Ep. 264 – Wayne Li, Director of Design Bloc & Professor of Design and Engineering at Georgia Tech on Design, Design Thinking and Changing Trends

Ep. 264 – Wayne Li, Director of Design Bloc & Professor of Design and Engineering at Georgia Tech on Design, Design Thinking and Changing Trends

On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Wayne Li, Professor of Practice of Design and Engineering, School of Industrial Design at Georgia Tech and Director of Design Bloc. Wayne and I talk about the growing importance of design and design thinking, and we explore some of the changing trends when it comes to technology, tools, and tactics for building new products and services that matter. Let’s get started

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Interview Transcript with Wayne Li, Professor of Practice of Design and Engineering, School of Industrial Design at Georgia Tech and Director of Design Bloc

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Wayne Li. He is Professor of Practice of Design and Engineering, School of Industrial Design at Georgia Tech, Director of Design Bloc. Welcome to the show, Wayne.

Wayne Li: Hi thanks. Thanks Brian. Thanks for having me.

Brian Ardinger: Hey, I’m excited to have you on, because you have had a long career in this whole world of design and innovation. You were a founding class member at the Stanford d.school. You’ve worked with great companies like Ford and Pottery Barn and VW. And I think you were a part of the original team that helped develop the original Tesla Roadster. I think I’ll start off the conversation with where you’re currently at with Design Bloc and how it got has origin.

Wayne Li: Design Bloc is a multidisciplinary Design Thinking initiative on Georgia Tech Campus. So, you can think a center. We try to bridge different schools and colleges. Think like a large university, they’re separated in different units or colleges. You have a college of engineering and college of design, college of natural sciences.

And what Design Bloc tries to do is to teach in a multidisciplinary type of way. And so we partner with professors from all over the Institute to try to offer courses that teach not only Design Thinking, but do it in a way that bridges more than one unit, more than one college. We have things like Bio-inspired Watercolor Painting all the way to Transportation Design.

Community Engagement and Service, like a humanitarian design project. And again, you can see that those problems exist. They exist beyond just the sphere of one unit. For example, you’re saying, okay, I’m going to address developing countries energy grid. That’s not just engineering that requires public policy. It requires cultural engagement and community knowledge. You have structure or architecture there.

So, you can see a problem like that is multifaceted. We shouldn’t be teaching in a siloed or singled mono disciplinary manner. You know, I learned this really early on, probably back when I was still in college, actually. But I worked at IDEO product development very early on in my career.

You know, I think the reason why it came to be like, you mentioned, like, you know, what is it, how did it get started? Was that when I went to undergraduate, I was both a fine arts and engineering major. I kind of saw how the perception of an object, its beauty, its appearance, had a cultural relevance to it.

And then you coupled that with how well it was engineered. How well it was built. What it was actually intended to function as and whether or not those mesh together well. And I think that’s kind of what got me to my work at IDEO. But I think that was the benefit.

And so about almost seven years ago, an alumnus from Georgia Tech, Jim Oliver, went back and visited the Institute and just notice that the College of Engineering and the College of Design really didn’t talk to each other that much. Even though he himself had had a similar background. In undergraduate, he also had a mechanical engineering and industrial design background just like me.

So, he basically put out a search and said, I want someone. I will donate a certain sum of money. And I want someone to establish this kind of initiative, whose goal it is to teach students in a more well-rounded way. And so, I’m very lucky and very blessed after a nationwide search that I managed to get it. That’s kind of how it came to be.

So, we started about six, seven years ago with basically one class. With 8 students to 12 students in it. And now we teach about 20 classes a year, with about a thousand to 2000 students. Right? So, it has grown. It’s wonderful to see it. I love being the director of it and seeing it grow and getting partners and collaborators who are really psyched about it.

And the cool thing is, yeah, you actually see professors who have a PhD in something, so they’re very, very intelligent about something. All of a sudden get intrigued, like I never thought of myself as a designer. Well, everyone, little d design.

Brian Ardinger: That’s an interesting point because obviously people are beginning to understand that design is a core component of every facet of their life nowadays. But tell me a little bit about like what’s the process of Design Bloc and how do you go from an idea to creating something valuable in the market? So, walk me through the whole process of Design Bloc.

