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  4. Re-thinking the relationship between design and materials as a dynamic socio-technological innovation process: a didactic case history

Re-thinking the relationship between design and materials as a dynamic socio-technological innovation process: a didactic case history

Lucibello, Sabrina; Trebbi, Lorena

Cuadernos del Centro en Estudios en Diseño y Comunicación Nº94

Cuadernos del Centro en Estudios en Diseño y Comunicación Nº94

ISSN Impresión 1668-0227
ISSN Online: 1853-3523
DOI: https://doi.org/

Realidad difusa. Prácticas de diseño y tendencias

Año XXII, Vol.94, Agosto 2021, Buenos Aires, Argentina | 184 páginas

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Abstract: The relationship between design and science is deeply-rooted and under constant evolution, resulting today in the new approach of Bio-design, that offers to designers the novel possibility of interacting with production processes and participating in the material design stage, stimulating and directing innovation. Hence emerges the need to rethink the relationship between design and materials as a dynamic socio-technological innovation process, in order to foster the implementation of new materials on the market in an appropriate timeframe and through coherent applications. Such approach is here illustrated through three experiments carried out within the MaterialdesignLAB involving new material categories ‑ organic, living, growing ‑ that show how design represents as a tool for mediation and innovation, and plays a key role in providing meanings in such a world with many issues to be resolved, but even full of opportunities to catch in order to create disruptive new ideas.

Palabras clave: design & science - design & materials - teaching material design - organic materials - living materials - growing materials [Resúmenes en inglés y portugués en la página 119] (*) Associate Professor in Industrial Design, Sapienza Università di Roma (ITALY) (**) PhD Candidate in Industrial Design, Sapienza Università di Roma (ITALY) 

1. Design, materials and science Design had always proved a strong interest towards Science from which it inferred methods, approaches and some results, hybridizing them, with the aim of translating progresses of the research into innovative products and visions (Ferrara, 2015; Carullo et al, 2017). The relationship between Design and Science is constantly evolving, and the more our comprehension of the world around us grows, the more the solutions of the artificial world get closer to that of the natural one. In particular, the partnership between Design and Material Science has always been fruitful, and today Biology appears to be increasingly involved in this relation. Over the last decade indeed, we have been witnessing the emergence of Biodesign (Myers, 2012), which, as a result of the intersection between Design and Biology, harnesses living materials letting nature participate to the creative process, experimenting the possibility of replacing industrial systems with biological processes.

Dealing with living organisms provides a certain degree of unpredictability, establishing a dynamic form of interaction between designer and material, intentional project and living systems' autopoiesis, and pointing out the need of developing co-design strategies considering nature as a co-worker (Collet, 2017), as with the Growing Design approach (Camere & Karana, 2017), through which designers started producing new materials harnessing the natural growth and reproduction processes of microorganisms such as fungi, bacteria and algae. This opened a wide range of new opportunities, making it possible to pull the trigger on a radical paradigm shift, offering a different perspective on the objects populating our material world, as well as on how current production systems could be conceived and reinterpreted (Montalti, 2017), expanding the equilibrium condition of natural ecosystems to the artificial world.

Even though the contamination between science and design is deeply rooted, the interaction between these two worlds isn't always able of bearing fruit, both for difficulty in “language” (Ashby, 2002), and for the speed of scientific innovations and experimentations, which actually allows too little time to design to translate and sediment them in products, through a synthesis among the various disciplines involved, and to the users to be able to understand and appreciate them. In addition, there are the long lead times for industrial development which, especially in the field of new materials, make it difficult to implement them into products suitable and competitive for the market (Lucibello, 2018). In such a scenario design positions itself as synthetic discipline ‑ between scientists and users, producers and consumers ‑ able to close the loop of innovation attributing value and meaning to scientific and technological research (Ferrara, 2015). Compared to the past, when design came into play only in the final stage of technical development of the product, today, as we will see in the following examples, it is fully involved since the conception stages and has the opportunity to participate in the material design stage, effectively stimulating and directing innovation also within scientific processes (Langella, 2012).

