What’s happening in Detroit: Meet Carla Diana, designer of tangible future technologies.

Greater Spaces
8 min readApr 20, 2020

Carla Diana works with tangible products, specifically, with interaction of future technologies. Her work spans robots to connected home appliances, and her designs have appeared on the covers of Popular Science, Technology Review and the New York Times Sunday Review. She is a designer, author and educator and most recently, has launched the 4D Design program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Detroit, MI, USA. She works with the Socially Intelligent Machines Lab at the University of Texas, Austin, with artificial intelligence and machine learning in robots and serves as Head of Design for Diligent Robotics. She is an accomplished author, having written the popular children’s book LEO the Maker Prince: Journeys in 3D Printing where readers could download and 3D print characters from the book and has a forthcoming book on smart object design, My Robot Gets Me: How Social Design Can Make Products More Human, to be published by Harvard Business Review Press. She currently cohosts the Robopsych Podcast, a biweekly discussion around design and the psychological impact of human-robot interaction.

Carla and the Poli robot, predecessor to Moxi, from the Socially Intelligent Machines Lab at UT Austin

7 Questions with Carla Diana

  1. What are you curious about in technology right now?

I’m really curious about robotics in our everyday lives, where we don’t think of them as robots anymore. At Smart Design, I led the interaction design for the Neato Robotics project — I was interested in making the device feel like it communicated with a person in a natural way, not seeming too foreign or new. We experience this in another way just now with for example, Amazon Echo, Siri, or Cortana… Oh that’s funny I just said “Alexa” and she piped in. Not now Alexa! So what I’m curious about is how our behaviours manifest in a physical and ambient way beyond voice, maybe with gestures, light, sound or motion. There’s an opportunity for designers to develop a lexicon around this.

2. Why or how did you choose this path?

I have 3 main identities: 1) Head of 4D Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where I created and launched a new program focused on exploring tangible interaction and blends artists, technologists and designers in one studio space. 2) I head up design efforts for a startup called Diligent Robotics focused on providing autonomous, trainable robots for the hospital setting. 3) I have a creative practice studio where I explore tangible interaction in an open-ended way.

Moxi, The Hospital Robot by Diligent Robotics (photo credit Diligent Robotics)

In all these, the common thread is exploring interaction in the physical world, and I got there by first studying and working in mechanical engineering, mostly because I didn’t realize something like product design existed. I then went to Cranbrook studying 3D design in an artistic setting where we focused on critique and creativity. Even 20 years ago, I could clearly see that the digital and physical worlds would come together in a significant way and decided to focus my career around this area. I worked with industrial design firms which were venturing into the digital. And eventually I created my own studio in 2012 where I tried to balance academia and industry. I love the ability to live in the future in academia but missed having a direct influence on a product that is in people’s homes that they are living with.

3. What has been your biggest failure in the past year, and what did you learn from that?

At Cranbrook, I had recruited a pretty diverse group with people from different countries and races and genders, and somehow, wound up with four men. (It was their startup year, so it was a smaller number of students). What happens in graduate school is there is a bit of competition for the best candidates. I had attracted an extremely talented and outstanding group, but for many of them their paths took them to other institutions due to financial or geographical challenges. We’re all still struggling with diversity in an area that relies heavily on technology. What I learned from this is that I still need to make the effort. When I was studying mechanical engineering in the 80’s, I was one of two women in a class of 40. I took for granted that we’ve come as far as we have. I assumed that it would be enough with the program description, with me as a leader, being at Cranbrook, I thought the diversity would take care of itself but I learned that I needed to go out of my way, to encourage them to join the program.

Carla Diana

4. What is your biggest daily challenge working with technology in this field?

Being overwhelmed by setting up a lab with equipment. I researched equipment and spoke with colleagues who run other successful labs about their best practices and equipment preferences, but ultimately I needed the voice of my students, however, since the 4D program is new, I didn’t have them when I was building the lab. Furthermore, we use such a variety of different equipment and prioritizing the focus is difficult. We’re really focused on the tangible but even with that focus, we shift from digital fabrication to applied robotics and embedded electronics to mixed reality.

Teaser image from Medusa at 131 Broadway Gallery, Detroit

5. How do you see concretely, the next 5 years and this new decade in tech?

We’re at this very significant watershed moment with the pandemic right now, which has made me think a lot about the future. Technology surprisingly plays a really big role and so I think that in the next five years, I see a lot more embracing of technology. There’s been a lot of backlash around ‘we don’t want so many screens’, ‘this all feels very artificial’ and throughout this pandemic crisis, people have been appreciating the value that technology has brought to their everyday lives. It’s been a really tragic and sudden trial by fire of the things that we as designers have been envisioning for decades around telecommuting, video conferencing, and around building communities of people that are in diverse parts of the world. In my children’s book from 6 years ago, when 3D Printers were still relatively rare — the vision was how could objects live in the cloud that anyone could download and print, and this COVID crisis ended up showing us how an ad-hoc grassroots effort using at-home 3D printers can be a strength. (Read about how hobbyists are using 3D printers to help create Personal Protective Equipment). I think that in the next 5 years people will build on ideas beta tested in crisis.

For the next decade, I wonder about the pendulum swinging in terms of how we do or do not embrace technology. Right now is this watershed moment but there are also a lot of concerns around privacy, people will do anything to mitigate this crisis we’re in, and they’ll make decisions to share data if it saves lives but I think we will see in the next 10 years a lot of backlash about that. I think one of the really unfortunate things that seems to be emerging from this crisis is that the big companies are getting bigger, the Googles and the Apples and the Microsofts. So many startups are starting to go out of business, it’s a really hard time for them. I think that we will have to see a rebuilding in the next 10 years. What potentially will happen now is that the larger companies will acquire the smaller companies.

6. What has been your favourite project to date and why?

Aside from building 4D design at Cranbook which must be my current favourite because it’s a combo of every effort in my life and the chance to build an entire community that will hopefully continue to grow and exist. But from my past would be the children’s book — LEO the Maker Prince: Journeys in 3D Printing.

Characters from LEO the Maker Prince: Journeys in 3D Printing

LEO the Maker Prince was a chance to really experiment with a global community of makers and with this idea of distributed design. It’s not a project that has made me any money but it was one that went out into the world and then had a life of its own. I could see the joy of people who 3D printed the characters in the book and took photos of the objects and shared them on social media, creating their own stories around them. One of the places was a library in Scotland — the first library in the UK to have a 3D printer that used the book with visually impaired kids who could hold and touch the characters. I didn’t even consider this or design for it, and when I heard that story it made me so excited about the potential of unleashing projects in the world and seeing where they end up.

7. What do you think is something we should be paying attention to?

This crisis moment and the way people are using technology to manage their emotional health. By doing things like creating video parties, or classroom activities like sending kids on scavenger hunts in their home and backyard — this merging of tech and reality. The thing to be paying attention to is that we’re in a tragic crisis and people have intense emotional needs for comfort and for mitigating solitude and they are using technology for that. We should be paying attention to this.

Carla’s work can be seen at:

Greater Spaces is written by Majken Overgaard and Vanessa Julia Carpenter where we work to expand the narrative of what technology is and who creates it. We speak with Danish and international female role models within technology and between these interviews we share what is most interesting to us, with a focus on diversity.



Greater Spaces

Carpenter & Overgaard conduct interviews with outstanding women working with technology in six areas: hardware, software, art, culture, research and design.