FEATURE27 August 2013

Creative feedback


You can’t research the future, but you can use insight to inspire the products of tomorrow. Matthew Cockerill, Seymourpowell’s associate design director, explains how.


Running a business would be so much easier if we could research the future. That way, companies could find out what people would need in the coming years and build it for them. It’s impossible, of course – but when your job is to be designing the products of tomorrow, you need to have something to work with. So how do product designers use research? And what can the rest of us learn from them?

Matthew Cockerill aims to answer these questions at the MRS Creativity Lab in September. An associate design director at Seymourpowell and formerly a senior in-house designer at Samsung Electronics in South Korea, Cockerill will host a workshop at the event to show how he and his colleagues develop insights around products and experiences and how they then use those insights to create new products and solutions that people will find useful in their daily lives.

Speaking to Research before the event, Cockerill said: “Fundamentally, you can’t research the future, but you can look around for weak signals that might indicate shifts in society, or opportunities around technology – and then look at how technological and societal changes might coincide to produce valuable future experiences.”

Watch and learn
Talking to Cockerill, it’s clear that designers have a different relationship to research than your typical businessman does. It’s not about validating or refining ideas you’ve already had, but inspiring the creation of something entirely new.

“The kind of research we carry out is specifically designed to be the fuel for a designer’s brain,” he says. “We do ethnographic research – observing people in their current state – but some of the stuff we actually find more valuable is to interview progressive users: those who aren’t in the mainstream but are on the edge of what’s happening in a particular field. We’re after varied and diverse opinions and observations in areas relevant to and adjacent to the problem we have to solve.”

There is a rigour to the research, of course. It’s not as simple as watch, listen and learn. “But the rigour lies in selecting the right kind of people to observe and to speak to,” explains Cockerill.

He uses a current design project by way of an example: an extreme sports jacket for mountaineering and survival. “Now, the obvious thing would be to go and speak to mountaineers in survival situations and understand all their requirements and map those and see what is most useful to them,” he says. “But we’re looking to pull in experiences from other areas, so we’ve ended up interviewing an Arctic explorer, a member of the British Special Forces, a sports psychologist – those sorts of people. The idea is to look for people who aren’t direct users of the products we’re designing, but have expertise in areas that might be applicable.”

Brain food
Perhaps the biggest difference in the way designers use insight is in what they do with it once they have it. “We’re not trying to map the whole market and understand everything and put it into a report,” Cockerill says. “It’s fuel to inspire designers to create new and innovative products.

“So the way we use the research is to host creative events; two-day workshops. The research is designed to be what we call ‘knowledge shares’ within those workshops, so we’ll have a section dedicated to the research and straight after that we’ll go into a brainstorming session for a discussion about what we found out, whether it was interesting and what can we do with those insights.

“We’re feeding the brain to get it into the right state to make creative leaps,” Cockerill concludes. “If you don’t have that research, you end up sitting at your desk designing something that you might like, but which doesn’t work for your target group.”

The MRS Creativity Lab – The power of design to inspire, illuminate and persuade – is on 19 September. More information here.