How Design Shapes Meaningful Science

As the seasons change, leaves turn from green to yellow, orange, and red. In the early 2000s, a Danish biotech firm tried to harness this phenomenon to detect landmines. Nearly two decades later, their innovative yet ultimately failed attempt highlights the importance of integrating design from the start.

Promising Solutions without Application

Since landmines became a common feature of conflict in World War II, they have resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths and injured many more innocent people. While it is possible to detect most landlines using metal detectors, the method has always been slow and dangerous. In 2004, researchers at Aresa Biodetection discovered that nature might already hold the answer.
     By manipulating the naturally occurring elements that make autumn leaves turn color, Aresa’s molecular biology researchers developed a version of a common weed known as thale cress that would turn brown in the presence of nitrogen dioxide—a toxin commonly released by underground landmines. Because the plant has been modified to react to nitrogen dioxide, it also held another advantage. Theoretically, it would also be able to identify landmines housed in plastic casings.
     When Aresa’s discovery was first announced, there was great optimism about the breakthrough’s humanitarian potential. Yet, nearly two decades later, the world continues to grapple with the landmine problem, and Aresa Biodetection is no longer an active company. Sadly, while Aresa’s solution was a great idea, it was plagued by a notable flaw. Aresa’s researchers genetically modified a common weed to solve a longstanding and devasting problem without first fully exploring the viability of their proposed solution. After all, you can’t garden in a minefield, so how can you easily plant mine-detecting plants in one?
     Although a number of solutions were proposed—for example, dropping Aresa’s genetically modified seeds from a plane—in the end, no viable solution was found. After all, if you drop thousands of seeds from a plane, there is no guarantee they will land and take root where intended. Worse yet, in this case, a false negative would be devastating.  

Why Science Needs Design

What if Aresa’s molecular biologists had had a thoughtful designer working with them in the lab? What questions and concerns would the designer have raised from the onset? More importantly, how much time, energy, and research funding might have been preserved as a result?
     My best guess is that had design guided the work of Aresa’s lab from the start, the question of how the modified thale cress seeds would be dispersed over minefields and then encouraged to germinate would not have been an afterthought. It is also possible that the research may have ended up following a very different path.
     We’ve all heard the expression, “hindsight is everything.” In a sense, when you have a designer at the table, you avoid having to rely on hindsight. With the expertise required to anticipate the challenges of scaling solutions and applying them in real-life scenarios, the very best designers can help researchers realize whether or not they are investing in viable solutions long before they invest the time and money to bring solutions to life. This doesn’t mean that designers necessarily put the brakes on innovation. On the contrary, they hold the potential to steer science in a more meaningful direction.

Steps to Begin Leading with Science-Based Design

For leaders interested in staying ahead of the curve, now is the time to start putting design at the center of your work.
     First, survey your organizational chart. Are there any designers present? If not, ask yourself why and what the exclusion might be costing your company. If there are one or more designers on your organizational chart, where do they live in your organizational hierarchy? Sadly, all too often, organizations that have no reservations about investing millions of dollars to recruit top science and engineering talent take an opposite approach when it comes to recruiting design talent.
     Second, don’t simply recruit a designer or design team. If you want design to shape your organization, consider investing in a chief design officer position to ensure you have a designer in the C-suite who can weigh in on all key decisions.
     Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make an effort to keep educating yourself on the role of design in science and innovation. A 2020 study by McKinsey found that as more companies embrace design and even create chief design officer positions, a staggering 90% of companies still fail to reach the full potential of design. The same study found that this was due to two key reasons: “a lack of clarity about where and how senior design leaders can contribute, and uncertainty about how much to expect of them in their role.”

Like scientists and engineers, leaders and investors don’t need to become design experts. However, I believe there is an urgent need for all of these professionals to better understand the necessity of collaborating with designers throughout the lifecycle of every project, especially those that may not even appear to require the insights of a designer.