Society, Ethics and Technology
    Discovery - Invention - Design Activity

        Updated:   01/10/02

This assignment can take a variety of forms depending on what your SET seminar instructor feels is most appropriate for her/his class. It is important that you make certain to follow your seminar instructor's directions when completing this assignment. If you have any questions about exactly what is to be done after looking over all the information, contact your seminar instructor for clarification.

A report is normally part of this assignment no matter what form it takes. The format of that paper will be specified by your seminar instructor. The final report will usually contain a title page with all relevant information, a table of contents with page numbers and section headings, and major divisions or chapter headings within the body of the report. Any references should follow the normal APA style manual or other acceptable standard form and a standard bibliography.

If you will be designing something to solve a problem, you should look over the information below.

Design Problem Solving Process

Below is an overview of the process you will be following in this activity and the general expectations of your results. While the activity has been divided into a number of discrete steps or phases for clarity, in reality you will be jumping between steps as your ideas take shape and you develop your solution to the problem you have chosen.

I. The Problem

A problem arises from a need or want. Several lecturers have mentioned Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which begin with the basic physiological needs of air, water, food, shelter, etc. When these most basic needs are satisfied, higher level needs, such as safety and security needs, social needs (and others) can be addressed.

A problem is dissonance between what is and what should be, or what someone thinks should be. All problems are not appropriately solved with technology but all technology arises from a perceived problem.

Your project will begin with the choice of a design brief from the ones you are given. Your first task is to determine the problem that this "design brief" is intended to solve.

For example, let's say that you were given a design brief to develop a device that would allow an individual with little or no use of his/her legs to move around the campus by him/her self. What is the problem that we are attempting to solve? Be careful. If you do not back up far enough you will only entertain a very narrow range of solutions. If you said that the problem is to design a wheelchair, then the only acceptable solution is a wheelchair. But if you take a close look at the nature of the problem, you may come up with something like "some people, through injury, illness or birth, often cannot adequately function in a world built for more mobile people." Then many other solutions become possible, such as electrical stimulation of muscles. New inventions and innovations often occur when someone defines the real problem that lies behind already existing products.

Documentation: Students should make a cover for their paper which includes name, seminar section and other graphics which seem appropriate. The body of the paper should begin with a problem statement that sets the context of the chosen problem. Briefly discuss the situation that has given rise to the need/opportunity for a technological solution.

In addition, the portfolio may include completed documentation sheets from the course reader (at instructor's discretion) as follows: Design Brief and Specification, Investigation, Possible Solutions, Final Solution, Developmental Work, Testing and Evaluation, mounted on 8 1/2 x 11 paper. Additional 8 1/2 x 11 plain sheets of paper are to be added to the paper as needed.

II. Design Brief and Specifications

A design brief clearly states what (1) the designer will do (in this case, you), and (2) what the successful solution will do. The design brief is a charge to do something.


Students should re-write the design brief of the chosen problem. You do not need to change it unless you and your seminar instructor have agreed on a different course of action than that described in the existing design brief.


Should clarify, set limits, and help direct the design effort. Following the seminar discussion where questions will be raised about the problem, students should develop a set of limitations for their design. These specifications should evolve and reflect the information gathered in the next step (investigation/research). Specifications may include safety considerations (no exposed hazardous edges, etc.), conformity to guidelines developed by related organizations, sensitivity to aesthetics and appearance, and others.

III. Investigation/Research

Develop a list of questions that should be raised and addressed. Some starting points are:

For example, if the question of what are the capabilities and limitations of the intended audience is asked, then answers may be found by interviewing appropriate individuals. If this course of action is pursued, then students must first discuss the nature of the project with the individual to determine if he/she is willing to be interviewed on this topic. It is important to be honest and straightforward and, at the same time, sensitive to the person's feelings. Discuss with your seminar instructor your intention to pursue interviews.


You should write a list of questions that need to be investigated on your documentation sheets. Through discussion, reading, interviews, etc., answers to these question should be included. 

IV. Development of Possible Solutions

This may be the first experience for many students in which success in solving a problem does not rest on finding a right answer. In most technological activity, especially for profit technological activity, designers respond to identified needs with a number of alternative solutions. A company that commissions a design for a new product, whether in-house or through consultants, will expect (and require) a number of alternatives which may be weighed against a number of mitigating factors, such as economics, production capability, labor force, and more recently, environmental impact.

In technological activity there is no actual right answer, only solutions which meet the original design brief with varying degrees of success (positive and negative attributes). A solution may seem excellent, but too expensive to produce; or a solution may meet all specifications but require the use of toxic materials which are difficult to dispose of. While these may be extremes, all solutions will have these trade-offs. By generating a number of alternative solutions the chances of one of those solutions being an appropriate one is increased.


