Design Notes: Björn Hartmann on design, teamwork and expertise

Bjoern Hartmann

Björn Hartmann in the CITRIS Invention Lab

To quote Herbert Simon, the Nobel laureate who wrote the book Sciences of the Artificial: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” This positive outlook overcame a younger Björn Hartmann when, as a musician and DJ in early 2000s Europe after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he was inspired by the changing landscape of electronic music to attend Stanford University for a Ph.D. in human-computer interaction.

“The boundary of where information technology hits the physical world really fascinated me,” he said.

“Specifically, it came from witnessing a shift in music from analog instruments where the physics of sound production determine the shape of the instrument. So if you have a vibrating string, for a certain frequency it has to be this long. If you have a vibrating air column, you know where you have to put the holes on a flute. However, once you move to electronic music instruments, sound production is now all algorithmic, which opens up the question, ‘what should the shape of the instrument be?’ It can now be almost anything.”

Hartmann is an Assistant Professor in the EECS Department at UC Berkeley. He’s also the Chief Technology Officer of the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation—when he’s not teaching or working on research, he’s thinking about the kinds of labs and technology that will sit in the new Jacobs Hall. Some examples of potential new labs open to all students with proper training include an electronics lab, a digital fabrication lab and an audio-video production lab.

“The Jacobs Institute is an interdisciplinary effort, and so far a lot of our resources have been segregated in separate departments. The types of projects that I’m most excited about—and I think where design is heading—are at the confluence of many different disciplines. You can’t keep the tools restricted to students of only one major. So one of the topics I’m really excited about working on is how to give more students at Cal access to a wider range of design resources,” Hartmann said.

These resources do not simply revolve around accessible technology, but also accessible mentorship. Mentors can range from industry professionals with extensive knowledge of product market fit to mentors who are makers and builders themselves. Current mentors of the latter category can be found working in the CITRIS Invention Lab, a space open to anyone with a UC Berkeley affiliation to learn, build and launch their own products. Mark Oehlberg and Chris Myers are in charge of safety and machine maintenance in the lab. But as Hartmann notes, that’s really only a small part of what they do.

“A huge part of their job is being there as a resource when students run into roadblocks and problems right when they’re working on something. So [students] can call one of the lab managers over and say, ‘I have a problem here, not quite sure why it’s not working.’ So you have someone who can give you feedback right then and there and give you design guidance based on their professional expertise. I think that’s really important.”

Hartmann himself is also a great mentor to his students. When I arrived to chat with him around four o’clock in the afternoon, he told me that he’d been working in the Invention Lab since nine in the morning. The aforementioned students he was helping are part of Hartmann’s Interactive Device Design course (CS294-84), an interdisciplinary class that captivates undergraduate and graduate students from engineering to art practice. Students should enroll in the class with some technical experience, but the necessary skills can be gained from Eric Paulos’ Critical Making course (CS294-85), which is specifically open to those with less technical knowledge.

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Fifth-year Josh Stroud, a Mechanical Engineering major in the Interactive Device Design class, shows Hartmann his process on his project called SmartSocket. It is a smart prosthetic that relieves amputee pain by tracking comfort throughout the day.

“It turns out that we’ve had students who first take Critical Making, and that equips them with all the right skills to then follow on with Interactive Device Design. So I think we’re maybe seeing a whole ecosystem of project-centric, hands-on design courses emerge. You don’t just take one, you take the constellation of courses in some sequence,” Hartmann said.

As per Herbert Simon’s words of wisdom, it seems that these courses are the first step in a course of action leading to more design-centered learning on campus. And while what goes on in the Invention Lab is a crucial part of design as a whole, it’s not the whole picture. Thinking back to the resources that Hartmann hopes to bring to the Jacobs Institute, there is an emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of design, from researching to building.

“Design is a larger process that begins with finding out opportunities for improving the world around you, so that means it encompasses need-finding and observation activities, and problem-framing rather than just problem-solving activities. But it also encompasses turning those insights into new solutions, and that is about envisioning solutions, rapidly prototyping them, evaluating them and iterating your way towards a goal,” Hartmann said.

“For any specific, concrete domain, like medical devices, there are actually so many different areas of expertise you should draw on to really come up with a compelling solution. That’s both domain expertise—for example, you probably want to talk to nurses or physicians—and expertise in coming up with lots of ideas. Then there’s expertise in the technical domains of sensors and electronics. And then there’s expertise in the aesthetics of designing the shape of a product. It’s almost by definition that it requires a team with different expertise.”

For Hartmann, who went from musician to designer and professor, bringing in many areas of expertise only makes sense.

Author’s Note: This article is part of a series called Design Notes, which profiles faculty and students who are leading the design movement at UC Berkeley.

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