MIT Design Lab
The Design Laboratory
At MIT, the Design Laboratory exists within a context of broad-based technological innovation and builds upon the unique advantages offered by this setting. It pursues research, executes practical design and art projects, and engages in scholarship and criticism.
The Laboratory is organized as a collection of multidisciplinary research and project teams unconstrained by the traditional boundaries between the design, planning, and engineering professions and disciplines.
Generally, the Laboratory’s projects engage new technologies and their potential to enable fresh and highly effective solutions to problems of significant social, economic, and cultural importance. The Laboratory is particularly interested in the emerging possibilities afforded by: new information technologies; new material, fabrication, and construction technologies; new ways of providing functionality at micro and nano scales; new techniques for engineering biological materials and structures; and new planning and management strategies. We are concerned not only with the design of individual products, systems, buildings, and urban areas, but also with the roles these elements play in larger urban, regional, and global systems and their long-term sustainability.
The Design Laboratory is committed to the highest standards of design quality and pursues its projects within a framework of vigorous debate about related issues of values, ethics, and social justice.
Design plays a distinct role in advancing knowledge and creating human benefit. It complements science and technological innovation. Designers are concerned with the social, cultural, and spatial situating of technologies so they optimally meet specific human needs. From an economic perspective, the design of products, systems, services and environments is the means by which the potential value of a given technological innovation is realized. Design research, teaching, and practices are, therefore, crucial components of creative economies.
Successful design depends upon a deep understanding of human, social, and environmental needs and their contexts, practical knowledge of the means available to respond to these needs, and strategies for creatively relating needs and means. Design breaks boundaries and applies a peripheral view to see things differently: it combines resourceful problem making and problem solving with ongoing critical reflection.
The MIT Design Laboratory is guided by five imperatives that underscore our conception of successful design.
1. Design is making.
We take seriously the motto of MIT: Mens et manus, “mind and hand.” The work of the Design Laboratory always leverages active prototyping at all levels. Ours is not a laboratory doing basic research; we design and make things, based on advanced research, to be deployed in the real world. This has been at the core of the lab’s activities from the beginning: we have always deployed as a way of learning, critically thinking, and experimenting. Making is embedded into our critical approach and ideation process, and we use prototypes as a way to create and invent, as a step in the direction of a solution.
2. Design is always problem making first, and problem solving later.
We always apply a wider view to ensure that we can see peripherally—but not simply for the purpose of observation. Our objective is always to come to a solution. We first redefine problems, listen to silent, emerging social signals, and capture embryonic trends. Then we imagine, design, ingeniously create, and engineer solutions at all levels. By challenging the status quo and the given assumptions, we focus on the problems that most need to be solved—and solve them creatively.
3. Design is human centered and experience based.
We do not treat the concept of “human-centered design” as merely an aspiration, but place humans at the very center of all of our work. It is what motivates us to understand context, societies, and cultures, and it is why we reject the idea that a technology or design can ever simply be plugged in and turned on. Our starting point is to assume that nothing is universal and that every society is a complex living organism. So, our work involves accumulating “thick data”—qualitative information about how people actually live their lives in all of the aspects relevant to a given project. We are observers and ethnographers who believe that what we need to know about a given community of people to inform our design work cannot always be captured in traditional “scientific” ways. And when we do design, we always concern ourselves not only with how humans and technology will interact, but more importantly with how humans will interact with each other. We design technologies and services for humans, not humans for technologies. We are deeply focused on human experiences first. We design for a better world.
4. Design is about breaking the boundaries of established disciplines.
Our Design Laboratory bring together people from multiple disciplines to see and understand the world in different ways and create totally new solutions to problems. But this approach is not about making sure all the relevant disciplines “touch” our work, but about melding disciplines together so that the contributions made by project participants transcend their individual disciplines. To understand the complex problem of today’s society, we need to combine existing traditional disciplines and invent new ones.
5. Design is æsthetically beautiful and elegant.
The æsthetic is an important and characterizing element of design. We not only design beautiful things, but the elegance of the solution—the balance between form and function—is also part of the project, reflected across all phases and outputs. Both æsthetics and elegance are core functions of every object, interface, and design, of every product and every service. Design delivers a delightful experience.
History of the MIT Design Laboratory
The MIT Design Lab was co-founded in 2006 by William J. Mitchell and Federico Casalegno, who served as associate director.
Between 2006 and 2010, the MIT Design Lab was a constellation of various MIT research groups. Sadly, Bill Mitchell died in 2010, but we’ve never stopped designing. Through the MIT Mobile Experience Lab, created in 2004 with Bill, Dr. Casalegno has continued to engage in advanced design research and celebrate design within MIT.
The Design Lab, previously part of SA+P, is today within CMS/W, SHASS. With the Design Lab, we aim to keep pushing forward with Bill’s ideas, embedding the “DNA” of his extraordinary vision into our work and building on those ideas to expand our unique approach to design into solving new problems and addressing new challenges.