Next generation alchemy

by Dries De Roeck on October 14, 2013

It was @bosmet who, on a pretty default weekday, told me something along the lines of “in fact, you remind me of an alchemist”. That statement got me thinking back to previous discussions I’ve had with @buskruit, @anner and @wimkonings over a  year ago. During the chat we had, the term ‘alchemy’ surfaced to describe the position the industrial designer takes in the ongoing evolution in which the design of digital things has almost become impossible to neglect by industrial designers. In this post, I want to reflect/think/rant a little on why alchemy might in fact be a  relevant term to describe the domain the industrial designers of today are operating in.

To start from, the wikipedia article on Hermeticism has a usable definition of Alchemy;

Alchemy is not merely the changing of lead into gold. It is an investigation into the spiritual constitution, or life, of matter and material existence through an application of the mysteries of birth, death, and resurrection.

This definition implies that when Alchemy is compared to it’s modern day evolutions chemistry and medicine science, the main difference is that there are ’emotional’ aspects taken into account. These emotional, “non scientific”, aspects are the foundation of why Alchemy was/is often regarded as a protoscience. When looking at industrial design, the inclusion of emotions and humane aspects has always been a central element in the design process. Typically, these aspects are hard to quantify – and when quantified often do not make a lot of sense.  The recently launched ‘Delft institute of positive design‘ is a good example of the importance these aspects play in the design of products and services. Initiatives like these also show that there is a need for nonconformistic ways to include elements that are hard to quantify in the design process.

Next generation alchemy and emotion

I have to be clear that I do not have the intention to call industrial design related research ‘protoscience’. But what I do experience in my daily practice though, is that explaining the need to define products and services from context of use instead of technological or business opportunity is far from easy. To me, an essential aspect of next generation alchemy is trying to move away from the purely rational and functional towards the emotional and the meaningful.

In a previous post, I linked to the idea of the unazukin generation. In the same post, I talked about products like the Little Printer and the Goodnight Lamp. Both products could be regarded as examples of next generation alchemy. From my experience, they only appeal to certain people that are touched by the emotion and/or meaning they carry. The goal of these products is clearly not to appeal to all people, but within the subset of people that are ‘touched’ by them, they want to provide a memorable experience.

Next generation alchemy and tools

Designers are increasingly often involved in the design of products and services that combine physical and digital aspects. Part of a product exists in the real world, another part of the product exists only virtually. From my experience, being able to combine both ‘worlds’ can be a struggle for an industrial designer. Whereas the designer is trained to create and develop physical things with a certain set of tools and methods (i.e. drawing, modelmaking), these do not always match the logic and development process in the digital world (i.e. programming and coding). It is however becoming essential for designers to prototype these type of hybrid products, but current tools (e.g. Arduino, Processing) still require a specific interest and often tend to limit creativity and ideation instead of catalyse it.

Being able to express digital-physical hybrid ideas and concepts is, I believe, another essential aspect of next generation alchemy. Being able to master a plethora of tools to ‘mish mash’ an idea together and further develop it based on feedback and qualitative insights. Again, I have to make a clear note that I do not say that designers should know how to write code. What is needed are new methods and tools which support designers in the definition and communication of concepts in which a, hard to measure, humane focus is essential.


Speaking about of digital prototyping for designers: Keynote is still the go-to tool in terms of ease-of-use, breadth and speed. As a tool for quickly putting together a pitch, it is still unmatched.

by Bo Smet on October 14, 2013 at 4:32 pm. #

I think keynote could indeed be a good metaphor to create tools for a specific area of the ‘digital/physical hybrid’ product spectrum. It would be interesting to abstract the underlying concepts, levels of complexity, ways of working,… and create something totally new from those insights.
In my opinion, there’s a lack of methods to design systems of products that interconnect. Methods that start from human aspects, not from technological possibilities. Much like Adam Greenfield states at the very end of this interview or as is mentioned somewhere halfway through this post

by Dries on October 14, 2013 at 4:49 pm. #

[…] interaction seems to relate with my thinking about meaning and next generation alchemy. Also, I just like the […]

by #thingsconAMS notes « Dream here on December 5, 2015 at 12:45 pm. #

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