Students should sketch their designs with as much detail as possible. There will be a wide range of skill evident among students in their ability to sketch and draw. It is important that you attempt to communicate your ideas neatly in graphical and written forms. Photographs and photocopies may also be used. Remember: your alternative solutions should all meet the basic requirements of the design brief; the chosen solution should meet all these requirements but should be somehow better.

V. Choose the "Best" Solution

Choosing a solution from the alternatives is a matter of assessing the trade-offs of each design. Which design provides a balance of simplicity, cost to produce and distribute, pleasing aesthetics, and so forth? Students should establish the criteria that they will use to assess the best design solution. Students should be able to defend their choice of direction for their developmental work.


One simple (but sometimes simplistic) way of making a solution choice is to develop a matrix. You can develop an attribute chart, with the different solutions you have developed across the top, and design brief requirements listed down the left side. Rate each solution on how well it achieves each design requirement, using a scale from one to ten. You will need to indicate what each number means in a scale of your own design. The solution with the most points should be chosen as the final solution.

The Best Solution Should:

  1. Meet the criteria established in the design brief and specifications
  2. Be somehow better than the other considered solutions

Sketch your best solution on the documentation sheet.

VI. Developmental Work

Before actual making of the solution can take place, the chosen design idea needs to be further developed. What materials will need to be used to make the device strong enough, durable, pleasing in appearance, etc.? What exact dimensions, sizes, etc. are called for? Others?


Students should attempt to develop sketches which indicate size, color, materials, etc. A final design drawing of the device should be included. (remember, in most cases you will only model your solutions and not use the actual materials you specify).

VII. Making

In most cases, design solutions will be modeled in easily obtained materials, such as paper, cardboard, foil, etc. You will need to demonstrate the function of your solution idea, but not produce a practical, durable product. For example, if motion is an integral part of the design, the model should produce that motion or a simplified motion that demonstrates the workability of the design.


Limited documentation in this stage. Students may choose to photograph their work, but short of that, there is little documentation practical in this activity.

VIII. Testing

What would be appropriate ways to assess the success of the project? In most cases there will be several strategies that could be used. You will need to identify at least one of these strategies and use it to determine how well your solution meets the criteria outlined in your design brief and specifications. For example, if you were designing a toy for a 5 year old child, you could give the toy to a few children and observe how long it kept their interest. Or you could have the toy evaluated by someone who is considered an expert in child toy development. Or better, you could do both.

While time for this project is limited, it is important to develop and use some kind of test to determine the success of your work.


Students should describe in a few sentences how the product is to be tested and provide some strategy for displaying the test results. This may be in the form of descriptions, tables, checklists, testimonials, or other methods.

IX. Evaluation

Students should assess their work in relation to the original identified problem (the design brief) and how well they have performed in their efforts to solve it.


Students should write a paragraph or two describing the results of the testing and their own judgment of how well the solution achieved the original goal. A paragraph or two describing how well they performed in solving the problem would also be appropriate. A few short sentences indicating what they would change if they had to redesign their solution, and why, would also be appropriate.

Brief Bibliography: Technology as a Creative Process

Armstrong, T. 7 Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Many Intelligences. Penguin Books, 1993.

Bruner, J., J. Goodnow, and G. Austin. A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley, 1956.

Buzan, T. Use Both Sides of Your Brain. Dutton, 1991.

Caine, R., and G. Caine. Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching. Educational Leadership 48, no. 2 (1990): 66-70.

de Bono, E. Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step. Harper and Row. 1973.

Dickinson, D., Technology and the Multiple Intelligences. Intelligence Connections 1, nos. 2 and 3 (1992).

Gardner, H. Developing the Spectrum of Human Intelligences: Teaching in the Eighties, a Need to Change. Harvard Educational Review 57 (1987): 87-93.

Gardner, H. Developmental Psychology: An Introduction. Little Brown, 1982.

Gardner, H. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Basic Books, 1983.

Gardner, H. Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. Basic Books, 1993.

Guilford, J. Way Beyond I.Q. Creative Education Foundation, 1988.

Harman, W, and H. Rheingold. Higher Creativity: Liberating the Unconscious for Breakthrough. Insights. J. P. Tarcher, 1985.

Koberg, D. and J. Bagnall. The Universal Traveler: A Soft-Systems Guide to Creativity, Problem-Solving and the Process of Reaching Goals. William Kaufmann, Inc. 1976.

Markley, O. Using Depth Intuition in Creative Problem Solving and Strategic Innovation. Journal of Creative Behavior. 22 (2): 85-100. 1988.

Perkins, D. Knowledge as Design. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 1986.

Samuels, M. and N. Samuels. Seeing with the Mind's Eye: The History, Techniques, and Uses of Visualization. Random House. 1975.

Shone, R. Creative Visualization. Thorson's Publishers. 1984.

Springer, S. and G. Deutsch. Left Brain, Right Brain.v W. H. Freeman. 1985.

Sternberg, R. Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence. Cambridge University Press. 1984.

Zdenek, M. The Right-Brain Experience. McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1983.