help of digital fabrication and parametric design. Using the example of a protective waistcoat, such as is worn in equestrian sports, he shows how such protectors could be personalised for one’s own body measurements and manufactured in on-demand production in the future. The waistcoat consists of two ultrasonically welded membranes made of nylon fabric and can be inflated via built-in valves. The technology of pressure-stabilised membrane structures allows for impact-resistant structures that are lightweight and mobile, making them ideal for protectors. Further applications for the waistcoat are conceivable in care, where it could protect dementia patients from injuries caused by falls.
The waistcoat is an exemplary application that Schmidtner used to test the design process he developed and the production method he chose. In the next step, he designed a user interface page that enables simple and understandable operation of the system. However, the focus of his work was on the technical development, which he carried out in a laboratory he set up himself in the attic of his parents’ house after the university was inaccessible due to the Corona pandemic in the summer semester of 2021. Telsonic GmbH, a manufacturer of ultrasonic welding equipment, supported him in his project. They advised him on the potential of the process for the production of inflatables and lent him an ultrasonic welding device, which he combined with a CNC machine he built himself.
He is currently exploring the diverse potentials opened up by his research topic in his Master’s degree at the Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin. According to him, designers “will in future be less and less concerned with concrete products, but will increasingly design systems and processes”, including those “that can be co-designed and used by users”.
Air Craft by Johannes Schmidtner on Vimeo
These three examples show how sustainable constellations between design research, development and industry can emerge. The universities’ share in this could be even greater. According to Schmidtner, the openness for research at the university is great, but there is “little concrete support as far as the technical application and location in the industrial context is concerned”. Here he would like to see “early contact with experts and scientists from different fields in design education to promote an interdisciplinary way of working”. For Cosima Pauli, who had to take a lot of time and deal with many rejections in her search for interview partners and shadowing opportunities, “an intermediary body would have been a great help in connecting experts and designers from different disciplines for research purposes”. And Carolin Horn could imagine “an early embedding of legal questions in design teaching” that are specifically geared to the needs of design researchers.
German Design Graduates
The designers mentioned are part of this year’s German Design Graduates. GDG is an initiative with the purpose of promoting the next generation of product design graduates and presenting state-recognised universities, art colleges and universities of applied sciences. Initiated in 2019 by Prof. Ineke Hans, Prof. Hermann Weizenegger, Prof. Mark Braun and Katrin Krupka, the German Design Council has been the project sponsor since 2022. Honouring, presenting and promoting the achievements and solutions of graduates in their quality and diversity is the most important component of the GDG initiative.
On 2 October 2022, the winners of the Circular Design, Social Design, Design Research and Design Culture awards were announced, including the Augmented Reality Interface by Carolin Horn, which received the Design Research Award. The German Design Graduates Show 2022 in the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Art) der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden with its focus on “Perspectives for Graduates in Product Design” is dedicated to the central themes of our time under the influence of the serious changes and developments in politics, society and the environment, and shows the most interesting ideas and approaches to solutions by 40 young designers from over 20 German universities of product design. The exhibition can be visited in Dresden until 31 October.
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