The research on new materials within the Design-driven Material Innovation approach (Ferrara, 2017), moving within a cross-border disciplinary field, assigns a strategic role to design, able to deal with the evolving socio-cultural context and scientific innovation, putting on the same level technical and perceptual material qualities, as well as the understanding of societal needs, customer values and users behaviours, arousing the birth of specific and contextualized “design visions” that can be materialized into products. Therefore, it appears necessary to re-think the relationship between design and materials as a dynamic socio-technological innovation process (Lucibello, 2018), since designers have the possibility of making new materials available to people through products, implementing contamination between disciplines and technology transfers, making artifacts more significant, smart, performative and comfortable. The focus is the Design Experience, the contribution made by design to the determination of the product “empathy”, operating on aesthetic and perceptual qualities in order to integrate communicational and sensory plus. The ability to express material’s sensory and immaterial qualities has indeed become a key aspect in the design process, by which transforming the user experience into a meaningful and deep sensory interaction with the product. Another important aspect is the contamination between professionals from different field, with the aim of hybridizing methodologies, processes and approaches, and rearranging the knowledge, still divided into compartments and disciplines, into a multiverse way. In this way it is possible to implement concrete research experiences where scientists and designers can confront and contaminate, interacting to construct a common language and methodology. It should be scientifically replicable as the deductive-logical-analytical methodology of the scientist but based on the rules of the inductive-experiential-synthetic process of the designer, in order to foster the adoption of new materials within an appropriate time frame for the economical and industrial development, defining the possible and coherent applications through the design process.

2. Design Experiments: MaterialdesignLAB From the convergence of different interests about materials for design, and from the partnership between Sapienza University of Rome and the Italian Institute of Technology IIT of Genoa, has been founded the MaterialdesignLAB, a creative multidisciplinary laboratory for the exploration of new scenarios resulting from theoretical and applied research about materials for design, finalized to the enhancement of scientific research in the field of innovative materials through their application in design driven products.

Based on a previous teaching experiences approach (Ferrara & Lucibello, 2012), over the years, the integration operated between research and teaching has produced in a number of cases very interesting results. In such cases students weren’t expected to find solutions to specific problems with the traditional and linear problem-solving approach, but to start a circular process from the material itself, which became input in the design with materials process (Lucibello, 2018). In order to explore and investigate new opportunities offered by advances in bio and growing design, it has been developed a set of three different experiments carried out by students and researchers involved in the MaterialdesignLAB, with reference to new material categories: Organic, Living and Growing.

2.1. Organic - experiential exploration of biomaterials from food waste.

The first experiment examines the category of organic materials, with focus on do-it-yourself (DIY) bioplastics made from food waste. The investigation was carried out through sensory exploration of material, which represents an essential research tools for the designer.

Material tinkering indeed, is a means for “logically thinking through senses” (Nimkurlat, 2012), and the experiential approach allows thinking through hands in order to ascribe meaning and significance to artefacts.The starting point of the experiment was an inquiry about the identity of organic materials, and the attempt to attribute positive value to food waste, enhancing the collateral qualities related to the natural properties of raw materials employed, which can be preserved and transferred to the final product. In collaboration with Explora - Children’s Museum of Rome, it has been set up a craft laboratory for DIY bioplastics production, addressed to children from eight to eleven years old. The decision of involving children was determined by the strong potential of their being as a blank slate or tabula rasa, free from any conditioning when approaching new materials.

The experiment consisted of three steps: DIY making of the material from different kinds of food waste with particular attention to the diversification of colours and odours; sensory exploration of the material samples realized in the previous step, analysing tactile properties such as flexibility, softness or roughness, smelling and visual properties, particularly related to the raw material employed, as well as taste and auditory ones; brainstorming on the impression emerged from the sensory exploration, as regards the possible uses and applications of the material in design products.

As a result of this experiment, the identity of organic materials from food waste appears to be strictly connected to the sensory and physical contact with the material. From the aesthetic point of view the material looks raw and coarse, which can be a deficiency for certain product typologies, but that, if linked to the richness of its sensory qualities and collateral properties, can become the strength and added value of the product. Biodegradability makes these materials alive to some extent, evolving matter which changes and modify with time as long as it dissolves, a feature with strong cultural and communicative potential related to the ability of releasing substances and smells, that can be applied in products used in close contact with our body, such as accessories and jewellery, as well as in the healthcare field. Among the possible scenarios a new set of needs and applications has been identified, as the exponential acceleration of instant products life-cycle (Manzini, 1990). For this reason, we can envision the employment of biodegradable organic materials into a product range that we can define medium- term disposable products, which ephemeral life span won’t impact on the environment.

2.2. Living - corrosion and the aesthetics of imperfection.

As a result of our deeper comprehension of materials the separation between nature and artefacts, animate and inanimate matter, is becoming more and more blurred. The objective of this experiment was to bring out a renewed concept of beauty, emerging from human intervention into the industrial process, able to give birth to an infinite scenario of mistakes and imperfections, which turn themselves to linguistic elements.

