The Science of Design

A conversation with Nic DiPalma of SpacetimeLabs

SpacetimeLabs is a creative agency focused specifically on science communications. Founder, Nic DiPalma gives some background on the rewards and challenges of science design.

How do you define design? Why should organizations care about it?

At SpacetimeLabs, design is our method for researching the past, the present, and the future; for observing, understanding, and making connections through the practice of radical empathy. Design is radical because it requires us to see ourselves in all people. Otherwise, it isn't design.

Like all research, basic or applied, design helps us develop better questions with each new discovery. We begin with the answers we have (hypothesis) and through design, we learn how and why our assumptions are incorrect or inaccurate. We advance from hypothesis to theory through ‘peer review’ with a targeted audience.

Design is radical because it requires us to see ourselves in all people.
— Nic DiPalma, SpaceTimeLabs

Everyone should care about design because it increases our ability to learn and understand how best to improve the quality our lives and save us from not knowing what we don’t know. Design develops culture. Culture influences our values. Our values guide our future. Especially in this age of human-computer interaction and advanced machine intelligence, design is essential for the survival of human values. 

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Can it be difficult to find the emotional side of science? What are some of the challenges?

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It’s difficult to find an emotional connection to science if you don’t venture outside of the practical and pragmatic confines of a scientific environment. A purely dogmatic mindset is incapable of discovering new perspectives. Expertise is an enemy of innovation. The biggest challenge, not unique to science and research organizations, is institutional thinking.

At SpacetimeLabs, we believe ‘science experience’ is the new science communication. An experience can open the mind to many possibilities, where a person can process information for themselves determined by their own beliefs but guided by a science mentor. Experience is very personal and highly emotional. Touch the heart to open the mind.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your process? What do your clients have the most difficulty understanding?

As with most clients, their perception of design’s value is typically focused on the deliverable - the website, the logo, the infographic, etc. And that’s not necessarily wrong, but the greater value of design is its advantage for solving problems. A website is useless without a strategy for generating interest, making connections, and driving results, where results are defined as clear objectives. The idea of design as a research practice can be rather esoteric for non-designers, and ironically, scientists and researchers as well. But when they see the process work, and how it gets results…their minds can never go back to their old way of thinking.

How does Design Thinking affect your process?

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Design thinking is our process. It’s our scientific method. We partner with each client in a ‘creative lab’ to explore how design thinking can solve their challenges and develop their innovative science communication strategies.

Human-centered design means factoring human needs and values into every aspect of our solutions. Telling stories and sharing experiences are human-centered practices for communicating complex information with people in ways that are easier to understand.

We like to build on ideas fast and get prototypes out quickly to discover how inaccurate our hypotheses may be. Then we iterate to find the opportunities, hidden and overt, that generate broad impact.

Our ‘broad impacts’ take on many forms, but they should be accessible, scalable, and sustainable so that they meet the requirements of being desirable, feasible, and viable. In short, design thinking creates exponential value.

What are the most effective ways to cultivate curiosity?

We believe in asking “what if,” “why,” and “how could we” questions to unlock curiosity.
— Nic DiPalma, SpaceTimeLabs

We believe in asking “what if,” “why,” and “how could we” questions to unlock curiosity. We never want to tell our clients and audiences what to think or believe. Instead, we want to invoke and inspire them to cultivate their own concept of curiosity. Or as we like to say, start with the science fiction to open a doorway into the science.

As one example, we partnered with our client astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter to develop a ‘science experience travel agency’ for people who love astronomy and love to travel. We’ve sold out tours to the Caribbean on a cruise ship, hunting aurora in Iceland, and explored the dark skies of the Atacama Desert in Chile. In our first year, Lonely Planet™, the biggest travel media publisher in the world, featured us in their “Best in Travel 2019” for dark sky tours. We achieved this by shifting the public’s perspective and offering a unique connection with the cosmos: “We’re not just a small planet in the universe. We’re the universe on a small planet.”

For another, we’ve partnered with our client Kim Arcand, visualization lead at NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, to develop a collaborative webinar series (and eventually a podcast) exploring the connection between science and design. We’re helping science communicators and designers work together through these live creative labs and then publish them for anyone to learn and try new ideas.

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Do you find communicating with scientists to present any particular challenges vs. a non-science focused audience?

Actually, I find more advantage in communicating with scientists than challenge. They are typically highly creative and work in environments that aren’t really known for inspiring creativity. So, when I have conversations with scientists about creativity, design, and sharing their science stories through digital experiences, they get inspired by their opportunities and the possibilities.

If you ask any scientist why they love science, you’ll get a variety of different answers, but all of them will describe their own deep, personal connection with discovery and exploration. It may be a loved one who suffers from an illness or disease. Maybe it’s a childhood memory of stargazing in their backyard or a trip to the zoo with their classmates.

If you ask a non-scientist why they love science, the variety quotient still applies, but many will describe their wildest hopes, dreams, and imagination, because they see with a “beginner’s mind” open to so many wonderful possibilities.

We are all explorers, pioneers, and visionaries.

Is there a specific subject or facet of science that you feel is currently underserved through its communications?

Scientists and researchers are themselves underserved. Especially, with regards to women and minorities. Most research organizations and academic institutions require individual scientists to carry much of the communications workload, on top of an already significant research requirement. They rarely provide enough budget or the right resources and a proper strategy to meet their public relations goals, which are often inaccurate. They hire scientists for communication efforts instead of expert communications professionals, then wonder why their engagements with audiences are shrinking or don’t generate support. It’s not their fault. They just haven’t made the connections. That’s what we do at SpacetimeLabs.