We sat down with Clark Scheffy, Thomas Overthun, and Niko Vladimirov from IDEO. We talked about their designs that we unknowingly use in daily life, what human-centred design is, and about ‘Piro’, their dancing scent diffuser that has its debut in Milan.
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What or who is IDEO? And what do our readers need to know about IDEO?
: Okay, well, so officially IDEO is a global design consultancy. We have been in business since 1978, in some form or another, and we use a human centred design process to find opportunities for design to solve people’s problems. We have a lot of disciplines in-house right now, everything from engineering to industrial design, interaction, designing spaces, brand strategy, business design, systems design, we have a really broad range of skills and disciplines.
What can you tell our readers about your project with Moooi for A Life Extraordinary in Milan?
: So, it’s a dancing scent diffuser called Piro. The idea was to create something that lives in your house, but as an independent entity, sort of how cats are more living their own lives and sometimes show up. No purpose other than to live in your house and be an occasional companion. And part of that was to bring you a gift of love. It would pop a little fragrance as a gift.
At some point, I sort of likened it to a cuckoo clock. Other than telling time, it puts on a little performance every hour. It doesn’t need to, there’s a million clocks out in the world that don’t do that, but everybody always watches, it doesn’t get old. You always look forward to it, to this little thing that it does. So, [Piro] is kind of like that, it’s just there, but then it has something to offer that goes beyond.
You mentioned human-centred design. What does that entail and how does it work with a technological object that doesn’t solve any problems, but just exists?
: The angle always is to start with people. We’re working with the biggest technology companies in the world and doing projects that are often about making your life efficient and streamlining all the functional aspects of your life. And then we thought, is there a way to just break free from that and establish a new idea around technology just delighting us? Making us happy and bringing us joy. So, Clark eventually coined this term ‘luxury technology’, luxury in the definition of something that pokes a bit fun at the authorities.
: We want our homes to be places of joy, relationships, love, and warmth. And that kind of set us off on this path. Could this robot’s purpose just to be a kind of companion or have any interaction that may help you host others beautifully in your home? And the idea of fragrance brings a moment of joy into the home. We went down this path that was exciting to us because it wasn’t this idea of technology solving functional problems, rather addressing an emotional interaction with people.
“We should just give our technology more personality.”
⸺ Clark Scheffy, Partner and Managing Director IDEO
Developing deeper emotional relationships with technological objects. Can you tell us more about that?
: Actually, we have a client that makes robotic vacuum cleaners. They haven’t specifically designed them to have personalities. But people imprint personalities on them, and they name them, and they consider them almost like pets. Making clothing for them, like little jackets. They have their cats take rides on them and they put it on YouTube or Facebook. And because of the way they’re built, they make little sounds, and they move a certain way and because we’re human, we give it a personality.
That was another source of inspiration for us to think like, maybe we should design those things? Maybe we should just give some of our technology more personality. I think that’s a trend that will continue to happen, that our technological objects will have personalities and we will choose based on the relationships we want to have with them versus the functions they perform. Those are questions where we got really excited about and started exploring.
Talking about personalities, you named the dancing scent diffuser you developed for A Life Extraordinary, Piro. So, by giving it a name, is perhaps also giving it personality. Is that deliberate, does Piro have a backstory?
: So, when designing a character, you typically work with a backstory. The backstory for Piro is that it’s just a worker, working in a car factory, welding chassis together. And then it has a moment of realisation that there could be more to life than making programmed movements back and forth. Welding this, lifting that, welding all day long. So, the robot [Piro] just runs out and is like ‘there’s got to be more to life’ and leaves the factory. And it just so happens that one of the first things it bumps into is a Moooi store and is overwhelmed by these interesting objects. There’s a horse with a lampshade on his head, and a Chandelier made of chicken wire, and this whole combination of joy and beauty and fun just opens a door. There’s a moment of transformation and in the backstory, the robot gets a makeover in the Moooi store. It gets polished up and decorated and then becomes part of the [Moooi] family and finds its new purpose. So that’s the heart-warming backstory.
Niko, you’re the engineer. What did building a robot like Piro look like?
: So, I’m building the robots, sourcing the parts, printing, and working in different shops. We have our own shop at IDEO that we use a lot because they are amazing model makers that have decades of expertise and know how to make literally anything. So, we rely heavily on them when when we need something challenging made. Another shop helps us produce the actual finishes, the chrome parts.
Then the part which has been the most exciting for me is switching from a technical mindset to a more creative one and making something beautiful out of this technical piece. The robots are kind of rough, industrial and engineering looking. And when we put them into their final shells. It’s just a complete shift in it. Your mind immediately starts thinking of different possibilities. We now have this reflective surface; how might we utilise that? So that it’s this fluid, graceful thing.
It’s also been very fun working with Catie Cuan because of her background as a dancer. She just knows all the terminology, all the timing, all the moves. And translating that to the robots and making them dance.
: Yeah, they’re dancing. And now we’re choreographing a ballet of little robots.
: Definitely want to give credit here to Catie Cuan, who is doing the choreography. She’s a trained dancer and is earning her PhD in mechanical engineering. She’s done a fantastic TED Talk on dancing and robots. She’s an expert on choreographing robots to dance—something we needed to bring this project to life!
: We don’t do robot ballets every day. Even with all the disciplines of IDEO, this is a bit of an unusual endeavour, and then it goes public. But there is this moment now where, with Catie engaged and seeing it [Piro] in the room, we know it’s going to be good.
“The most exciting part for me was switching from a technical mindset to a more creative one and making something beautiful out of this technical piece.”
⸺ Niko Vladimirov, Mechanical Engineer IDEO
In all that Moooi does, creates and envisions we contribute to ‘a life extraordinary’. What does a life extraordinary mean to you?
: As a designer, I feel I’m privileged in that I’m allowed to leave a more visible trace in the world and that’s what I have always loved about it. I love seeing things happen I had something to do with, and to leave a trace in the world.
: I want to collect fantastic experiences. And I’m thinking right now, what have been the most extraordinary moments in my life? One was playing soccer at San Quentin, which is a maximum-security prison in California, and I was playing against the prison soccer team. And I was like, ‘that’s extraordinary’.
And it will be extraordinary putting on a choreographed robot performance in Milan. Like nobody else gets to do that. So, it’s like those kinds of moments, where you kind of pinch yourself, ‘is this really happening’. I think living an extraordinary life is saying yes to things. ‘Would you like to go play soccer in a prison?’ Yes! That could be a bad idea, but let’s do it. ‘And would you like to make a robot that can dance?’ Um, yes sure. Let’s figure that out.
: To me [A Life Extraordinary] is about kind of stepping back and taking moments to pause. Be delighted and experience those moments of delight, whether it’s something as big as seeing a choreographed robot perform to music and be wowed and amazed, to the simple mundane stuff. I adored the process; I guess that’s why I’m an engineer. I love tools. I love figuring out how to make stuff work and like those steppingstones that build up to a successful product or to successful solution to a problem that you’re having. Enjoying that process and trying not to just immediately get overwhelmed by it. But also, being able to more easily make that switch from technically minded all the time, to going out and experience being delighted by social interactions and not just being a nerd that’s constantly like in front of a computer screen or at a CNC machine talking to robots. So, to me it’s about taking a beat, taking a pause and I guess it’s a very long way around to just say that mindfulness is a good thing.
“Technology is often about making our lives more efficient. We thought, is there a way to break free and establish a new idea around tech just delighting us? Making us happy and bringing us joy.”
⸺ Thomas Overthun, Executive Design Director IDEO