10,000 years ago, in the vast and featureless barren lands in the far north of what would eventually be Canada, the native Inuit hunters solved a tough wayfinding problem. There was a lot at stake, and the cost of the failure of their solution was high — death by starvation. These nomadic hunters needed to travel great distances in search of game over inhospitable terrain that was largely devoid of any distinguishing landmarks. Their response was simple and elegant — a system of piled stones that could be seen at great distances, and by subtle changes to the shape and orientation, could convey information about direction and destinations. For thousands of years, this is how the Inuit people found their way.
Industrial Designers are fond of the saying “people want toast, not toasters”, and as pat and trite as that is, it’s very true. Too often we get stuck on an obvious mode of solution to a common class of problem. This happens because, let’s face it, there often is a well-accepted type of solution for a given design challenge. A usual, and blindingly obvious answer. It’ll be what our clients are expecting. Sometimes it’ll even be what we bid on providing. But it’ll be the lazy way out.
Designers provide their greatest value for clients and do their most personally satisfying work when they take the time to fully investigate and deeply understand the core problem. Great designers have a way of moving beyond the obvious to a more nuanced and profound understanding of each new challenge. They set the problem on its head, turn it inside out and give it a few shakes to see what falls out. Their design responses, informed by their curiosity, are often beautifully simple, but they’re rarely obvious.
The Inuit hunters came up with a simple and elegant system of wayfinding, informed by an intimate knowledge of their environment, and unburdened by the preconceptions of wayfinding signage. They didn’t know they needed signage, they just knew that getting lost was a really bad idea. An obvious solution? Maybe with 10,000 years of hindsight, but it was probably pretty revolutionary when that first inukshuk appeared.