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Morphological Analysis

Divergent phases — when facing the solution of an industrial design project — are funny. Brainstormings over there, sketches over here … if everything goes as it should (which is not the topic today) we come to a point where we find ourselves flooded by a pile of proposals that we contemplate thinking: and now, what?

Recently, learning with an online course, I found out a tool called Morphological Analysis that caught my attention because it basically structured and developed something that I had been doing for years without naming it. In fact, it is not the first design tool which nurtures from processes more alike to those of engineering, as it may also happen with TRIZ.

Morphological Analysis separates an object (product) into as many dimensions as variables we can find so they can be individually designed. This helps the designer to evaluate every option potentially ideated for each of these variables, presenting new scenarios that will help you make decisions.

What? We are going to show an extremely simple case to understand it. Let’s say we want to design a fork and all of us automatically must know what its shape should look like, but… is there only one type of fork? If we start splitting it up into its multiple dimensions, we could write a long list of variables:

  • Number of tips.
  • Shape of the tips.
  • Proportion tips/body.
  • Handle.
  • Length.
  • Thickness.
  • Curvature.

And like these we could write a few more. Now let’s think about how many options each one of them provides. For example, common forks usually have 2, 3 or 4 tips. If we study the shape of a tip, it might end sharp, blunt or rounded (like in a plastic fork). And so with each dimension. Indeed, the first thing we could think about is that this atomisation of the characteristics of the fork can tend to infinity, so it is important to have the moderation and wisdom to know which ones are actually identifying, viable and sensible. (I am not interested in thinking about the option of a 17-tips fork because it would stop being associated with the shape of a fork or in evaluating the different fillet ratios from the joint between body and the handle because it is a barely relevant feature).

Once we have all this written (in post-its, in an excel, however it is easier for you), it is not difficult to see that if we choose an option from each variable, we will get the fork #1. If we choose different options again, we will find the fork #2, and so on, as far as how many different forks we want throughout those variations.

And how is this useful when designing? I do not think that it is a substitute for the beloved sketching, because there is a value in thinking with the hand in order to precisely identify which are the variables and the main options. But it is useful in the meaning that, once this stack of proposals is generated, we can discern which possibilities are most interesting for us so we can structure them and get “finalist” designs that will pass the filter right towards the development phase.

The case of the fork is really basic, but this morphological analysis can be applied onto much more complex systems. For example, I applied it (involuntarily) in one of my projects I love most: the interior of a subway car.

How many dimensions can we find? Width, height, length, number of doors, number of seats, seats orientation, connection between wagons, type of floor, type of safety pull, type of luminaires, colours, materials, joints … we easily can count dozens of dimensions (in fact, some of them are recursively dimension-able). Since my intention was to design a modular, parametric and customisable wagon, from this analysis I chose which were the most relevant dimensions to change and I was able to choose my four definitive wagon models, which best represented all the options from this modular game.

Attention! As far as now, it seems relatively simple to apply it to an industrial design but it makes sense to extrapolate it to a service, an experience or an event. Bringing back another personal case, if we analyse an event such as the “Diseñatón” organised by AIDI, this event can be divided into a lot of dimensions: amount of days, duration of each, amount of contestants, value of the award, number of people by group, space, venue layout, number of juries, material provided to the contestants…

Perhaps the biggest problem with morphological analysis is why we choose one option over another or what criteria should we use to combine certain dimensions. Here I come up with the concept of associated dimensions which, as you probably know if you usually sketch in Solidworks, implies a dependence between both. In my subway car, I could empirically verify that the highest wagons are also the widest, so it made sense to maintain that relationship. Or those with three pairs of doors were precisely the shortest and with no connecting corridor. The key is in your hands because the less you tighten those relationships, the more transgressive (and more difficult to set down) your outcome will be. One option is to keep strong dependency relationships between dimensions that we do not want to touch but to explore those in which we focus our innovation.

At the Diseñatón, it was also like this: the number of people participating is linked with the choice of the venue; the number of people per group with the tables layout; the amount awarded with the prize left more or less money available for other expenses… It would certainly be odd if a dimension is truly independent from others.

Once again, the challenge is to express all these relationships clear enough so that, at least, the designer can understand the logic unchained with each choice. Those more venturesome may think of an Excel conditional macro but it can really be done with just a bit of order and some post-its, for example, marking with the same symbol those dependent dimensions or generating some scores to prioritise some dimensions over others, which would give me content for a separate post.

And that’s all, a tool perhaps very particular to make decisions at the design time, but that is an agile shortcut for those moments in which the unleashed inspiration needs to be tamed by reasoned understanding. Everyone ought to use it with personal wisdom.

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Morphological Analysis separates an object (product) into as many dimensions as variables we can find so they can be individually designed. This helps the designer to evaluate every option potentially ideated for each of these variables, presenting new scenarios that will help you make decisions.