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New Firm Built on “Hybrid Thinking” Tackles World’s Toughest Design Problems

Continuum Advanced Systems gathers experts in far-flung fields to tackle complex design problems, from Humvee safety to ultra-fast AIDs testing.

New Firm Built on “Hybrid Thinking” Tackles World’s Toughest Design Problems

International design and innovation firm Continuum announced today that it has opened a new division that takes the fuzzy notion of “hybrid thinking” and gives it a desk at the office.

The division, Continuum Advanced Systems, gathers more than 45 authorities in fields ranging from industrial design to biomedical engineering to toil at the intersection of technology, systems, and human-centered design. The hope is that by putting together far flung ways of thinking, the group will be far more creative.

The group will focus on complex, hydra-headed problems, whose solutions might not come from one area of expertise: How do you design an AIDS test that’s easy to administer in the poorest reaches of the world? How do you make military vehicles safer? Each of those problems touches not only upon products, but entire systems that surround them. “The connection between technology and people is the core of our business unit,” Harry West, Continuum’s CEO said in an interview last week. “Here we’re building up the expertise.”

Continuum got its start more than 25 years ago designing largely medical products. Now, complex technical projects (whether medical or otherwise) represent a third of Continuum’s business. The new division is about taking the firm’s existing design approach — which leans heavily on user research — and throwing a raft of specialists at it. “The Continuum design process and the Continuum Advanced Systems design process… are fundamentally the same,” says Tom Merle, chief development officer of Continuum Advanced Systems. “The difference lies in the core skills and experience that we apply to create those solutions. Continuum Advanced Systems is made up of experts in not only human-centered design but also technology development, human factors, regulatory, and mechanical, electrical and software engineering.”

For example, when Daktari Diagnostics asked Continuum to help create a portable, rugged device that would let clinicians in sub-Saharan Africa measure CD4 counts — an important blood test for HIV patients that typically requires fragile equipment — the design firm drew on a range of design and technological specialists who rarely work so closely. The resulting device provides CD4 counts with a finger stick in just eight minutes.

Advanced Systems is also equipped to solve non-medical design problems. Continuum teamed up with General Dynamics‘s Edge Innovation Center to design a “soldier-centric solution” to the bulky, confusing communication and control systems onboard a Humvee. After interviewing soldiers and playing along in mock emergency trials, they designed a mechanism that allows soldiers to better access the vehicle’s smart-display units. Government agencies and private manufacturers are now examining the concept for possible production.

Continuum could be model for other design agencies — which still somehow think their work is divorced from technological innovation — to follow.

For more information, visit the new Continuum Advanced Systems Web site here.

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.