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Innovation & Design

Clarity and Comfort, by Design

In November, an exhibition of my digital art opened at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. Opening at the same time was a show of work by Australian artist Ron Mueck, a soft-spoken and intense man famous for his large-scale but incredibly lifelike sculptures. The individual hairs, the shining eyes, the skin painted with veins -- every detail is perfect.

So perfect that, as you approach one of Mueck's pieces, you ask yourself, "Is it real?" As your hand reaches out to confirm the warmth of the human form before you, your mind tells you that the giant cannot exist.

BEYOND EFFICIENCY. The best art makes your head spin with questions. Perhaps this is the fundamental distinction between pure art and pure design. While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.

Sometimes, though, clarity alone is not the best design solution. At my opening in Paris, an old friend from Milan told me of a powerful socialite who was diagnosed with cancer. While she was still reeling from the shock of the news, her physician informed her of his 10-minute time limit for appointments. Even in her fragile state, she would have to leave, so that he could deliver similar messages to waiting patients. Here, the extremely efficient design of his communication system lacked any appreciation for the ambiguous dimensions of feelings -- the stuff of art.

Afterwards, this brave woman came up with a solution that could bridge the gap between message and emotion. With five months left to live, she started a foundation to create intensely artful, beautifully designed centers near oncology units, where those first facing death can soak their minds and hearts. Art -- a reason to live -- is tempered with design -- the clarity of message.

TIME DISORIENTATION. In life, we need many answers to yes-or-no questions. (Did I lock my door? Am I pregnant?) As we age, making decisions is often a matter of life and death. (Have I saved enough money for retirement? Have I taken my pills -- all 20 of them -- at the right time?) Sometimes the problem is as simple as needing to know whether it's night or day.

Currently at MIT, for instance, second-year undergraduate researchers Tara Chang, Laura Martini, and Ilan Moyer are working with AARP on this very problem: the feeling of time disorientation among older people. The answers to these questions -- which are often provided by designed objects -- must address both clarity and emotion.

Achieving clarity, I recently told them, isn't difficult. The Italian woman's oncologist had easily mastered it. The true challenge is achieving comfort.


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