This objective has been pursued starting from the investigation on chemical and metallurgic processes, which applies in the transformation of traditional materials such as metals, in order to reach higher level of expression and develop a novel aesthetic for surface treatments. The laboratory experience then inquired the possible results, which could be achieved through metals oxidation process. The experiment involved four different kinds of metals (iron, copper, aluminium and galvanized iron), treated with different chemicals and reaction lengths, achieving a rich palette of materials with variations in colours, texture, roughness and opacity. The corrosive processes allowed to alter the aesthetic and sensory qualities we usually attribute to metals, at the same time making them stronger and more durable thanks to the passivation phenomenon.

The possibility to experiment within the chemistry field, represented an important mean through which expanding creativity and enhancing meaning attribution, metals were brought closer to their natural deterioration cycle, making them subject to aging and changing, alive despite inorganic.

Looking at the material samples at a smaller scale, it is possible to notice that it is not the material to change, but it offers itself as a fertile substrate for the oxidation layer, which in this way can grow and proliferate as fungi or moulds. The oxidation layer goes through rrounding environment. Such vulnerability is able to determine a number of different results in a random but controlled way: materials react to the changed conditions they are exposed in the new environment, evolving and adapting as living beings, with the intervention of nature as designer.

2.3. Growing - sensory attributes of bacterial materials.

The growth of new materials from microorganisms paves the way for a new aesthetical and perceptual exploration opposed to the industrial standardized perfection, as well as for developing self-controlled production processes (Rognoli et al., 2015), establishing a partnership with microorganisms shifting from nature as a model (Benyus, 1997) to nature as co-worker (Collet, 2017). This new category of cultured materials, brings great benefits with a view to sustainable development and circular economy, since mycelium, bacteria and algae are abundantly distributed worldwide, fully renewable and compostable, evolving through a circular life-cycle able to return nutrients back to the environment beside not producing waste. Fig. 5. Palette of bioplastic samples made with scraps of Italian craft beer that highlight the possibilities of aesthetic-perceptual characterization (colour, grain, surface, etc.). Chiara Del Gesso, Final Exam at the Master of Science in Product Design Sapienza Università di Roma & MaterialdesignLab, Scientific Director Sabrina Lucibello. (credits Chiara Del Gesso) The novelty of these materials entails that they are currently going through an exploration phase: while the technical-productive aspects have been indeed investigated, the perceptive ones still appear uncertain and under experimentation. Therefore, the third experiment involves tan exploration of the different sensory attributes that can be obtained interacting with the production process of bacteria-grown materials, modifying growth parameters, additives, and substrates, as a result of a collaboration between designers and biologists.

The experiment is being developed through the following phases: 

1. Analysis on current researches and applications in the design field; 

2. Definition of the scope of investigation, structuring the research network connecting different professionals and research facilities; 

3. Construction of methodology; 

4. Methodology testing through development of a product starting from a specific materic scenario.

This third experiment is currently a work in progress that will require further investigation, the goal is to determine new methodology and tools for designers, able to foster the creation of materic scenarios for the application of this new category of materials, avoiding their use in a purely imitative form, and promoting their implementation into products suitable for the market.

Starting from researches on perceptual modalities, synaesthesia and cross-sensory experience, the experiment focuses on the overall material experience, not as sum of distinct sensory stimuli but as interaction of multiple sensory stimulations.

3. Senses and perception for material experience In the last few years are emerging new design approaches to materials for design, with a shift from mere selection to direct experimentation, with the development of methodologies and tools for material exploration, in a framework defined Design-driven Material Innovation (Ferrara, 2017).

In particular, with bio-design the interaction between designer and material intensifies, and the experiential dimension plays a fundamental role in the creative process: it allows to gather information and understand properties and potential of materials.

The direct interaction with the production process, no longer separated from the design stage, pushes the designer to experiment with perceptual features expanding the sensory and expressive potential of new materials, as well as to imagine new applications. As a result of the three experiments ‑ Organic, Living, Growing ‑ carried out within the MaterialdesignLab, emerged three main factors related to the new material categories. In the first place the relationship with the environment, able to affect significantly the final output, responsible of the growth and reproduction processes of bacterial-materials as well as of the metals’ oxidation process, and source from which retrieving waste turning it into new materials, then returning nutrients back through biodegradation. Secondly the role of time and memory, from two complementary point of views: on one hand in relation to the ephemeral nature of biodegradable materials, which decompose at the end of their life-cycle, potentially suggesting new behaviours embodying new values and meanings into products; on the other hand considering the development of durable products, able to last and evolve over time, establishing a long-lasting relationship with the user as in case of living materials, providing positive value to natural degradation processes, able to change colours, textures and patterns, extending in this way the product’s life-cycle. Finally, the usage scenario, the most variable and open factor, that makes it possible to envision new ideas, behaviours, and uses, suggesting new rules.

