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Prototyping during a pandemic

How Corona pushed designers to find new ways to be creative

An interview with two ID students

Read: 5 min

I think it’s safe to say 2020 is a year no one could have predicted. And while we are slowly getting adjusted to ‘the new normal’, the shock we all experienced during the spring is still a fresh cut in our minds. You could say that the world has come to a stop this spring. No one knew what was going to happen. And staying inside seemed to be the only option. This had an immense impact on how people work all over the world. And it has also been felt at the  TU/e in our Department of Industrial Design.

An ID student away from Lucid and the creative atmosphere within the walls of Atlas? That sounded like a done deal.. 

“I was working on a project for audience engagement during concerts, and couldn’t wait until I was able to test my concept during a real performance! Then Corona hit and it was no longer possible for me to visit any locations. It’s really frustrating being held back in empathizing my users like this. Because I found it so important for my project to live through their experience myself.” Explains designer Robbie Melaet. Designer Vera Tak adds to that, “I was busy designing an immersive experience to teach supermarket visitors a lesson on plastic pollution. I was planning on telling this story through an installation in Atlas. But this was no longer an option.”

Melaet and Tak are both 2020 graduates, who started their graduation projects with big ambitions, wanting to design for immersive user experiences. But designing an experience for someone who can’t come and visit? How did that work out?
“A concert is such a special experience, it radiates energy. I don’t believe that it is possible to just ask people to “imagine” that. That won’t give realistic user test results,” shares Melaet. “This whole situation, it was all so new. To me and to my coaches. I had to find out how I could best approach it. I needed to be creative and find a new way to get that feedback”.
Maleat elaborates how he has always known, it is important for designers to be able to be creative. In our future careers we are all likely to run into situations like this one again, although hopefully in lesser forms. Creative solutions is where it’s at, but it takes real skills to achieve this. “I was thinking about changing my whole concert concept to an alternative design in the public space. But I quickly stopped myself there. As a designer I thought to myself, I shouldn’t be the one taking the easy route here. And I wouldn’t be satisfied with a lesser validation. I had to be creative.”
Melaet shifted his focus from technology and realization to creating an online VR environment. According to him the way to bring that real concert experience back to users in a safe manner. “It was a scary decision to make at the time, if I made this choice I’d

completely rule out my original plan”. In his tests Melaet ended up using VR glasses as a cultural probe. He sent building kits to people’s homes, filled with among other things a guide to setting up the immersive experience themselves and directions towards out of the box questions like: ‘Imagine you had a phone in your hand right now, what would you take a picture of? Please draw this on the designated paper’. “My tests contained fun and playful elements. Something I got both very positive responses from, and that turned out very useful for the process and for the validation of my concept”. 

Tak ended up taking an entirely different approach. Instead of going digital, she managed to convince her housemates to let her turn the shed of their student house into an experience room. Tak admitted: “I haven’t set a foot on campus since the lockdown, not even to pay Vertigo a visit. I built the room entirely from recycled material that I found laying around the house itself.” According to Tak the biggest difference between designing at home, and designing on campus was having other designers around. But while she definitely missed the occasional feedback from other designers she thought it was very interesting to see how this project would turn out, based on entirely her vision. “This situation made my project really MY project. With minimal outside input. I believe that is a good challenge for a final bachelor project like mine, I was able to both test and showcase MY skills. So I’m happy with that!” However she luckily did have some people around to bounce off ideas with. “The common residents of eindhoven! They were my target group for this sustainability project. Doing a project surrounded by them instead of designers worked very inspiring! Especially in my case, as I did get the impression ID students tend to already be more environmentally conscious than the common guy.” 

Although they might have had very different executions, both graduates were satisfied with how they found new ways to be creative. Melaet expressed he hadn’t expected to still be able to obtain the goals he had set for himself at the start of the quartile, but states it’s true that there really are multiple routes to success. When one door closes another one opens. “I find it very interesting, this VR environment started as an alternative way to perform tests. I would never have taken this route if the pandemic hadn’t eliminated my other options. But now I look back at my project, I actually think VR has been the better way to test my concept in the end. Being able to give users the experience of using my prototype on such a scale, isn’t something that would have been realistic otherwise”. Melaet emphasizes again how he caught himself in the standard ID project loop, that in his head wouldn’t be complete without a physical prototype. But the limitations of the situation pushed him out of his comfort zone to explore the limits of his creativity.

Tak adds to this that even though you can find creativity and inspiration in the people surrounding you, confidence in your own abilities is the way to success. “I have (not entirely voluntarily) learned that I am able to fully rely on my own abilities. And that is the message I want to share with my peers: even if you are all on your own, you can still achieve a lot. You are your own limit.”

Sometimes it seems the majority of the students at the ID department are stuck in their comfortable project routine, while claiming to strive for constant innovation. We get a lot of freedom, to be ourselves and explore the very ends of what can be called Industrial Design. But freedom also offers a safe blanket to stay put in where you are. This temptation to take a path that you know will lead you to a sufficient result can be high. As well as how taking a path you have never walked before can be haunting. But I believe the

university is the perfect place to take risks and make mistakes. After all, situations like a national lockdown seem to prove once again, outside of our comfort zones we can learn the most.   

Melaet concludes, “Don’t always settle for the standard! Be creative, there are many great ways to involve users in the process. Even during a pandemic.
You might think sometimes: I have my concept, the creative part is over. Now it is time to validate. But that is not true. Creative solutions can be found at any time, in every stage of design.”

text Kyara Fasen

visuals Yvonne Bruin

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