Groundbreaking designer Paul Rand once exclaimed, “Everything is design. Everything!”
While Rand’s declaration of design universality is sweeping and inspiring, it can also be confounding; its broad appropriation of, well, everything can stifle further conversation. If everything is design, then what’s the nature of everything? What’s so important about design? Where do you begin?
Irish designers Anita Murphy and Rory O’Connor suggest a place to begin, offering a way for curious non-designers to explore the process, challenges, and rewards of design through The Extraordinaires® Design Studio, an inviting activity kit that challenges young minds to think outside the box. Whereas Rand staked his claim to the totality of human endeavor, Murphy and O’Connor’s approach assumes nothing, first asking the most basic questions: “what is a designer?” and “why does the world need designers?”
Designers Rory O’Connor (left) and Anita Murphy (right) with their Extraordinaires Design Studio Kit
Through the guided play of their studio game and the introduction of some extraordinary “clients” (the Extraordinaires themselves, including a teenage vampire, a fairy detective, and a gentle giant), Anita and Rory invite hands-on exploration of these fundamental questions, raise many more, and encourage young designers to ask their own in a spirit of playful inquiry and empathetic discovery.
We had the pleasure of discussing the inspiration and aspirations behind the Extraordinaires with Anita and Rory in a recent conversation:
How does the Extraordinaires Studio experience differ from that of being a professional designer in the real world? What’s been simplified or enhanced here?
Many professional designers comment on how effectively we’ve captured the design process in the Extraordinaires Design Studio. We’ve presented design as a simple 3-step process, while in reality it’s a looping process, involving constant iteration for a professional designer. A key element that’s been enhanced is the Extraordinaires themselves. In the real world, a designer solves design challenges for ordinary people. In the Extraordinaires Studio, you’re tasked with helping characters with extraordinary needs—like a giant or superhero, robot or ninja—and who wouldn’t want to design a remote control for a ninja?
The Design Studio features an extensive array of bizarre characters – Extraordinaires – each of whom present a unique design challenge
Assuming the goal of the Studio isn’t necessarily to produce the professional designers of tomorrow, what are the main skills fostered or lessons learned?
Empathy is a key skill fostered in the Studio. You must design for the needs of the Extraordinaire. This involves thinking about what others want, and not just what you like…thinking about the end-user. It offers a structured approach to creative thinking and problem solving, reinforces that there is often more than one answer to any challenge, and that the key is to ask lots of questions. While we would love to inspire a new generation of designers, our real goal is simply to encourage people to look at their world in a new way, to ask questions and consider how they might make it better for themselves and for others.
Do you see this primarily as a competitive game, and if so, what does that teach about the competitive nature of design? What can this experience teach about the value of constructive critique?
The Studio is more collaborative than competitive. The only person you are competing against is yourself as you try to make each new design better than your last. When playing in a group, discussion tends to become more collaborative as players use “yes… and” feedback to add to each other’s design. In the Awards ceremony, we designed the cards so that any feedback is focused on the features of the design and not on the player.
Amateur designers collaborating on their fantastic designs
Although it coordinates with the Extraordinaires website, the Studio seems to emulate the look of a tablet or laptop, but using low-tech, analog media. Did you consider making the entire product a digital interface? What was behind the decision to make it paper and hand drawing based?
We did consider an entirely digital platform for the Extraordinaires. When we first came up with the idea, however, we made the decision to keep it as a physical toy, thereby making it more accessible to children, in a way that digital wasn’t. Many designers still swear by pen and paper for capturing ideas. There’s something powerful about the eye/hand/brain interaction that occurs when doodling on paper. Many design lecturers have also expressed their gratitude that we kept it analog. They share their frustration with too few students taking the time to capture their ideas on paper before turning to their computer. In the future, we will enhance the play experience with certain digital elements, ultimately creating a hybrid digital/analog experience. We do intend to keep the pen and paper for the foreseeable future, however!
Have you considered ways to allow players to realize their designs or inventions in three-dimensional prototypes – like connecting to 3D printing tools?
We think there’s nothing more satisfying that seeing an idea made real, in 3 dimensions. The whole ‘maker movement’ excites us greatly. We’re already exploring options on how we can support players wanting to realize their ideas in 3 dimensions.
Our background is in 3D animation, so we know only too well what a huge leap it is to take an idea on paper to a 3D model ready to print. We think a more realistic approach is to build prototypes using found materials like cardboard, construction toys, or modeling clay. This way, you can test your design and refine it before digitally modeling it and printing out parts. We say, “before you make it, design it.”
How does the Studio encourage players with design abilities but limited drawing skills or other ways to represent their ideas?
Design is not about being a great artist; good design is about great ideas and solutions. We encourage people to find their own way to communicate their ideas; this may be by drawing and sketching, but it could also be a written document, physical model, or video presentation. We factored this in when we created The Extraordinaires app. It allows you to record a presentation orally to accompany your design.
Can you comment on the spirit of innovation in contemporary Ireland? Did that spirit inspire any aspects of the Studio?
There’s an incredible amount happening here design-wise. In fact, 2015 is the Year of Design in Ireland! There is a large program of events planned to explore how design can really help people. This resonates strongly with us.
Being from Ireland, which is really just a small island on the edge of Europe, we have always been grounded in our Celtic heritage of craft and storytelling, while looking externally to Europe, North America, and Asia for additional inspiration. It’s exciting for us to hear from schools in Singapore, gamers in Poland, or families in the US who play with and love our products.
Any particularly good user feedback you’d like to share?
We really value the feedback we receive from customers and fans. We’ve been told that the Studio takes children’s creativity seriously. We’ve received praise for the way it appeals to both boys and girls. In fact, some of our biggest fans are female. Others appreciate the flexibility it offers, allowing a child to play on their own away from screens or as a family in a group. Many parents have expressed their surprise at just how much they enjoyed the experience of designing for the Extraordinaires.
Our favorite feedback is that the Studio drops you into a real design experience. It breaks down the design process and combines drawing, creative thinking and fun.
The UncommonGoods team had a lot of fun designing with the kit – now Mr. Pirate can finally open his restaurant
Ready to meet the Extraordinaires and help them with some of their extraordinary design needs? Their box full of playful design challenges and fantastic fun is just a few clicks away, and no design degrees or drafting skills are required.