Life hacks: passing fad or a valuable opportunity to develop problem-solving skills in D&T?

Paul Woodward
19th July 2019 at 09:00

Trends come and go, especially in the world of design, but one that seems to be hanging around a little longer than normal is the life hack.

Life hack refers to any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life. The term was primarily used by computer experts who suffer from information overload or those with a playful curiosity in the ways they can accelerate their workflow in ways other than programming (thanks, Wikipedia).

A phrase coined 15 years ago at a technology conference in San Diego, life hacks have become a global phenomenon on social media. A quick search of Google, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and the like will provide you with all the inspiration you could, or would, ever want. So, let’s look at how this relates to design and technology.

For those not familiar with the concept, life hacks can involve a great deal of ingenuity and no small amount of design initiative so, as easy as it may be to dismiss it as just a social media or fashion trend, it’s something we could use in the teaching of design and technology. Sounds like a stretch? Bear with me here…

First, there is the concept of product development. What you are getting with many of the more practical hacks is a reactionary evaluation of a product or its limitations. Can’t see the map on your phone while driving, can’t get a phone mount to fit? Simple: get an air freshener grille mount and a phone case and glue them together. Problem solved. It may not be pretty, but it works and that is likely to be said about a lot of the prototypes realised for the new NEA.

Furthermore, it’s not just the limitations of a product that they are aware of; it’s the potential of some. How many have realised they can 3D print a missing part from a product to give it a new lease of life? The twin pen holder that clips on to my notebook courtesy of a fellow design teacher now means I don’t lose the pen and pencil that I always need when I need to sketch out an idea.

Then there is that most human reaction to a problem, which is to concoct a solution using whatever is at hand. Starts raining? Fashion an umbrella from a folded newspaper. Wobbly table? Fashion a wedge from a menu or beermat. Need to keep your door open? Wedge it with anything triangular shaped…you get the idea. Some of these life hacks are a response to such situations and those adept at these hacks can see an almost limitless Lego-like variety of solutions using off the shelf parts, even if the results do look a bit Heath Robinson (worth googling for his designs).

For the more advanced users, there are hacks that make workflow better and many you probably do without even realising it. I once saw a student make a digital folder and, on each page, he tried to put the titles and page number in the same place but when it ran, they jumped about between slides. I told them to make one master slide with all the titles and labels where they wanted them then to copy it repeatedly and change the text on each slide. You would think I had invented fire from their reaction! Come to think of it, hacks are a new fashionable title for what we once called productivity, workflow or just common sense.

The life hacks that make our everyday lives easier can develop into far more complex hacks that could improve the quality of life for everyone on the planet. Prosthetic limbs 3D printed at home for humans and animals are just one more advanced version of the life hack and systems designed to clean up oceans, provide power in remote areas and much more are the sort of life-changing solutions we should be inspiring our students to develop. First, however, we need to help them develop the creative and problem-solving skills that they clearly have. We just don’t always do it in a way that they can relate to, but these hacks do demonstrate that the potential is there.

Inherently, we are all designers but some of us choose to hone and develop that skill. Life hacks might have gone under your radar, but they are evidence of people using that dormant design skill to solve everyday problems or to make life better somehow. Isn’t that the same theme underpinning the teaching of design and technology?

In many ways, life hacks are what we might have called an innovative design idea some time ago. So, my own proposition is that we take back many of these life hacks and call them something catchier like… design. Yes, that sounds much better.


Paul Woodward is an experienced head of creative arts and design and technology, currently working as a designer, author and D&T consultant