Post-It Notes pinned to a wall

Redesigning the Designer’s Role

May 19, 2021
Successful design has historically been the outcome of a trial-and-error approach, but technological advances are changing the rules of the game.

Spencer Silver is not a name you’d know at first glance, but he was partially responsible for one of the most successful products in global history. Silver died last month at the age of 80, and if you need to make a note to yourself to look up his biography, you might use one of his creations to do it.

A 3M chemist and researcher, Silver invented the glue that gave us Post-It Notes. Silver’s unique glue composition could be stuck and unstuck repeatedly without harming the surface or losing adhesion. But while an interesting chemical discovery, there wasn’t an obvious use for the glue until another 3M colleague, Art Fry, was looking for an easy way to put up a reminder that didn’t require a pin or tape. Fry remembered the glue Silver has created, used it on a small piece of paper, and a product empire was born.

As in Silver’s case, successful design is so often a matter of trial-and-error—and what first may look like an error is in fact a solution in search of a problem. But such an approach is viewed by those outside the design universe as expensive, often unproductive and as a result mostly unprofitable. Speed to market and eliminating the error part of the process have driven much of the innovations of the last few years, the COVID-19 vaccine most recent among them.

As MIT professor Wojciech Matusik writes in this month’s issue, the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will change the way researchers conduct experiments and develop innovations.

We’re on the cusp of a revolution in designing and manufacturing products,” Matusik writes.

Where does this leave the Spencer Silvers of the world? In a different role, but one that is no less crucial to the process. Jesse Coors-Blankenship, senior vice president of Technology for PTC, offered this thought: These developments will shift the role of the engineer to curating parameters and test conditions, and then choosing the best design from a range of permutations generated by AI.

“Eventually even the design-selection process will require AI assistance, as the sheer range of generated solutions outpaces the engineer’s ability to sort through them,” Coors-Blankenship added. “Liberated from the tedious trial and error of refining their designs, engineers can focus on what their design needs to accomplish rather than how the design will be realized.”

Luck can be defined as when opportunity meets preparation. Silver earned 37 patents in his 3M career, so if the temptation is to think of Post-It Notes as lucky, it was luck borne of hard work and talent. If the future of innovation will be better realized by AI, it still will be fueled by innovation that is more intuitive than artificial.

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