The Rise of Science-based Design

Explore how science-based design, a revolutionary approach that integrates design principles from inception, is reshaping the landscapes of science, business, and technology, promising profound impacts on research efficacy and market success.

The most interesting design innovations aren’t trends but rather ruptures—radically new ways of seeing, understanding, and interacting with the world and material culture. Unsurprisingly, these ruptures don’t emerge overnight and are often centuries in the making. Currently, one of these ruptures, science-based design, is finally gaining visibility and acceptance. The impact of this rupture on science and business promises to be profound. The only question that remains is which STEM researchers and business leaders will be among the first to truly leverage this radically new way of thinking about research and innovation. 

Defining Science-based Design

Historically, design has been an afterthought in the lab. Scientists and engineers often spend years developing solutions and never collaborate with designers or only do so when a solution is nearly ready to go to market. Design expertise is tapped only to add aesthetic appeal and ensure the solution will look appealing to potential consumers. Designers have little influence over what potential solutions are investigated or why some solutions are viewed as viable while others are left on the drawing table.
     In the case of science-based design, there is never a moment when designers finally enter the lab. They are always already at the table. In this scenario, designers aren’t there to make solutions look or feel aesthetically pleasing to a specific set of consumers. Collaborating with STEM researchers from the start, they are partners in innovation, making key decisions about what solutions can or should be pursued and how to develop solutions in ways that won’t create residual problems down the line.
     Although there are instances when designers and STEM researchers have successfully collaborated on projects from the onset, science-based design is not widely recognized, nor is it something readily promoted by STEM researchers or business investors. Fortunately, there are finally signs that the divide between science and design is finally breaking down.  

Why Science and Design Work Better in Tandem

To appreciate the value of merging science and design, consider the history of glucose monitoring devices. Introduced in the 1980s, home glucose monitors were an important yet flawed innovation. Early glucose monitoring devices helped people living with diabetes access vital diagnostic information and better self-manage their conditions, but these devices were only marginally accurate, challenging to use, and highly indiscrete.
     Over the past decade, a new generation of glucose monitoring devices has been brought to market. One of the most well-known devices is Abbott Labs’ FreeStyle Libre Pro—a small wearable patch that is linked to an app on users’ phones. Beyond eliminating the need to prick one’s finger multiple times a day and often in public, Abbott’s solution is designed to continuously monitor glucose levels. Because the device is constantly collecting data and alerting users to fluctuations in their glucose levels, it is also generally considered to be more effective. Another critical difference is that the constant stream of data, which can be easily downloaded and reviewed by physicians, supports better patient care. Perhaps, the most exciting thing about this new approach to glucose monitoring is that the cumulative data is already being used to transform how diabetes is treated. In 2022, in collaboration with two other companies, Abbott announced the launch of an automated insulin delivery system that promises to finally free people living with diabetes from the burdens of glucose monitoring and injections.
     Continuous glucose monitoring patches are better for people living with diabetes, better for physicians caring for people with diabetes, and better for research scientists working to find a cure for diabetes. They represent a better solution, thanks to better design. Unfortunately, these wearable patches took nearly four decades to be developed. As science-based design becomes increasingly common, this is precisely what stands to change.
     As science and design happen in tandem, there is hope that we’ll soon live in a world populated by fewer partial solutions (i.e., solutions that technically work yet simultaneously generate new problems for users, society at large, and the environment). More importantly, we will live in a world where we no longer have to wait decades for solutions to respond to the needs of users because the perspective of users—a critical component of any good designer’s skillset—will inform research and development from day one. 

The Impact of Science-based Design

The impact of science-based design holds the potential to upend not only science and design but also business. For this reason, it is crucial for researchers, designers, and investors to lean into the possibilities pried open by the conversation of science and design.  

  1. Science-based design supports better science 

Great ideas or innovations fail to be adopted for a variety of reasons. Some solutions are rejected because they are irrelevant (at least in the cultural context in which they are being launched), plagued by nonintuitive design, or too costly. Other innovations fail because they can’t compete with less effective yet more appealing or culturally resonant products. Incorporating design into science from the start holds the potential to mitigate the chances of the very best solutions never coming to market and of poor solutions gaining traction over those with greater efficacy. 

  1. Science-based design promotes better design 

In addition to being better for science, science-based design is also better for design. Committed to a fundamentally defensible approach to design (i.e., design that is first and foremost about deploying intellectual property rather than solely exploring the boundaries of aesthetics), the rise of science-based design also holds the potential to eventually diminish the value of design that no one needs or wants.

  1. Science-based design protects research and business investments 

It is often said that approximately only three percent of patents are ever successfully brought to market. This is largely due to a long tradition of scientists patenting ideas for protection and research credit alone. Yet, even among patents that are intended to eventually be brought to market, the failure rate remains alarmingly high.
     Science-based design promises to reduce the risk of non-adoption while also amplifying the potential embedded in any single patented idea. By extension, it also promises to raise the value of intellectual property coming out of research centers and labs across fields. Science-based design is good for business on two crucial yet often overlooked levels.
     First, by ensuring less money is invested in pursuing solutions no one needs or that are unlikely to ever be brought to market, science-based design protects research and business ventures. As such, it helps researchers realize a higher rate of success and investors realize a higher return of return on their investments in research.
     Second, there are also other important advantages to science-based design. To begin, having designers at the table from the start reduces the need for late-stage market research studies, which frequently slow the launch of urgently needed solutions. In addition, designers are adept at identifying how a single patent can lead to multiple applications and products over time.  

  1. Science-based design fosters sustainable production practices   

Finally, science-based design plays a critical part in ensuring research, development, and manufacturing are sustainable.
     To begin, science-based design creates new guide rails for production by anticipating and mitigating the launch of unsustainable products and solutions. For example, when designers are at the table from the start, less money and time are wasted attempting to build solutions that no one wants or needs and that will never work. Likewise, with designers engaged from the onset, solutions can be built with a line of sight on their broader impact. Among other things, designers can help eliminate innovations that may ultimately prove unsustainable over time (i.e., innovations that rely on the extraction of raw materials that are already at risk) or on a costly, complex, and environmentally damaging manufacturing chain.
     In addition, design holds the potential to breathe new life into dormant IP, essentially upcycling innovations that have lost their impact over time. After all, design’s function is not only to package technologies but also to ensure that old technologies remain relevant over time, which explains why at least some old innovations continue to be reinvented to respond to new needs.
     Designers don’t hold all the answers, and neither do research scientists. What the best designers understand, better than the vast majority of STEM researchers, are audiences or users. They also possess the technical know-how to guide the manufacturing (i.e., delivery) of scientific solutions in a way that resonates with specific target markets to effectively bridge adoption gaps. Increasingly, designers also understand how to do this in a way that causes minimal harm to our environment.

In a world where we continue to struggle to find viable solutions to so many urgent problems, it is time to adopt a better way forward. Science-based design is part of this better future.