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Finding Delight through Human-Centered Design

Alumni Story: Tibor Balint, PhD Innovation Design Engineering, 2016

Tibor Balint portrait
Tibor Balint
Astronauts don’t technically need pillows, but that doesn’t mean that on a 1,000 day journey to Mars they might not want one. For RCA PhD graduate Tibor Balint and Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) Tutor Dr Chang Hee Lee, rather than being a necessity for survival, the pillow is an important symbol of home, providing comfort, increasing privacy and reducing stress. In a recent paper published in Acta Astronautica they discuss the pillow as a boundary object – an artefact able to bridge different communities and part of the human-centred design process necessary to innovate for future space travel.
We spoke with Tibor about human-centred design and how he puts his PhD research to use as a Principal Human Centered Designer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Before coming to the Royal College of Art you’d already completed a PhD in engineering from Warwick University and were working as Senior Technical Advisor at NASA Headquarters under the Space Technology Mission Directorate. What made you decide to do a PhD at the RCA?

I was always interested in design and art, and was searching for a programme that would allow me to broaden my knowledge in these fields, but without leaving my technical side behind. The RCA’s Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) programme aligned with this goal, providing a bridge between the three topics: innovation, design and engineering.

Could you give a brief overview of your PhD research?

I explored the role of second-order cybernetics to create new perspectives, broaden paradigms and foster design conversations through boundary objects that may advance technological innovations in society. Through a number of case studies, I demonstrated how designerly and artistic modes of operation may enhance NASA’s capability to innovate beyond its predominantly engineering environment.

Tibor Balint casts
Galileo Flow Field, Tibor Balint 2015
Walnut & Bronze
H16 cm x W11.5 cm x D4.5 cm | Photographer: Tibor Balint

What impact did being immersed in an art and design environment at the RCA have on your research?

When I came to the RCA, I believed that it would be a straightforward research project. I thought I could build on my past academic and work experience to simply complete the degree. My initial research question was about improving innovation at NASA, which related to my everyday work at the time in a technology driven environment.

My late advisor, Ranulph Glanville, repeatedly asked me: ‘Why are you here? You can do this topic at an engineering school. Where is the delight?’ He was referring to the roman architect Vitruvius, who described good architecture as having utility, being well built, and providing delight.

Immersing myself in this research allowed me to step away from my everyday technical work at NASA, and focus on the way designers might look at a problem. In hindsight, it was a necessary step to go beyond my own understanding of the problem and push the boundaries. That is what PhD research should be. 

Interacting with other like-minded researchers, faculty and the technical staff helped me to experiment with various ideas, and build a number of artefacts. These boundary objects evolved the circular conversation on my research between my environment and myself.  

What impact has your time at the RCA had on your work at NASA?

After graduation, I returned to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a Principal Human Centered Designer, bringing the perspective of a designer to a technical environment. It was a fortunate coincidence that human-centred design (HCD) became an emerging discipline at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I joined a group of designers who each support various space mission formulation and implementation projects.   

What projects have you been working on recently?

My current work ranges from User Interface and User Experience (UX/UI) design projects to the formulation of novel space missions. I spent the past year and a half leading a group of scientists and engineers developing a Discovery class proposal with a $500M cost cap, focusing on planetary exploration. Design approaches played significant roles in the proposal development process, for which I leveraged ideas from my RCA research. These ranged from developing an effective project workflow for a geographically distributed team, to facilitating team communications across disciplines, and placing a strong emphasis on visual and written communications and proposal aesthetics. We will hear back from NASA early next year, and learn if our proposal is selected for the next phase of development. 

Tibor Balint astronaut chair
Cybernetic Astronaut Chair, Tibor Balint 2014
metal rods, canvas, paracord, pvc, wood, eyelets
100 cm x 75 cm x 75 cm | Photographer: Andor Ivan
Why is human-centred design so important?

HCD impacts how we interact with objects, with each other and with our environment. It enables a Vitruvian delight for many things that we do. It also has an economic benefit. Leading companies consider design as a differentiating business advantage. Even NASA, a traditionally engineering and science focused organization, has started to introduce these approaches into various processes.

Drawing an example from my research and work, if we design a spacecraft based only on technological solutions, making them human-centered at the end is much harder, requiring redesign, and is often not possible due to cost and schedule limitations. However, if the interactions between the crew and their space habitat are part of the design requirements from the beginning, working the technologies around them will lead to preferred outcomes.    

What is most memorable about your time studying at the RCA?

The opportunity to focus on my own research agenda for a few years, while cross-pollinating to other art and design fields as seemed appropriate. I spent a significant amount of time at the foundry, designing and making bronze sculptures and medals. With one of my sculptures I was fortunate to win the 2016 Remet Casting Prize.

The skill level and support from the technical staff was outstanding. I learnt a lot from them and became great friends with many of them. Subsequently, the artefacts and related theories formed the basis for one of the sections in my thesis on boundary objects. These explorations across disciplines were invaluable to my research.

Tibor Balint casts
Expanding Boundaries, Tibor Balint 2016
H7cm x W5.1cm x D1.4cm | Photographer: Tibor Balint & Oliver Lehtonen
Do you have any advice for someone considering a research degree at the RCA?

I’m very happy that I took the leap and moved to London for my research. The RCA is not only the world’s leading institute in graduate art and design, but also a crossroads for emerging future leaders in these fields. 

For researchers, the RCA provides an open environment to deep dive into their individual topics, while also allowing them to cross pollinate with other art and design fields. They can focus on their own agendas, with support from the resources the RCA offers, from interactions with other researchers to accessing excellent facilities and technical support. These are key factors to advance their own research and the state of knowledge. 

You recently came back to the RCA as a guest tutor for the College’s collaboration with British Airways to imagine the future of flight. What’s it like coming back to teach here?

It is always a great pleasure to return to the RCA. These visits bring back pleasant memories, give an opportunity to meet up with friends and colleagues, and allow me to mentor the next generation of designers. There is also an important benefit for me too. Such interactions and conversations with the current generation of PhD and MRes researchers, and Masters students allow me to broaden my own perspectives and learn about new ideas and approaches.

Enjoyed this story? Discover more alumni stories here.

Find out more about Research Degrees at the RCA, Innovation Design Engineering and the School of Design.

Full details of the RCA collaboration with British Airways.