Round Pegs, Square Holes, And Human Behavior

Beyond survival, design thinking is at the core of our spacefaring experience, and it must become a mainstay of all conversations meant to empower us to do more in space.

Close up of a tubular space station as seen from a porthole.
”Tubular confinement” by Monica Hernandez. 2021. [r].

Form and design harmonize with function. Nowhere is this reality more evident than in the high-stakes complexity of the space industry. I have worked with numerous engineers, scientists, researchers, business executives from all backgrounds, ages, and walks of life. Sometimes, I’ve noticed an implicit bias against form, design, and aesthetics. Unfortunately, this bias relegates such considerations to the last stages of research and development, and worse to the misconception that it is only what investors, advertisers, communicators, designers, sales reps, and marketers worry about closer to the pre-deployment stages.

If you’ve read my articles across the Internet and subscribed recently to this blog, you’ll notice that I pay close attention to form, design, rationale, and function. Visual storytelling is very much front and center. I’m always looking out for improving the flow and design of my work, and that’s why I choose to work with an ecosystem of independent artists, musicians, filmmakers, and designers. But, beyond obsessing about how something “looks,” a nuanced understanding of user-centric design, form, and aesthetics can make or break the product/message/service/experience and, more importantly, get to the heart of its very existence. And in the case of the space industry, such considerations affect occupational safety, operational efficiency, how users interact with their surroundings, their moods and emotions, productivity, focus, problem-solving capabilities, and a plethora of human psychology issues. Simple routines complicate in space or mean the difference between life and death.

Design thinking was first coined by the global design company IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown in 2008 to refer to the problem-solving process creative professionals use to focus on the end-user by involving their needs and desires early on in the R&D process. Through interdisciplinary tools and creative methodologies such as imagining personas, mapping customer journeys, generating empathy maps, and rapidly prototyping, design thinking examines the fundamentals of the problems being solved and questions long-held beliefs about how something should and could work. It is not an exclusive practice of designers alone, of course, as Donald Norman explains in the richly textured essays: “Design Thinking: A Useful Myth” (2010) and then in “Rethinking Design Thinking” (2018). Innovation occurs at every moment a contrarian mindset pioneers new ways of doing things. But this mindset permeates the daily lives of interdisciplinary creative professionals who ask the prodding questions to streamline their designs.

In high-tech intensive industries such as space, everything is designed first and foremost to work logically and as initially intended, but this engineering mindset often disregards how people’s behavior and emotions differ under certain conditions. In fact, sustained space exploration and settlement requires the design of human-centric experiences in artificially constructed high-tech environments, accentuated by microgravity, isolation, proximity, and confinement. Hence, the designer’s perspective is: there is no correct or incorrect behavior, just human behavior.

As Norman writes in his fascinating book, Living with Complexity (MIT Press 2010),

“When complexity is unavoidable, when it mirrors the complexity of the world or of the tasks that are being done, then it is excusable, understandable, and learnable. But when things are complicated, when the complexity is the result of poor design with completely arbitrary steps, with no apparent reason, then the result is perplexing, confusing, and frustrating. Poor design leads to the emotional distress we have come to associate with modern technology. Good design can provide a desirable, pleasurable sense of empowerment.” (Pg 6, 10)

Why is this important in the space industry? The commercialization of space has opened the high frontier to new stakeholders, including non-technical professionals. In the case of human spaceflight, civilian crews flew seven times in 2021 (Virgin Galactic 1x, Blue Origin 3x, SpaceX 1x, Soyuz MS-19/Soyuz MS-18 1x, and Soyuz MS-20 1x). So it is indeed no longer just a question of function but also form, design, aesthetics, psychology, and user experience. The tipping point brought by this commercial opening will require a crossover of design expertise to the space industry.

Close up of water pressure valve and pipe.
”What nobody looks at” by Monica Hernandez. 2021. [r].

How Beauty and Aesthetics Affect Ease and Productivity in Space?

We are familiar with design elements that can trigger the high-stress response, anxiety, and tunnel vision, which affect our performance, cognition, and social behavior, whereas others can make routines easier. I navigate right now, for example, beautiful - but confusing - wooden cabinets in my new apartment kitchen. Every time I open a cabinet the wrong way, I get annoyed. Without proper handles, I’ve snapped a finger on multiple occasions (ouch!), and I make a mental note:

“Obviously, someone didn’t think this through. And I’m so glad I’m renting.”

So, I’ve had to develop a workaround system (labels) to ensure my mornings run smoothly. I’m sure you have had your fair share of bad design stories. Unfortunately, poorly designed elements are no laughing matter for the space industry.

In microgravity, stress triggers are further compounded by the lack of attention to form, logic, and aesthetics. They can also prove deadly in an instant. The tragedy that cost the lives of three Apollo 1 astronauts in 1967 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (LC-34) resulted from deficiencies in spacecraft and suit design, emergency preparedness, and quality control. For example, as the fire consumed everything, the module’s internal pressure sealed the hatch door shut, making it impossible to open the module on time.