Wayne Li: Design Bloc, the initiative, right? Is you, like you mentioned, I did my graduate work at Stanford. We were in the class that helped to found the Stanford d.school. So, let’s take like the little d design. Don’t think like I’m a fashion designer or I’m a software designer or I’m a car designer. Let’s take the little d design. So, design, if we just think about design process, right.

Stanford has a certain method for their design process. They call it Design Thinking Process. But if we just think of it as a process, when anyone goes through steps or goes through mindsets or phases in order to create something, they go through a design process. Design is a very flexible word. It’s like Smurf, it’s the only word where you can almost use it like six or seven times and still get the actual understanding.

Like I could say, well, I’m designing a design that will design a design to design. So, and you’ll be like, what? But that would make sense, right? I’m designing a design; I’m creating a blueprint that will create a robot that will actually learn and make something of use. That’s what it is.

The idea of course, is that when they build anything. They’re going through what we consider a process, a design process. And again, this isn’t something that necessarily is taught at an Institute. You know, an Institute will teach physics, or it’ll teach mathematics or Latin. They’re not actually teaching the process of how you create novel, useful, effective ideas, right, for society.

The Design Thinking processes that Stanford created along with the Hasso-Plattner Institute in IDEO. Talks about how can you hone and better your design process regardless of what it is. Regardless of what you’re building. So, I think in that sense, Design Bloc is also trying to create courses that allow students to learn about the design process, hone it, and foster good mindsets and behaviors as they go through it.

Like for example, with pick something relatively trivial, but let’s just for kicks. You get up in the morning and you want to make eggs for your partner or your wife or your spouse. That’s a design process, right? You’re making something that serves a need or a benefit to someone or some entity. So technically you went through a design process.

Now the question is, if you think about it, if you really wanted to make eggs well for your spouse or partner, what would you have to do? Well, you kind of needed to know what they like. So, if they love poached eggs and you give them hard-boiled, they might not like that. And then you also have to be creative.

You have to know how many different ways can you make eggs. You also have to think about whether or not it gets well received. Obviously, if you don’t know your partner or spouse very well, and you make horrible eggs for them, they’ll let you know about it. So sooner or later, and of course that last part is the cycles, the iteration, the more and more you do it, the better you get at it.

Right. The better you get at making eggs, the better you get at making the eggs the way your partner or your spouse likes them. So, you can imagine that’s another, like a semi trivial one day activity. But whether or not you’re making eggs, an electric car, a public policy, a courtroom drama, novella, all of those are design processes. Now apply it to something more serious and you get my drift.

Brian Ardinger: Is there a standard iteration of step one, do this step two do this. Or is a lot of it driven by the learnings that you find by moving the idea forward in the first place?

Wayne Li: Yeah, no, this is great because I mean, there are many design practitioners and researchers and, you know, people who are designed professors, people who study design, and the people who practice it, who have put terminology around their design process. You might hear these in the industry, right. Google will say, well, we use Design Sprint, it’s an Agile Methodology. You might hear maybe a traditional company say, well, we use a double diamond approach, right? Where we go out and we go in, they have their terminology.

And of course Stanford’s Design Thinking Process is empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, or evaluate. And they’ve put words to that. I think when people get a little bit tripped up on is when they hear things defined with either a series of words or a diagram that like, it looks like it moves to the right.

It’s like, oh, arrow, arrow, arrow moves to the right. They get into this mindset that if I blindly follow a process from start to finish, I will be guaranteed a great result. And that’s where I think practitioners understand that the design process is not linear. It’s messy, it’s cyclical. It repeats it folds on itself. It goes backwards. You jump two steps forward or back.

Part of it is the sense and respond. That’s why, what I mentioned before, the more and more you practice your design process through experience, and through each phase, you get better at understanding how the design process is going to affect the final result.

And that takes some skill. It takes experience. You know, it can also be taught. It can be learned. As you go through a phase, are you sensing how it’s going? Do you understand the implications of what you’re doing at the time? And then can you respond? For example, if you’re in a ideate phase, it is a creative phase. I need to know how many different types of eggs I can make to address my partner.

