Research is of utmost importance to Italian-born designer Gianfranco Zaccai, president and chief design officer at Continuum, Inc. It was this dedication to discovery and function that helped him create the 2010 Best of NeoCon® Award-winning Compass™ System, a modular, wall system for healthcare environments, for Herman Miller Healthcare. Here, Zaccai takes some time to share with Contract his inspiration for Compass™, as well as insight into his design career and goals.
1. What inspired you to design the Compass for Herman Miller? Did you see a large need for this in the current market?
What inspired me to design the Compass System™ for Herman Miller was what inspires anyone to design anything: a great client that sees a need without any preconceived notion of how to address a solution to that need. Continuum’s relationship with Herman Miller goes back many years…Although Herman Miller had done a lot of primary and secondary research over the years, we were given the opportunity to explore the problems and opportunities with no preconceptions. Since all the team members and I had many personal experiences with hospitalization and the hospitalization of loved ones, we jumped in with great enthusiasm.
2. In your opinion, how important is product design to healthcare efficiency?
Product design is fundamental to healthcare efficiency. From my earliest days as a designer, I focused on the healthcare industry, working for a producer of sophisticated laboratory analytical devices. It was clear that the design of such devices had to mean more than just making them look better. They had to be more usable, more understandable, and more cost effective, as well.
Now, almost 40 years later, most, if not all, medical devices are designed with a great deal of attention to usability and user interaction. These individual tools come together in a hospital environment, where the jobs of nurses, doctors, and other professionals are infinitely more complex than what is required to properly use any one device. The hospital room is the epicenter of this complex dance, as it is where patients, visitors, medical staff, and other caregivers come together and where patients receive care and attention. The design of an environment that maximizes efficiency, facilitates the integration and use of diverse technologies, while allowing for better human interaction becomes essential. Cost, sustainability, maintenance, infection control, and flexibility are additional areas of concern.
3. What did you find most challenging when designing Compass?
The biggest challenge was to see the overriding big picture from the multitude of issues that we encountered. It became apparent that a solution to the diverse needs and aspirations of the patient, caregivers, visitors, planners, and administrators needed to be both comprehensive and simple, that flexibility and adjustability would be fundamental in allowing ideal configurations to be planned collaboratively by all the stakeholders, installed quickly with great aesthetic appeal, and allow for reconfigurations to optimize changing needs.
4. Do you plan to make any updates to Compass™ in subsequent releases? If so, what would you change?
We see Compass™ as a living system because of its inherent flexibility and open architecture. New components and improvements to existing components can be added, and will be added, on an ongoing basis. We plan to have an ongoing and open relationship with architects and designers, nurses and doctors, and planners and administrators, as well as real people who may be patients or visitors of loved ones, in the future.
5. What do you feel has been your most successful and/or innovative product to date, and why?
The most successful product is probably the Swiffer for Procter & Gamble because it made a real difference in the way people clean their homes and in Proctor & Gamble’s bottom line. Of course, cleaning one’s home is important, but perhaps not as important as getting better when one is ill.
A project in this domain, which is close to my heart, is the Omnipod insulin delivery system for Insulet because it allows people with Type I Diabetes to receive the right dose of insulin on a 24-hour-a-day basis, while being almost invisible to their friends and playmates. (I should also note that this product helped to launch a new company here in Massachusetts, which is successful because it addresses a critical medical need in a very humanistic, yet technologically sophisticated way).
6. What are your plans for the future? Any current projects in the works?
There are many projects in the works at Continuum, ranging from the way people will experience a stay in a hotel to accessing financial services to AIDS diagnosis in emerging economies. We are focusing a great deal of energy looking at the needs of people in important social contexts, including the developing world. At the same time, we’re looking for fundamentally sustainable solutions that are compelling because they are delighting people, while being both ecologically and economically sustainable.
7. Where do you look for design inspiration?
I believe that design inspiration comes from understanding nature and human-nature. Nature is a great model for truly elegant design solutions, while human-nature helps us to understand the needs and aspirations that people have, informing both the quantitative and the qualitative nature of our design process.
8. If you could sum up your design style in five words, what would they be?
Form follows function; fashion informs.
9. What role does research play in design? Do you feel enough designers take the time to do appropriate research?
I think research is fundamental to design. And by research, I mean getting out in the world and really developing empathy for the people you are designing for. It has been demonstrated time and time again that knowledge gained by rigorous research in the field provides a great stimulus to the creative process…Designers who design primarily involving their own intuitions and sensibilities may find that they are designing for a niche of people who are like themselves. To gain broad appeal and significant market success, you must understand and design for the needs and sensibilities of others.
10. What advice do you have to offer your peers and the incoming generation of designers?
My advice is to go out with a sketch book, a notepad, and a video camera and learn: learn to be open to things on the periphery, to inquire about the meaning behind needs or actions one witnesses, and be open to the inputs of others. Learning a second or third language helps, traveling helps, being able to think visually about things that have no form, per se, but really deal with experiences helps. And remember that computers are great tools, as well as potential creators of illusions, because a great rendering does not mean a great design. It’s important to model things physically and to experience them in their totality.