Beyond survival, design thinking is at the core of our spacefaring experience, and it must become a mainstay of all conversations meant to empower us to do more in space. Albert A. Harrison, prolific author, professor, and researcher, described in his book, Spacefaring: The Human Dimension (University of California Press 2002):

“Two of the greatest potential stressors associated with life in space are isolation and confinement. First, people are cut off from society, perhaps vast distances. Second, with the exception of solitary missions, spacefarers are forced into close proximity with one another. This paradoxical combination of too much and too little distance from other people is a defining characteristic for spaceflight…: (119) [Therefore] aesthetics are not frivolous and dispensable; they can help ease the stresses associated with isolation and confinement and facilitate high performance. Although under conditions of microgravity, ‘up is where the head is,’ designs should foster a vertical orientation Different architectural layouts and color schemes can enhance impressions of spaciousness. Windows are crucial, and photographs of landscape can ‘enlarge’ the environment psychologically. Real, miniature landscapes with living dwarf trees, along with flowers and other plants, may help…” (pg 90, 91, 97)

The design thinking that is user-centric and meant to empower our senses (sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste, balance, and movement) cannot go unnoticed. For example, I have seen the impact of good design in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon 2 cockpit. If you’ve seen the images and videos across the Internet, it is one of the most impressive touchscreen cockpits ever designed. When interviewed by the editor of collectSPACE, SpaceX Director of Crew Mission Management Benji Reed said:

“We wanted it to be not only as safe and reliable as you would expect from the most advanced spacecraft in the world, but we also wanted it to look beautiful.”

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley co-designed the cockpit alongside SpaceX and NASA engineers, including the decades-old practice of using Velcro. Special attention was paid to the fact this cockpit was meant to be used by others. And more importantly, setting up a precedent for any future plans in scaling production.

Why does beauty and aesthetics matter when designing sophisticated machines?

Designers are uniquely well-suited to the space industry because they’re trained in a collaborative problem-solving approach involving end-users early in the process.

Norman again explains it quite succinctly in Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things (Basic Books 2007)

“Attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively. How does that make something easier to use? Simple, by making it easier for people to find solutions to the problems they encounter. With most products, if the first thing you try fails to produce the desired result, the most natural response is to try again, only with more effort. In today’s world of computer-controlled products, doing the same operation over again is very unlikely to yield better results. The correct response is to look for alternative solutions. The tendency to repeat the same operation over again is especially likely for those who are anxious or tense. This state of negative affect leads people to focus upon the problematic details, and if this strategy fails to provide a solution, they get even more tense, more anxious, and increase their concentration upon those troublesome details.” (Pg 19-20)

A Conversation with an Industrial Designer

I’ve asked Kaori Becerril to share her thoughts and first-hand experience about the importance of design in the space industry. Kaori is a Mexico-based industrial designer inspired by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos astronomy series and on a mission to understand her company’s target users better. For the past couple of years, she has served as Chief Design Officer at Dereum Labs, which is rarely seen in space startups, especially at the executive level. Industrial designers work on the form and features of a given product/service/system/experience meant to be scaled and mass-produced.

Kaori believes in asking the fundamental questions early and using the tools designers develop to think broadly. She recently co-presented “Strategic Design for Space Business: A Different Approach” at the IAF’s International Astronautical Congress in Dubai 2021. Kaori et al. write:

“One of the strengths [of strategic design and having designers at the c-level] is in the definition of creative work itself i.e. foreshadowing. It has the potential to implement broad-spectrum methodologies, providing not only creative thinking, but implementation and ensuring that key ideas maintain their integrity throughout the process…by evaluating the viability, feasibility and attractiveness of the idea or project… and by understanding [how] systems are interconnected… It is essential to mention that strategic design redefines the way problems are approached. It seeks to understand current trends and prepare for their evolution. And successful design is not just about putting it on the table and indulging in creative thinking. It also involves implementation and thoroughly ensuring that critical ideas maintain their integrity throughout the process.”

In our conversation last September, Kaori further emphasized,

“Even if a device or hardware works perfectly from an engineering standpoint, does it solve the right problem, and what is the business case? For example, certain confusing scenarios for the end-user result from situations that were not designed correctly in the first place, which usually results from asking the wrong questions. So by drilling into the fundamentals of design, we can take a step back and see the bigger picture. We cannot think of just making products and services functional at this point. They will have to be used by someone else and they might evolve as needs evolve. So as interdisciplinary designers, we help unpack these considerations during the ideation stages. We ask if this stand the test of feasibility, ergonomics, aesthetics, and time?”

Kaori offered a testimonial of this at work at Dereum Labs. In conjunction with the Mexican Space Agency (AEM), Dereum Labs recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Airbus for lunar ISRU technologies. When she arrived at the company, though, the value proposition and the target user were still undecided. And the engineering perception sometimes fell back to designing for aesthetics only. But through a process of co-design, critical questioning, and forecasting with the company’s executives, Kaori helped distill the user experience and clarify the company’s objectives to design a production line that scales.

“Seeking to make an emerging startup competitive in a sustainable way is one of the primary tasks of strategic design. However, in the industry, I have noticed very few designers involved at the c-level for R&D, mission ideation, and strategic direction. This means that considerations for human-centric design usually come after the first engineering and business stages, not before. I hope the continued commercialization of the industry will inspire other creative designers and professionals to participate. There are plenty of opportunities to make an impact. We can apply design thinking and strategic design methodology beyond tactical and fragmented requests. At every opportunity of production and creation, there’s the need for systems designers, strategic designers, UX designers, and more.”


Photographs [stream of consciousness]

We are emotional and sensorial, so how do form and aesthetics affect our well-being in space? Can tubular layouts empower us to do more, or will they confine us? These are some of the questions that come to mind when I see a mockup of a space station’s layout as seen from a porthole.

What are the engineering and design details in modern civilization that nobody looks at but determine our livelihood?