Let’s say I only know how to make one. I only know how to boil eggs and don’t know how to poach them. I don’t know how to fry them and I don’t how to scramble. If you only make one solution and then go get that tested, chances are you’re wrong. You know, one out of 10 shot that or one out of seven shot that that’s right. If you’re not creative by nature or your company doesn’t have a creative culture in it, then blindly going through that phase of creating or ideating, isn’t going to help.

So, if you don’t know how to ideate, you’re going to be in trouble because that phase will result in the same ideas you always come up with. Part of that is again the sense and respond. Knowing how you execute. Knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are in each phase and whether or not you can cultivate those.

If you know, you’re not a very creative person in the sense that you very quickly drill down to one possible solution, and then you’re very dogmatic about it, then realize that’s a weakness in your creative process. It’s a weakness of your design process. At the same time, if you’re really blue sky and you just love imagining all day and at the end of the day, you need to put something in front of someone, otherwise this product doesn’t get built, then you’re going to have to learn about your execution and critical thinking skill.

At a certain point, I think we try to instill in our students is that, you know, the design process is fluid, it’s living and it’s part of you. You need to understand how you use it, and then you need to understand how companies use it. Cause that’s not always the same thing.

Brian Ardinger: That’s an interesting point. Are there particular areas that you find, doing these workshops and working people through a process, where people tend to get stuck? What’s the biggest aha moments about teaching a process and how to think about designing?

Wayne Li: A lot of this is cultural, right? A lot of this deals with people, and of course you see this right with various established or rigid companies that have very, very well-documented well hewn, traditional processes. They love buying out startups. Why? Because the startups are small four employee kind of entities that are usually young. They take risks. They don’t know what they can’t do because they’ve never been slapped on the wrist so many times.

For them like big companies who are really staid, who don’t encourage or empower all levels of their company to come up with ideas, will usually get into this group thing. Like, well, I can’t possibly be right. No one values my opinion. The only person that’s valued is the CEO or the executive management or the senior vice president.

So, then that just destroys a kind of innovative culture because the creativity is not fostered. It’s not empowered across all levels. I see that often, usually when I’m brought in to consult with a company or a company comes in and wants a project with a Design Bloc and we do projects for companies. You know, they’re always like looking for something like, let’s just show something we don’t know.

That they usually, something will surprise them. And part of that is because young students don’t know what they can’t do. When they come up with an idea, a lot of the times, the reason that large companies can’t or companies that don’t have an innovative culture, they don’t ask that question anymore.

Right. So, like maybe three generations ago, they stopped doing it a certain way because they learned something. But now the business environment has shifted and no one’s bothered to really question why they can’t do it that way. Or why they can’t do it in a new way. Right. It’s always so we’ve always done it that way.

Well, yeah, that’s the group thing, right? No, one’s empowered to ask and go, wait a minute. Yeah, that was true 20 years ago, but the technology has shifted around you. The audience has shifted around you, the people that use your product has shifted around you. Why not go back and question some of those baseline assumptions.

Brian Ardinger: Have you learned any techniques that you could help folks that are in that particular environment to open up their thinking or open up their exploration and not fall into this typical traps?

Wayne Li: There are a lot of different ways that you can do that, Brian. What I tend to always ask is when someone is in kind of that group think is to say, okay, wait Taguchi calls it Root Cause Analysis.

I think Dev Patnaik ¬†uses, who teaches Needfinding at Stanford has taught like a Contextual Ladder, which is like a How Why Ladder. If you’re confronted with a problem, do you understand the constraints with which you are assuming are already frozen. Taguchi method is just, why does that exist as a root problem?

That’s not necessarily creative, but what it does is it tries to ask, do you understand your context? If you’re confronted with, I only know one way to do this, or this is the way that we think the company always wants to work, then at least questioning that constraint to say, well, why do we do it this way? What assumptions are we making about either our processes or our customers, that make us decide that we should be doing it this way?

Brian Ardinger: And basically being okay with the fact that let’s assume that this is an assumption. And then like, how do we find evidence to figure out is this assumption true or false? I think a lot of people don’t go back to that process, like you said, and just double-check like, I know we’ve been doing this 20 years like that, does it still hold true. Its an important part of the process.

