Designing Socially Valuable Products and Experience

SLIDESHOW: “Design is not primarily about artistic form, but about a socially valuable user experience. One that combines cultural, functional and emotional dimensions,” according to Nicolas Henchoz, director of EPFL+ECAL Lab.

EPFL+ECAL Lab, a prestigious Lausanne design lab, wants to put usability at the heart of technological design.

From its headquarters in a sleepy Swiss suburb of Lausanne, the EPFL+ECAL Lab is exploring the potential for socially valuable applications of technological advances through ethical design.

Its director, Nicolas Henchoz, heads up a multidisciplinary team that combines expertise in design, engineering, architecture and user evaluation. “Design,” he says, “is not primarily about artistic form, but about a socially valuable user experience. One that combines cultural, functional and emotional dimensions.” Henchoz is himself a dynamic hybrid who trained as a material sciences engineer and has worked as a professional journalist and news anchor.

His desire is to integrate change at a human, practical level. For example, EPFL+ECAL established an international workshop with leading art and industrial design colleges to produce some 28 applications for a new, dye-based solar cell technology inspired by photosynthesis in plants. The dye is able to harness solar energy through coloured, flexible and transparent surfaces, which means it can be used on everyday objects: a letterbox that sends an email notification when new post arrives; benches that illuminate public parks; and radios for the homeless that capture almost all of the light spectrum and recharge at street level.

Another intriguing project is devoted to shaping wood from fast-growing species in order to spare the tropical and equatorial forests. Spruce wood was effectively densified through a complex treatment that combined pressure, temperature and steam to eliminate porosity. The lab applied the process to everyday objects with varying densification requirements, from ergonomic door handles with reinforced stress points to flexible headphones, or in the case of Pressure Point, a collaboration with London designer Paul Cocksedge and Wallpaper magazine, to producing a spectacular pair of stiletto boots for Milan’s Handmade exhibition.

One of the particularities of the EPFL+ECAL Lab is that the project briefs are as diverse as the client list, says Henchoz, especially when you add social media, immersive experience and augmented reality into the equation. These include converting the vast digitised archives of a renowned music festival into a complementary experience in the Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab, a capsule with segmented screens that immerse the viewer in a journey of responsive images and sounds. Chronogram presents the 260-year history of watchmaker Vacheron Constantin through viewing devices tailored to a clientele defined by craft connoisseurship. Sunny Memories is anexploration of a potential solar energy future. Seeds of Colour is an augmented reality experience programmed for Brazilian footwear retailer Melissa. And, most recently, there’s Solidarity Network, an initiative commissioned by Pro Senectute to encourage interactions among seniors by demonstrating the real social merits of internet media.

So, what are the key elements that combine to create good design at the EPFL+ECAL Lab? Henchoz suggests that a key inspiration is to create something innovative and at the same time ‘super normal’, one that celebrates the virtues of everyday things. “We don’t strive towards futuristic forms that sometimes can appear anecdotal and gimmicky, but for the sense of normality that makes you feel comfortable enough to adopt. When we work on augmented reality projects, we add digital information around a physical object in the most natural way, to value the content.”

He adds: “The ethics of design are to be clear with your intention in what you design. We want something new to be relevant. Meaning has a longer lifecycle than technology.” Referring to the sensory keynotes that underpin the world of memory beyond stories, and that are vital components of good design, Henchoz says: “In the case of Vacheron, viewing devices that may otherwise have seemed too inhibiting, foreign and plastic, were designed to evoke binoculars, a fencing mask and a top-stitched leather headset that elicits an instinctive gestural use.” Tactility informs the choice of materials at the EPFL+ECAL Lab and this is evidenced by an enduring commitment to trusty wood. In another project, Under Pressure, we see fast-growing spruce made dense to acquire the hardness and stability of rare woods, but with new sensorial expression.

As for future projects, Henchoz is working on applying augmented reality to perfume. “There is an incredible potential to move towards an experience, combining vision, smell and touch,” he says. Henchoz is also looking at new inclusive and meaningful immersive media for sport.

When asked to describe the perfect design project, Henchoz offers up a surprising response that indicates his commitment to due process: “Design research. It is critical that design should begin to produce knowledge that tracks the impact of an artefact, creating a feedback loop as in scientific methodology.” The EPFL+ECAL Lab employs psychologists to analyse qualitative and quantitative data at consumer level and track the effect on the user, including emotional responses. “Sustainable innovation relies on useful paradigms — not a six-month thrill of the new,” says Henchoz.

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SLIDESHOW: “Design is not primarily about artistic form, but about a socially valuable user experience. One that combines cultural, functional and emotional dimensions,” according to Nicolas Henchoz, director of EPFL+ECAL Lab.

EPFL+ECAL Lab

Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab (c) Joel Tettamanti/EPFL+ECAL Lab

Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab (c) Joel Tettamanti/EPFL+ECAL Lab

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EPFL+ECAL Lab

Nicholas Henchoz, director, EPFL+ECAL Lab

Nicholas Henchoz, director, EPFL+ECAL Lab

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EPFL+ECAL Lab

Door handle Design Big Game/EPFL+ECAL Lab (c) Olivier Pasqual

Door handle Design Big Game/EPFL+ECAL Lab (c) Olivier Pasqual

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EPFL+ECAL Lab

Headset by Design Normal Studio/EPFL+ECAL Lab (c) Olivier Pasqual

Headset by Design Normal Studio/EPFL+ECAL Lab (c) Olivier Pasqual

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