When experienced test pilots and cosmonauts at the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation started building a wooden spacecraft, complete with an interior made out of cardboard boxes, they quickly attracted the mirth of their colleagues.

“We called it a hut for homeless piglets,” recalled Mark Serov, one of those test pilots and cosmonauts, speaking at the Days of Industrial Design festival at the Skolkovo innovation centre this week.

L-R: SmirnovDesign head Sergei Smirnov, Skolkovo vice president for city development Elena Zelentsova and Sberbank Robotics Lab head Albert Yefimov spoke at the Days of Industrial Design at Skolkovo. Photo: Sk.ru.

“There were rumours flying round Moscow that cosmonauts were building a wooden spaceship,” he said.

But in the end, the joke was on those who had scoffed at the idea. The model proved extremely helpful to the test pilots, and all the senior management of the state rocket-building enterprise subsequently went inside it, said Serov.

“We learned a lot thanks to that model: using it, we were able to simulate the inside and work spaces of the crew, and work out how long the cosmonauts would need to get out of their work spaces in the event of an emergency,” he said. “We thought we were so clever, and then we found out that they reportedly had almost exactly the same thing at [NASA’s] Johnson Space Centre,” he recalled.

The importance of testing objects during the design process itself was a recurring theme at this year’s Days of Industrial Design. Ashley Hall, professor of design innovation and deputy head of the innovation design engineering programme at the Royal College of Art, said the importance of thinking via making was crucial.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re writing computer code or building objects: thinking via the making process is incredibly important,” he told the audience at the Skolkovo Technopark.

“Because when we make things, different stuff happens. The old model of design is: you think and then someone else makes. You always learn new lessons when making things that inform design decisions.”

Cosmonaut and test pilot Mark Serov showed photos of the wooden model, built by test pilots, of the crew's compartment for a spacecraft under design at the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation. Photo: Sk.ru.

After all, only the people who use the design objects in real work conditions can really know how ergonomic they are. Even Galina Balashova, the architect who designed the interiors of early Soviet manned spacecraft who spoke at last year’s Days of Industrial Design, and whose legacy can still be seen in spacecraft design today, did not have the advantage of having gone into space to experience how zero gravity would affect working conditions, noted Serov, adding that the Velcro used on the sofa and cosmonaut’s trousers to secure them when they wanted to sit down had originally proven too strong.

Balashova herself recalled this experience of trial and error in her talk last year.

“When they [the cosmonauts] sat on the sofa, they would float off without their trousers,” she said.

Fail to succeed

The flip side of these learning experiences – which could also be seen as what Hall terms “productive failures” that can be learned from and built upon, as opposed to “unproductive failures” – is that they allow designers to move forward.

Mark Serov, cosmonaut and test pilot. Photo: Sk.ru.

“Failure can be seen as the stepping stones on the road to success,” says Hall. “The heart of innovation is to keep failing, because the more we fail, the faster we succeed.”

In his work teaching design innovation at the Royal College of Art, a graduate research university in London, Hall found that his students were appalled by the idea of failing. Many of them come from engineering or science backgrounds, in which they are taught never to experiment with the unknown; most are used to getting consistently top grades; and some have won scholarships that they are anxious not to jeopardise with unsuccessful projects, he said.

When people don’t want to fail, they’re scared to experiment, and this crushes innovation, he said. In addition, when students do fail, they lose confidence, as they are simply not used to failing. So the Royal College of Art set its students a task in which they had to fail – and the greater their failure, the better their grade.

“What we were trying to do was give people permission to fail,” explained Hall. “We wanted them to become more comfortable with failure, because if they’re going to be great innovators, they have to fail.”

In feedback following the experiment in failure (which Hall admitted took six years for the university to approve), students said they had become much more comfortable dealing with the unknown.

“If you’re going to be a great designer, you have to deal with the unknown. Because if you know where you’re going, it’s not innovative: someone’s been there before,” said Hall.

Safety first

The other recurring theme of this year’s event was the role of design in ensuring safety. Nowhere is this more true than in space and at sea.

“A cosmonaut is always working, from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep. How things looks and how convenient they are secondary to safety,” said Serov.

Hall presented a practical case that a team of researchers from the Royal College of Art had worked on to improve the safety of ship pilots, whose job is to leave their port in a small boat and then transfer from that boat onto a large ship by climbing up a narrow ladder – often in rough seas – in order to bring the larger ship safely into port.

One in 100,000 ship-to-ship transfers results in an accident in the U.K. alone in just one port, according to Hall, and these can often be fatal, as the pilot gets crushed between the two vessels, or falls from the ladder onto the smaller vessel or into rough seas.

Professor Ashley Hall of the Royal College of Arts in London presented a practical case in which students created new designs for a ship's ladder to improve safety standards for ship pilots. Photo: Sk.ru.

As part of a project aimed at generating new lifesaving design solutions at sea and on rivers funded by Lloyds Register Foundation, a U.K. charity that aims to protect life and property, a team of researchers and students from the Royal College of Art turned their attention to the ship’s ladder.

“The ship’s ladder is made of wood and rope, it hasn’t changed in 300 years,” said Hall, adding that 40 percent of accidents in ship-to-ship transfers occur because the ladder breaks or becomes detached from the ship.

The interdisciplinary teams of postgrads came up with ideas including a 3D printed ladder made from advanced polymers and composites, making it very strong but at the same time light and easy to move. A prototype is currently being built, said Hall.

As part of the same Lloyd’s Register Foundation challenge, the students joined forces with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to look at improving safety on the River Thames. One of the results was Ellys, a robot inspired by a (non-stinging) jellyfish. Powered by the tide and sunlight, Ellys can detect the vibrations of a person falling into the water and reach them in two minutes, if enough robots are located along the river. It will also alert other robots to come and join it, where they inflate to act as a flotation device, emit heat to stave off hypothermia and light up to guide the lifeboat to the person. A full-size version has already been built and is currently being tested, said Hall.

 "If you know where you’re going, it’s not innovative: someone’s been there before," says Hall of the importance of teaching students to embrace the unknown. Photo: Sk.ru.

Practical application

For Hall, it is crucial that designs can be implemented in real life in the industries for which they are created.

“We want to work in the world with real people, and make a real difference with tangible design impact,” he told the event at the Skolkovo Technopark.

But in implementing industrial design in real life, there is another factor that must be taken into account: human nature and different cultures and attitudes.

“Behaviour is another challenge faced by design for safety,” said Hall.

The ship pilot industry, for example, is dominated by what the professor refers to as “grandfathering:” the attitude that “if my grandfather did it this way, then so can I,” which makes people resistant to change.

“Design needs to take into account behaviour and very complicated environments that keep changing,” said Hall.

“The weather changes, people’s behaviour changes, technology changes, and we also need to take into account people’s culture: in different parts of the world, people behave in different ways in relation to danger and safety.”