Did you think high concept projects were useful?

Hi everyone,

This is my first post, but I’m about to graduate ID school and there was one project I did last year that I still think is a waste of time to this day. It was sort of a high concept project where we were encouraged to take extreme liberties with emerging technologies and come up with a crazy new solution or product. It was a lot of work and the professor kept telling me to push it further and further the entire time. By the end, I felt like I was writing science fiction.

I got a good grade, and there are some cool renders and stuff generated from it. But it’s probably the only recent project I’m ashamed to show in my portfolio. I was trying to tackle a serious problem, and I felt like my solution was fantasy and bullshit.

I’ve noticed that it seems like every design student does one of these types of projects at some point in school. I can’t help but wonder why.

I actually think that there can be a point to project briefs like this.
Even at consultancies, you have clients looking for inspirational future concepts to show in-house in order to push development forward.
SciFi it might be but you still have the opportunity to display creative problem solving, outta box thinking and an eye for what would call “what’s-next” aesthetics. There is still value here as long as you present it as what it is, a future concept.
Research and backing in science would of course help.

Especially in school I believe it is important to sometimes approach a project rather in a way of dreaming than thinking.
Just like concept cars, there can be kernels in there that can spark realistic innovation.

“Blue Sky” projects as they are usually called are valuable in stretching the limits of what you think could be possible. It’s one thing if you designed a perpetual motion machine, but lots of blue sky projects are just looking at what happens when certain emerging technologies mature.

Think about it this way, when Minority Report came out the magic glove UI was super advanced and futuristic, and now you can replicate the same experience with a projector and a $99 Kinect.

If you look at Science fiction from 50 years ago you’ll realize how outdated it looks, and how 95% of it (maybe not the space ships and laser guns) has come true.

Oculus has given us a Holodeck. Boston Dynamics has given us Terminators. Things you think are crazy scifi today may only be 10 years away.

Being pragmatic is not a bad trait, but blue sky projects keep your imagination alive, and make you realize that there’s more to offer in the world of technology then can be found from a supplier on Alibaba today.

^ excellent points!

It is possible that many self imposed constraints will not exist in a year or two, or do not exist in the first place. It is always a good exercise to think without any constraints.

Not just for design school. I have been involved in projects where companies come looking (and paying) for such proposals because in-house design teams are too restricted in the “what is possible”.

This kind of reminds me of a old TV series: “How William Shatner Changed the World.” I have friends in entertainment design and concept are, and I respect them for what they do. But whenever I’m doing blue sky, I just feel like I’m a pretender. I think to some extent, blue sky should never approached very seriously. My big mistake was trying to tackle a pretty serious problem, rather than just making something cool and far out.

It’s one thing to go into it and think, “wouldn’t it be cool if we had the holodeck instead of skype?”

It’s another to go into it with, “you know what’s going to solve starvation in Africa? 3D printing food stations.”

I completely disagree here. What would you bring to the table by doing something ‘really cool’?

I have 20 ideas already about 3d printing in Africa with that statement, will any of them work? Maybe not, but that’s how you find breakthrough ideas.

This summer I interned at Under Armour’s Innovation Lab in Portland to find out that I was specifically sought out because I had little knowledge on construction of footwear but a high level of critical thinking. My lack of knowledge gave me freedom to come up with ideas that a seasoned footwear designer may never come up with because they may not be able get past their idea of manufacturing constraints.

There’s nothing wrong with blue sky, but in my short experience talking to designers there seems to be two ideologies. The ‘how can I make this tomorrow’ and the ‘wow this is has the potential to be something’. Personally, I’d like to be part of the latter.

That’s all a matter of perspective though isn’t it?

If in 3 years we have a breakthrough in chemical engineering that allows us to synthesize organic proteins from non perishable components and squeeze them out of a hot glue gun in a delicious fashion.

Perhaps it isn’t that crazy when you consider we feed kids chicken nuggets that are already injection molded and cooked by robots and machines.

