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McDonagh brings innovative approach to industrial design

Deana McDonagh contributes innovative industrial design principles to the interdisciplinary research mix at the Beckman Institute.

Published on Feb. 27, 2008

Perched on Deana McDonagh's desk in the Beckman Institute is a plastic, green, troll-like creature who serves as a front-line soldier in her mission to understand the emotional relationships people have with the products that populate their environments.

Toward that goal, McDonagh is using a futuristic-looking kiosk with a product display case and a camera to capture people's reactions to items inside it like green creatures or, someday soon, the latest technological devices from her fellow Beckman researchers.

"I am very interested in capturing expressions for a reason, because as a designer I ask 'do you like that?'" McDonagh says, holding up for closer inspection the green creature that manages, in the manner of trolls, to appear both lovable and disturbing. "And you go 'oh yeah it's great' but your face is saying I wouldn't buy that."

"I'm into building these links with science and engineering technology because design has so much to offer." - Deana McDonagh

McDonagh occupies a unique place at the Institute: as an Associate Professor of Industrial Design in the School of Art and Design she is the only Beckman faculty member from the College of Fine and Applied Arts. For more than a decade she has contributed a unique perspective to the world of design through her multiple roles of professor, author, book and journal editor, conference and seminar speaker, and consultant to industry.

While McDonagh is the lone industrial design faculty member at Beckman, her work is very much in line with the Arnold Beckman-inspired approach to research because of her emphasis on the importance of creating successful, user-friendly applications. To accomplish that end, McDonagh has a long history of working with industry.

"It's critical because what I do is applied; it's got to get through to the mainstream user," she said. "This is not high-end design; this is design for everybody."

Now, McDonagh is forging relationships with researchers whose newly-developed technology is at or near the design phase.

"For many, industrial design is the bridge between science, engineering, technology (SET), and the arts," McDonagh said. "It's this bridge that I offer the Beckman because (designers) have an appreciation of SET but at the same time we can think fluidly. This is something I believe in: it takes intelligence to answer a question but it takes creativity, the designer, to ask the question. Many people will say it can't be done, it can't be done, but the designer will say 'well, why not?' Let's look at it this way. We just put on a different pair of glasses every day."

McDonagh's focus is on empathic design, which incorporates the role emotion plays in the people-product relationship as a key component of the design process.

"Product design is focused on the artifact, industrial design is focused on artifacts within an environment and also the relationship that people have with those products," McDonagh said. "From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep we are engaging with the material landscape, which is all the products that we have chosen or have been chosen for us. And those products, depending on our physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being, those products and our material landscape can strip us of our dignity or they can empower us.

"It's just one of the key attributes when you're designing - you have to bring in the emotional domain," she added. "Design is not about styling. Emotions and emotionality until recently were perceived by many to undermine rational decision-making. What we realize now is that rationality and emotionality combined help us make appropriate, balanced decisions."

And those decisions about the "things" in our lives help us define who we are, McDonagh said. "We often say people are connected to tribes: iPod, iPhone, what we drive. Everything matters."

The kiosk is one way McDonagh hopes to explore the emotional domain aspect of the people-product relationship. She plans on displaying the kiosk, created with Hank Kaczmarski of Beckman's Integrated Systems Laboratory, in the Beckman atrium in the near future. McDonagh hopes to include new technology developed at the Institute in the kiosk and work with researchers to include design principles in their new devices.

"What excited me about the Beckman is all these little technologies are being developed and all it takes is somebody saying 'we can apply that here,'" she said. "We bring design common sense: how is something navigated, how does somebody approach this, how do they feel?

"Products don't just satisfy functional needs, they have to satisfy supra-functional needs, which are emotional, aspirational, cultural, social, and many, many other things. If someone is developing technology, that is the designer's forte, looking for applications. I'm into building these links with science and engineering technology because design has so much to offer."

McDonagh has written widely on the topic of industrial design and industry has often called on her for input through consultations and numerous seminars and talks. The synopsis for the 2003 book she co-authored, Design and Emotion, says the "relationship between the user and the product is paramount in industry, which has led to major research investments in this area. Traditional ergonomic approaches to design have concentrated on the user's physical and cognitive abilities. However, new approaches also take into consideration the user's emotional relationship with their belongings."

McDonagh said that perspective is a 180-degree turn from past approaches.

"(In the past) the designer would profess what good taste was, and the user would go out and buy it," she said. "Then suddenly we realized, hold on a minute, if we consider the user maybe the products will be more effective. This is called user centered design (UCD).

"Before the user was always seen as a subject, as the other," she added. "What my Ph.D. focused on was the designer and the user come together as collaborators. You and I sit down and we negotiate and navigate what your issues are. I am looking for design triggers, design cues, stuff that would kind of be meaningless to you; everyday activities become mundane and therefore invisible to the person. With empathic design we don't design for, we don't design with somebody in mind; we design collaboratively."

McDonagh developed her perspectives on design while earning a Master's of Science in Industrial Design and a Ph.D. degree in Industrial Design Research Methodologies in her native England. She was a professor in Industrial Design for eight years there before coming to the University of Illinois in 2004. As she writes on her Web site, she is "a passionate advocate of participative design processes."

"Industrial design for me is one of the best-kept secrets," McDonagh said. "It's a really wonderful discipline that has an impact on people. I didn't know about industrial design but when I discovered this Masters program (at Salford University), I grabbed it with both hands. For me what is critical about design and the difference between an artist and a designer is, an artist tends to be kind of reflective and tends to look within to express feelings. Designers are applying knowledge and their understanding to enhance life for others."

Enhancing life for others is an approach McDonagh believes in and passes on to her students. She has had her students shadow students with physical disabilities in order for them develop empathy that would help in designing products relevant to the disabled students' quality of life. McDonagh said she is interested in de-stigmatizing products for users such as the disabled and the elderly, and in designing products that are personal to the user and may even be able to react to, for example, the loss of dexterity as a person grows older.

"I develop design research tools and approaches that enable designers to expand their empathic horizon, so that they can develop and create products that satisfy an authentic need," McDonagh said. "It's not my role to ensure that we fill the shops and the shelves with more products; my motivation is to ensure that we have products which have more meaning. So it's really ensuring that our material landscape is empowering."

McDonagh said Illinois is a great place to study and teach industrial design.

"Illinois has one of the most recognized industrial design programs in the country," she said. "It has a phenomenal design history: the Razr phone, this ergonomic, iconic chair (pointing to her Aeron chair, designed by U of I Industrial Design alum Bill Stumpf ).

"What amazes me is few people know what industrial design is. It's sexy, it's fun, it affects people. What you do has a tangible outcome."

McDonagh hopes one tangible outcome of her work will be to see new technology displayed in the kiosk at Beckman.

"That would be quite nice if you're walking through the Beckman in a few months time and you see a kiosk and it comes alive and you've got a product that you can't quite figure out," she said. "Beware, I'll be capturing facial expressions to elicit feedback and see how we make sense of those designs."

And McDonagh is open to new collaborations.

"I welcome the opportunity to play," she said. "I say to students 'follow your heart and you never have to go to work because everyday you get up and you do what you love.'"

In this article

  • Deana C. McDonagh
    Deana C. McDonagh's directory photo.