“If you understand design, you’re directly helping innovate,” says Maria Yang, the mechanical engineering professor behind MIT’s Ideation Lab. To her, design symbolizes “how stuff goes together,” and she stresses to her students that you need to learn how to represent your work in a visual way, claiming unless you can show the technology and its various components, “you won’t go very far.”
The Ideation Lab is a mechanical engineering research group studying early-stage design processes at the Institute. Comprised of grad students, the Lab has one overarching mission: to help people design better.
After visiting Mexico several times, one of the students found she kept hearing, “These prototypes must not be as good as those in the United States.” She knew the quality of the work, however, was just as good as what could be found here, and so she began studying the cross-cultural idea of how people build prototypes.
Another student is also trying to answer, “How do people prototype?” He’s been examining whether it matters when you build a prototype, and how you build it. So far, he’s discovered it’s the timing that matters the most, claiming the sooner you begin building, the better. “That’s the holy grail,” Yang says, referring to his work. Through each student’s project, the Lab’s working toward the goal of being able to assert, “This is how you should design.”
Beyond research, the Lab also hosts a pre-orientation program called Discover Product Design, created to expose incoming freshmen to design. Over the course of the week, students are tasked with documenting their experience through images, proving there is an intersection between engineering and design.
To lure students from outside the mechanical engineering department into the Lab, the team also runs a program that brings together students with backgrounds in, say, urban planning or math, and then assigns them one new design project a day for two to three weeks.
The program forces participants to go outside of their comfort zone and teaches them how to wear “many hats,” going back to Yang’s first point. Everyone, on some level, should learn how to design, just like everyone, on some level is told they should learn how to code, or know the basics of business.
Yang, who completed her undergrad at MIT before heading off to the West Coast to get her Ph.D., admitted she had no idea what design was when she was a freshman. Now, however, she’s teaching everyone how design can help make them better.
Here’s a glimpse into MIT’s Ideation Lab —