In all experiments examined, the aesthetic-perceptual features of materials appear to be fundamental, significantly contributing to the aesthetic appreciation and to the overall product experience. The whole perception of the product aesthetics indeed, is the result of the convergence of different aspects such as sensory properties or symbolic and metaphoric meanings, all influenced by a set of physiological, psychological and cultural factors (Zuo et al., 2001; Zuo, 2010). For this reason, within the exploration phase the role of the senses is essential for the designer, in order to grasp the essence or "hidden character" (Ashby, 2014) of the materials, twist of sensory qualities and intangible aspects, and translate it into products. Starting the design process from the material exploration, opposed to analytical knowledge, represents a source of inspiration for the project, able to generate in and re-think the paradigms of the material culture - emergent property resulting from our values, aspirations, and collective beliefs.

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Ashby, M. (2014). Foreword: Materials Experience - Fundamentals of Materials and Design.

In E. Karana, O. Pedgley, & V. Rognoli (Ed.), Materials Experience: Fundamentals of Materials and Design. Oxford: Elsevier.

Braungart, M., & McDonough, W. (2002). Cradle to Cradle. Remaking the way we make things, New York: North Point Press.

Benyus, J. (1997). Biomimicry. Innovation inspired by Nature, Camere, S., Karana, E. (2017). Growing materials for product design. Paper presented at Alive.

Active.Adaptive. - International Conference of the Design Research Society Special Interest Group on Experiential Knowledge (EKSIG). Rotterdam: Delft University of Technology.

Carullo, R., Cecchini, C., Ferrara, M., Langella, C., Lucibello, S. (2017). From Science to Design􏰤  the Design4Materials virtuous cycle. In The Design Journal, 20:sup1.

Collet, C. (2017). Grow-Made Textiles. Paper presented at Alive.Active.Adaptive. - International Conference of the Design Research Society Special Interest Group on Experiential Knowledge (EKSIG). Rotterdam: Delft University of Technology.

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Resumen: La relación entre diseño y ciencia está profundamente arraigada y en constante evolución, lo que resulta hoy en el nuevo enfoque de Bio-diseño, que ofrece a los diseñadores la posibilidad novedosa de interactuar con los procesos de producción y participar en la etapa de diseño del material, estimulando y dirigiendo la innovación. . De ahí surge la necesidad de repensar la relación entre el diseño y los materiales como un proceso dinámico de innovación socio-tecnológica, a fin de fomentar la implementación de nuevos materiales en el mercado en un marco de tiempo adecuado y mediante aplicaciones coherentes.

Este enfoque se ilustra aquí a través de tres experimentos realizados en MaterialdesignLAB que involucran nuevas categorías de materiales (orgánico, viviente, en crecimiento) que muestran cómo el diseño representa una herramienta para la mediación y la innovación, y desempeña un papel clave para proporcionar significados en un mundo así. Muchos problemas por resolver, pero incluso llenos de oportunidades para atrapar con el fin de crear nuevas ideas disruptivas.

Palabras clave: Diseño y ciencia - diseño y materiales - material didáctico - materiales orgánicos - materiales de vida - materiales de cultivo.

Resumo: A relação entre design e ciência está profundamente enraizada e em constante evolução, resultando na nova abordagem do Bio-design, que oferece aos designers a nova possibilidade de interagir com os processos de produção e participar da fase de projeto do projeto. material, estimulando e direcionando a inovação. . Daí a necessidade de repensar a relação entre design e materiais como um processo dinâmico de inovação sociotecnológica, a fim de incentivar a implementação de novos materiais no mercado em um prazo adequado e por meio de aplicações coerentes. Essa abordagem é ilustrada aqui por meio de três experimentos realizados no MaterialdesignLAB que envolvem novas categorias de materiais (orgânicos, vivos, em crescimento) que mostram como o design representa uma ferramenta para mediação e inovação e desempenha um papel fundamental no fornecimento de significado. em um mundo assim. Muitos problemas para resolver, mas até cheios de oportunidades de armadilhas para criar novas ideias disruptivas.

Palavras chave: Design e ciência - design e materiais - material didático - materiais orgânicos - materiais de vida - materiais de cultura.

[Las traducciones de los abstracts fueron supervisadas por el autor de cada artículo]


Re-thinking the relationship between design and materials as a dynamic socio-technological innovation process: a didactic case history fue publicado de la página 109 a página120 en Cuadernos del Centro en Estudios en Diseño y Comunicación Nº94

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