Again, crazy moon shot ideas have gotten a lot of companies far these days. Elon Musk had to sit down one day and say “you know what? I should make a rocket that flys to space and then comes back and lands itself in the exact same spot once I finish this self driving electric car”

See, that’s where I actually think writers do a more responsible job than designers. Yes, we can provide all the cool imagery and infographics about how that future might look like, but it’s almost always focusing entirely on the optimistic side of the coin. Very rarely do I see a concept project where it goes further and explores what would happen once this foreign technology is introduced to the ecosystem. Does it displace the economy? Does it upset cultural norms? Does it produce an inordinate amount of garbage?

I was just watching a documentary on the introduction of cane toads to Australia, and the thought pattern behind that decision is very similar to many blue sky project proposals in my opinion. It is a matter of perspective.

Technology is not inherently good nor evil. But I think our culture (not just designers) does hold it up to be the potential savior to everything.

Regardless, if you live your life on the 2 year roadmap of what is possible today you will inevitably position yourself to miss out on the big breaks that are put together by people who are willing to think forward.

Case in point: Phoneblocks/Google Project Ara - there was a long thread here where bitter mobile device designers (such as myself) complained about all the reasons it wouldn’t work. Yet they continued to do it anyways.


Will it become a worldwide success or best selling product? Unlikely. But it started off entirely as a “Can’t be done” blue sky project that led within a very short time to radical advances in mechanical interfaces, system design, and electronic packaging - and it would never have gotten there with nay sayers like myself at the helm.

No, it isn’t going to cure aids with nano machines - but it does not defeat the point of the thought process.

8 hours a day. 40 hours a week. It is so easy to get caught up in minutia.

Blue sky is a welcome break.

Enjoy it while you can.

Well, I appreciate the feedback/thoughts/opinions everyone has presented. Maybe I should look at what I did for that project again.

They are important if they are done right. We do them to help build consensus on product and technology roadmaps. If you can control the long term vision, you can then help guide the more near term projects. I find that without doing some further reaching concept work, a lot of the day to day work becomes reactionary to market pressure.

The key Ithink is to do them with purpose. They should stretch. The should feel like science fiction, but “hard SF” based on real things that are or could happen.

Actually they’re both kind of the same thing, it’s just semantics. Using a holodck in lieu of Skype could help solve starvation in Africa, beyond just being “cool”.

Starvation is a symptom of a lack of nutrition and that problem doesn’t cause itself, it is cultural, political, and societal. If you were really serious about observing that problem then 3D printing food stations would not be the solution…though they could be part of A solution, but that isn’t blue sky enough, especially if your first thought was connecting 3D food printing with solving hunger, it is not an Industrial Design problem, but, Industrial Design thinking (which should embrace blue sky dreaming) could help solve the problem.

Blue sky thinking isn’t just about “wouldn’t it be cool”, or reserved for sci-fi entertainment, it’s about suspending disbelief just long enough to envision a viable future solution by ignoring present constraints (or arguments). For me it’s about connecting the past and present in order to envision a viable future solution.

So to answer your question, no, I don’t think these types of projects are a waste of time, in fact, sharpening that kind of thinking may get you further as a designer than the one who spends all their efforts on their rendering or CAD skills, in fact it might put you in a position to direct that other designer and their team one day. That kind of thinking might help you find real breakthroughs for your employer, or help you re-design their organizational structure, services, and business model, or it might even lead you towards starting your own company someday. In my mind it can be a very entrepreneurial way of viewing things. So don’t be ashamed to show it in your portfolio, look at the bigger problem, show your research, and expand upon it to tell the whole story of how you, not some product or machine, would solve that problem. That story would be much more impressive even it is currently not completely realistic.

I directly confronted this exact topic with a blue sky project assignment in college and it really changed my perspective and the way that I think about all issues and problems. I presented some high level sketches, a really nice physical model (I loved making models), and a report of the project bound in a way that represented the topic and my story, the report was over 20 pages (I also love to write). Ultimately I concluded that it didn’t matter who used the technology and to what end, but more about who controlled what technology became available, and to whom. This was over 15 years before the Edward Snowden / NSA or Net Neutrality controversies. I illustrated in a very sci-fi comic book way, but the underlying story turned out to be fairly prophetic. That was the project that I was most proud of in school…

Thanks for the detailed and enlightening insight Greenman. It’s definitely given me a different lens onto the topic.