On a recent morning in the MIT Media Lab’s dimly lit sixth floor theater, the singed smell of freshly laser-cut wood lingered in the air. The projection screen glowed. Some students fiddled with their creations — an array of unconventional objects that had been laser-cut, soldered, 3-D printed — while others stared into the blue of their computer screens, waiting for their turn. It was presentation day for Design Across Scales, a class co-taught by MIT professors Meejin Yoon and Neri Oxman, each with an established practice in the kind of forward-reaching design that not only improves upon the world, but reimagines it entirely.
The assignment was to “make something that makes something, and then use the tool to make that something,” or, in other words, to design a unique artifact or technology around a particular use. Students were encouraged to harmonize the relationship between tool and function, user and design. The somethings included devices for folding paper airplanes, shooting aerial photographs, planning cities, and creating the perfect mold for ball-shaped ice. “We just didn’t want to live in a world where there were just ice cubes,” said Edward Hoa MBA ‘15. A lively, DIY attitude prevailed.
“What is a tool? What makes a tool?” asked Alex Leffell ‘17 before presenting his team’s drawing machine, the Cōllobo. Built to be operated by two people, it was an experimental apparatus that generated more questions than answers.
In one presentation, Daniel Lizardo ‘15 presented his original experiments in creating a hydrogel-based concrete foam, a type of porous “aerated” cement. A gray, pocked substance, the shape of a wasp nest, was passed around the classroom. Oxman acknowledged how much research went into the material, which was manufactured by dripping the gel in pyramid-like layers. “Now question everything,” she said, “that particular nozzle, the size of the nozzle. Really start designing that system.”
Other tools were more provocative than utilitarian — prompting that destabilizing yet wondrous sense that nothing should ever be taken for granted; that the world as we know it is always being made and re-made, again and again. Kojo Welbeck ‘14 and Zachary Hendlin MBA ‘15 invented a mechanical instrument: a thin metal bar that lightly taps out a sound in response to ambient noise. The class clapped after the presentation, louder and louder, until the device, almost shyly, clinked a reply.
Yoon and Oxman believe design is not a discipline but a critical methodology. In the class, they wanted students to learn “how textile dyes can affect cancer research or how biomaterial 3D printing processes can inspire new construction technologies.” The inspirations for the course are mid-century visionaries like Buckminster Fuller and Charles and Ray Eames.
It is a philosophy that both professors have applied in their path-breaking work. Oxman, as the director of the Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group, combines architecture, engineering, and computer science to create new nature-inspired design possibilities for the future — futuristic buildings, for instance, that can weave themselves using spider silk. Yoon, for her part, creates responsive architectural installations that investigate the intersections between technology, the body, and the built environment. In her Defensible Dress, inspired by the porcupine, piano wire-spikes are actuated by motion sensors.
In the face of technological and ecological change, design has much to offer. “The race to cure cancer, the Mars landing mission, and the challenge to design sustainable cities and buildings require, perhaps more than ever, an interdisciplinary skill set and an ability to operate across multiple scales with creativity,” Yoon and Oxman say. Organized around various aspects of design practice — from visualization, fabrication, computation, material ecology, interaction, architecture, to games and performance — Design Across Scales encourages thinking and doing across these disciplines.
Truly, design thinking has become increasingly integral to science and engineering, as the field — no longer solely about the production of physical objects — now encompasses everything from the creation of buildings, tools, data, experiences, networks, materials, and even DNA. From the molecular to the urban to the cosmic, MIT students are using design to change the world at every level.
Meejin Yoon is a Professor of Architecture and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Architecture. Neri Oxman is the Sony Corporation Career Development Professor and Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences. The class is sponsored by the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST).