DEFINING ESSENCE

The first term of Ei has come and gone. As I reflect on the stream of opportunity, serendipity, and community that I have been following throughout the fall, I find myself at a new beginning. Two weeks before the start of Meetup 2, I began my winter apprenticeship at Design Tech High School (d.tech) in Millbrae, California. Working with Stanford’s d.school, the d.tech team redesigns the high school experience leveraging a self-directed, personalized learning model and incorporating design thinking to foster a culture of innovation. At the beginning of January, we hit the ground running.

To kick off the second semester, d.tech partnered up with NONOBJECT to launch a sustainability design challenge. Students worked in teams to redesign gum packaging in attempts to decrease environmental impact and change the user’s experience. For the first phase, students were tasked with defining the essence of their designs. To do this, students intentionally determined how they wanted their users to experience gumhow they want their users to feel. These qualities form the essence, and from the essence, the design emerges.

es•sence /ˈesəns/:  the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, that determines its character.

Students gather around Suncica Lukic, VP of Branding at NONOBJECT, as she explains the sustainability of materials used in packaging.
Students gather around Suncica Lukic, VP of Branding at NONOBJECT, as she explains the sustainability of materials used in packaging.

This understanding of essence and how it applies to an object, interface, or experience is central to the design process. Whether the design is for a product, a logo, a website, or a print ad, the essence ties everything together and defines the relationship between the design and the user. NONOBJECT specializes in crafting this relationship. They define it as the “nonobject space between the object and the user—the space where experiences are defined and emotional relevance created.”

During the second day of the design challenge I met Bach Nguyen, a designer at NONOBJECT. He led the class through the understanding of essence and helped teams discover and define the essences of their designs. As we walked around talking with students about what they had come up with, it was amazing to see how students pulled abstract concepts from their ideas to map experience and feelings to concrete aspects of their designs. They took words like vibrant, social, and exciting and found ways they could convey those feelings in the interaction between people and gum.

What this experience has taught me is 1) no matter the age or education level, to some degree there is an innate understanding of how we interact with products as humans and 2) the thing that separates good from great design is the ability to create a clear and concise essence. It’s the why versus what or how argument. As humans, we don’t necessarily care what or how a system or product works. There are far too many similar options to choose from. We care why organizations exist and why the values, aesthetics, or stories are relevant in our own lives.