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Rebecca Costa: Simplifying Complexity (The Dieline Summit, Paris 2014)

Packaging is the interface between human biology and new products, technologies, processes, which will determine the success and failure of products. Designers must take the lead in simplifying complexity. To do this they must incorporate failure into the design process, understand insight as an evolutionary tool, and learn how to increase it.

Rebecca Costa was the keynote speaker at The Dieline Summit in Paris, November 2014. She is an American sociobiologist who offers an evolutionary explanation for current events, emerging trends and individual behavior. This post contains the major points from her presentation as we understood them. She has worked for many of the biggest companies to reduce complexity and help update policy.

Her overarching statement of purpose was:

“As designers and creators of products and packaging, we must lead the change. It is our duty, and our obligation to our planet, and to the next generation.”

Link to the video of her TEDx Talk

Her Statement of the Problem:

  • Every 48 hours we generate as much new data as we produced from the dawn of man till 2003.

  • We live in times of ever-increasing complexity, which creates a "hight failure rate environment."

  • There are many more wrong choices than right ones, and the number of wrong ones is growing exponentially.

  • In an environment such as this rational decisions become impossible, and people automatically revert to belief.

  • History has demonstrated that when a society acts on belief it is in danger of collapse and destruction. This is dangerous for civilization, for the life of the planet, and all our children and grand children.

  • The problem is congenital: the speed of the human brain is too slow to take in, much less process, these massive amounts of data and the related decisions.

Opening Slide from her TEDx Talk

Her Solution to the problem:

  • Companies must be courageous and overcome our ever-growing aversion to risk. We must learn to not only accept failure, but to expect it, plan on it, and weave it into the creative design process. Courage comes from seeing failure as a tool for iterative design.

  • Evolution has provided us with insight, a precious tool, with which to design solutions to complex problems. It functions below the cognitive threshold of awareness. It is scientific and in a expert or professional can be rational.*

  • Become aware of how the cognitive structures are involved in achieving insight, and help them with technology and policy (new laws). A person can train themselves to be more insightful.

  • Build on this genetically evolved ability to consider the near and far future and craft responses to minimize harm, by incorporating "computer-assisted decision making" such as Big Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, data visualization, facial recognition, and other technologies designed to filter, analyze, and draw reason from masses of messy information which our biology is no match for.

Slide from her TEDx Talk. Good design, even packaging design, can help fill the cognitive gap.

The Future of Packaging Design:

Packaging design will play a key role in simplifying complexity that arises from the interplay of diverse global markets, government regulation, laws, different languages, cultures, currencies, payment methods, distribution channels, consumer interaction, international versus local pricing and competition. All of these are things that design firms need to be continually assessing, reassessing, and planning for.

Packaging will take on more functionality, both active and intelligent. (See smart packaging in our post on Jonathan Ford's Dieline summit presentation).

Personalization. Expect even more multiple product lines than there are now. This will be due to fast changing consumer data being collected, monitored and responded to in real time by algorithms and predictive analytics. The algorithms are not coming, they are here!

New technologies will greatly alter packaging design. Things to keep your eye on are: Wikifoods; drone delivery, surveillance, warehouse supply; cheaper flat screens, holograms, avatars; bio-packaging; 3D printing; mobile apps tied to Big Data and predictive analytics; facial recognition software; nanobots and robotics; mapping the human brain and innovative neuro-technologies; and many others.


* Rationality below the cognitive threshold comes from years of training and practice, such as a design professional. (This idea connects with Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of the 10,000 hours from his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.) The stored models are built buy experience and function automatically. Insight can be trained for.

The above is Rebecca Costa's slide from her Dieline presentation in Paris.

Rebecca Costa has worked for Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, Oracle Corporation, Seibel Systems, 3M, Amdahl, and General Electric Corporation. As a sociobiologist she seeks to understand the deep relationship between biology, technology and policy. She believes that the interaction of these three areas, along with the acceptance of failure, will play an increasingly important role in forging better decisions for humankind in a world of ever-increasing complexity. Here is a link to her radio show The Costa Report.





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