Wayne Li: And one thing I always love is just pushing constraints, right? I mean, ultimate creativity is having no constraints. But it’s difficult in a business environment because you always have some type of like time and money are always going to be constraints. You don’t have infinite time. You don’t have infinite money.

If you had those, you can make anything you wanted and take as long as you want it to make. So you always have some type of constraint. But what I always like to do is push against it. So if you say something like we can’t build that, that’s too expensive. Then if you say, okay, well we’ll hold on a second.

What are those assumptions? And then say, there’s inherent assumptions in that way. You’re building it the same way. That’s one assumption. If you built it with a different material or different process, you could maybe save money. If you built it with a different volume, it could be cheaper. So you’re like, well, you’re assuming that we can only sell that to 10,000 people.

What if we sell to 10 million? Or you’re assuming no one will pay for it at a higher cost. So again, really, it is about pushing on that constraint to say, we can’t do this. Flip that and reframe it. What are all the different ways that we can actually push beyond that boundary? And I take each, sometimes I’ll take the top three constraints and kind of see if they’re related and in tandem, push against them.

Sometimes I’ll take each constraint and basically brain on each one separately. Right. But ultimately I’m always asking why is this assumption here and why is this constraint here? And, you know, sometimes somebody will say, well, that just defies the laws of physics. I’m like, no, that just defies the laws of your creativity of your brain.

Right. You’re not framing it well enough. The only meaningful attribution you have is that that must be a mechanism that follows the laws of physics or follows the laws of finance. Like it has to, you know, supply demand. You must sell something for more than you make it. But those laws are inherent in a human assumption.

Somebody is using that device. So the laws of physics change if a 10 year old uses it versus a 30 year old. So if you’re like making a shovel, a kid’s plastic shovel is way different than a 30 year olds Gardener’s shovel. One shovel is made out of metal costs, maybe $25, and one’s made out of plastic and cost two. So again, your physics law didn’t change, but your framing did. Part of that is understanding your framing when you’d make an assumption,

Brian Ardinger: I’d lIke to switch gears a little bit and talk a little bit about some of the things that you’re seeing, what are some of the interesting trends in UX, UI design, and maybe even technology that you’ve seen and where do you see this whole I guess, industry going Brian?

Wayne Li: That’s a great question. I mean, I work with industrial design students and mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, computer scientists, human computer interaction, math graduate students. Definitely the thing you see faster and faster and faster for UI and UX is both portability and anticipation. So let me kind of explain what that means.

Portability in the sense that devices get smaller, they get more personal, right? No, one’s out of client terminal. There’s no client terminal relationship anymore. So the portability meaning your ability to consume data, manipulate software, has to be more and more flexible, more and more intuitive. You basically be at the will it like, you know, sooner or later, you might not even use your hand.

It’s going to be so fluid and so natural. Then you can talk to it. You can gesture at it. The interactions will be more and more natural and quicker, faster, smaller. Now the other thing, like I said is the anticipation. Everything you do is being logged so sooner or later between the machine learning algorithm and the companies that are constantly monitoring your data, they’ll be able to truly understand what you are based on your behavioral pattern.

If you’ve read the Singularity Is Near, they basically say, you know, pretty much by 2045, your consciousness will be digitized. So in that sense, if we, if we got what 20 some odd years, 24, some odd years to get there, that basically means AI will be conscious by then, in the sense that hopefully if I live long enough, I could go back and go, what did Wayne think in 2019, every thought that you put into Instagram, Facebook, anything you put into your computer will be logged and kept. So every thought you’ve ever had.

You may no longer corporally exists, but someone got a, what would Professor Li have thought in 1998, about this vehicle. And based on the machine learning though, well, Wayne said this about certain vehicles. And this vehicle and this vehicle people are very similar. So even if I’m not alive in 2080, and there’s a 2080 sports car, they’re going to go, well, what would Wayne have thought about this 2080 sports car?

And they would probably, the machine learning algorithm will say, well Wayne talked about these vehicles or design these sports cars. These were his thoughts on them because they’ve all been logged. And by the weighting metric I have, he would have liked it. Or he would have said blah-blah-blah send it. ¬†Sooner or later, we’ll have digital avatars that anyone can consult. And so that’s the anticipation part. If you can anticipate that now how will that change, what you do

Brian Ardinger: Tomorrow is Tesla’s AI day. And they’re gonna be talking a little bit about some of the new mind of the car stuff that they’re working on. Similar to what you’re saying, where the car can anticipate based on its surroundings, what’s happening and self-driving and everything else around that.

But you know, you take that beyond just transportation. You take that to everything else and how does that change the world and what we’re looking at? Even things like I think about technology and how it’s accessible to anybody now. So I have to be a coder, for example. A lot of no code tools and things along those lines that allow you to experiment and build and try things that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, you had to have a design development team to make that happen. So it’ll be interesting to see where that trend takes the world of design as well.

Wayne Li: Yeah, no, absolutely Brian. I mean, going back to what you said. I mean, obviously the sort of research area of mine, because I have an automotive interface, a human machine interface lab at Georgia Tech, right. That looks at futuristic automotive experiences. And absolutely you’re right. I mean, thinking about it this. Not only can all the cars, right now is 5g. Like let’s just think, think about 5g.

If 4g was something like, oh, it was novel for us to have one HD movie streaming on our phone. Like that’s the data of 4g, without major compression. 5g is like 40 simultaneous HD streams. So for example, if we just take some of that bandwidth and each car is communicating to the 15 nearest cars next to it, and those cars are connected and getting next to the internet enabled lampposts signage traffic stops, then that information is being shared very, very quickly.

So if there’s something that optimizes traffic flow like a stop says, well, this is open, right now. And there’s really no need for a green light or a red light or a yellow light anymore, because everyone’s already talking to each other.

Brian Ardinger: Tie that into a person’s phone and you realize, well, Joe’s a crappy driver and he’s, he’s in the lane next to me. I probably need to adjust for that.

Wayne Li: Yeah. Every car in the compass directions around you will notice that, right. Or based on your driving pattern already know that you’re a bad driver based on your previous driving history. Right? So that economists levels between semi and fully is tricky. But that data, if it’s freely shared, is there.

The same thing and will be the minute you tell your car where you’re going. So if you say, oh, I’m going to work and it’s like, great, I’m driving you there. That’s great. It will then ping everyone who’s also going to work with you. And so it’ll just say, oh, well, you know your neighbor down the street who works at the same company, why don’t y’all platoon together.

And all of a sudden you match up and you can streamline your traffic. Right? So, same thing, if you, all of a sudden, you tell the car out, I’m going to a concert. It’s a new thing. It’ll ping everyone on the internet who’s interested in that same topic, who’s going to the concert with you. And your windshield will turn into a screen.

We actually have this in the lab, a windshield that is an augmented reality screen. And then you can then meet 15 people who will meet you at the door. Cause you’ll be all dropped off at the same time to the same concert. So now you can go to the concert with not only the friends in your own car, but feel close kinship to 15 other cars that have the same people going at the same concert.

It’s an interesting concept when you can share that much data that quickly, and you see that as a trend. Yes, privacy is an issue, but you don’t really see people pushing against it that much. They’re sharing their information.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: I love what you’re doing and some of the things that you’ve seen in the past, and that. If people want to find out more about yourself or more about Georgia Tech or Design Bloc, what’s the best way to do that?

Wayne Li: My email’s fine. That’s just my name. W A Y N E . L I @ design . G A T E C H.edu. If you want to know more about Design Bloc, basically design bloc without the K so D E S I G N B L O C.ga tech.edu. So they can go to our website and then see what we do. There’s a contact us button there.

Obviously, if you’re a Georgia tech student or a prospective high school student, plenty to learn about what we do, which classes you can take. We do do workshops and not only for students, but we have done workshops for other entities. And so we are in the process of getting those things approved by the Institute. Right.

But we have mechanisms in which we do give workshops to companies or groups like the Georgia Tech Alumni Association. We’ve done Design Thinking workshops for them. So you’ll see a list of all the workshops we tend to give. And if it’s something that you are interested in or you’re interested in giving to your company or entity, then there’s a connect to us button and we can talk about that.

Brian Ardinger: Wayne, thanks again for being on Inside Outside Innovation, look forward to seeing what the future brings

Wayne Li: Me too. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on.

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


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Ep. 264 – Wayne Li, Dire...