We are excited to share student projects, department news, event information, and photos from the MFA in Products of Design program. Check back frequently for updates.

Design For Protest: BlackBox, by Charlotta Hellichius and Matthew Barber

Design For Protest: BlackBox, by Charlotta Hellichius and Matthew Barber

Designed by Charlotta Hellichius and Matthew Barber, BlackBox is a product and platform that scrapes, records and saves information sent and received from your smartphone in situations where you may either be at risk of losing your device or having it taken away. It system has two components: the “black” box and its companion, the “white” box. The black box is a portable digital storage unit worn as inconspicuous jewelry on your body. It collects all digital data transmission from your device and transmits it to the white box for storage when they’re reunited. The black box is reset after this interaction and is ready to record the details of your next outing. BlackBox is managed by an app that allows you to customize exactly what information is stored—from geo-location to photographs, from tweets to Facebook updates.




Through research, Hellichius and Barber uncovered a need to create a safe repository of “evidence” of a protest, and began their quest to create a product-service pairing that would empower citizens to participate in, and contribute to, a cause by providing protesters with a tool to “ensure emotional and technological invulnerability.” And like its namesake used in airplane flight crash analysis, BlackBox is used in event recovery.


Protesting is increasingly becoming a social exhibit of deep personal and collective belief. The rise and wide adoption of social media provides a powerful catalyst for change, and creates new opportunities for technology and design to take positive roles. When governments, police, and military groups censor their communities, protesters’ stories may become the only authentic record of what transpired. BlackBox ensures their preservation.




Designed to fit inconspicuously into one’s wardrobe, BlackBox functions as a wearable, digital capture and storage device. It has a WhiteBox counterpart stationed at home or work where it functions as a receptor of all digital information and as a permanent storage device.


Inspired by IFTTT (If This Then That), future embodiments of the project involve creating a platform that broadcasts out in real time discreet elements of captured behavior, such that any photograph snapped during a protest would immediately be posted to Facebook, for example, saved to DropBox, geo-located on Google Maps and pinned, and emailed to the local news bureau.


“Canary” Online Dating Platform for the Centers for Disease Control

“Canary” Online Dating Platform for the Centers for Disease Control

This project, partnered with the Centers for Disease Control, was designed by Gaïa Orain, Matthew Barber, Charlotta Hellichius and Clay Kippen as part of their Design for Social Value course led by Kyla Fullenwider.

Online dating has grown in the past twenty years to be one of the primary ways people meet their sexual partners. Among urban young adults, OKCupid.com has emerged as the most popular platform regardless of gender or orientation, and sites such as these offer not only relationship matchmaking, but also facilitate casual sexual encounters. As such, the use of sites like OKCupid enables users to schedule a greater number of encounters than meeting potential partners in a bar or other conventional methods.

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Several studies point to a potential relationship between the rise in new sexually transmitted infection (STI) cases in North America over the last decade and the increased popularity of online dating over the same time period. While it is difficult to draw a concrete connection between the two, the bottom like remains that people use the internet to meet new sexual partners, people are having more sexual partners in their lifetime, and new STI cases continue to escalate.

In the first phase of this project, the design team conducted extensive ethnographic research by comparing hour-long interviews with online dating users to the data distilled from a 140-person online survey. The goal of this research was to understand the mechanics, assumptions and culture of contemporary online dating. Ultimately, the team understood the importance of the internet’s role in connecting people to their individual needs and desires. And research also revealed the importance of visual culture and contemporary imagery in affecting behavior, arguing that the implementation of better practices in sexual health, when venturing to the web for lust, can be fostered through the creation of new experiences and visual languages.


Canary, an app-less subscription service designed to compliment the online dating landscape, is inspired by subscription services such as weather site Poncho. Canary sends subscribers “prompts” that nudge them with upbeat and friendly messages to help them establish positive sexual health routines.



At sign-up, Canary asks a series of simple questions to help create a dater profile for its users, prepping the platform to send them relevant information tailored towards their dating lifestyle. Users can then choose to receive their prompts either via SMS or email. Through this passive, yet convenient, delivery of information to its subscribers, Canary does not need to be opened or consulted in order to deliver these prompts—ideal for the busy online dater.







“Loop” Haptic Directional Arm Band, by Kathryn McElroy and Joseph Weissgold

“Loop” Haptic Directional Arm Band, by Kathryn McElroy and Joseph Weissgold






Loop is a directional haptic feedback accessory designed by Kathryn McElroy and Joseph Weissgold for their Product, Brand & Experience course. The device and system emerged out of a challenging brief to design a “branded consumer product” that would help in the context of a protest.


The opportunity that Joseph and Kathryn identified was that demonstrators often go into a protest with the presumption that it will be peaceful and non-violent, but given the provocative nature that defines demonstrations, violence can often ensue. In addition, Kathryn and Joseph argue that “one of the strategies for public protesting is that strength is evidenced by the participants’ ability to ‘stay in formation’—a kind of ‘you can’t take us all’ mentality.” And inspired by the motions of schools of fish and bird flocking patterns, the designers saw a parallel in the animal kingdom—a kind of “you can’t catch us all.” Here was an opportunity to use technology to address the challenge of protesters staying together when a demonstration gets disturbed; where forces try to “break up” the event.



Since humans don’t have the kind of subtle instinct that allows them to move in spontaneous unison, Kathryn and Joseph designed a product-service pairing that that would provide just such a capability: a soft, close-fitting armband that provides haptic feedback to the user, plus a smartphone app that geo-locates the user and affiliated users immediately around around them.



The app uses the bluetooth and GPS on the protesters’ smartphones to keep them all within a certain flexible range from one another—allowing mass demonstrations to have enough flexibility to move nimbly and avoid conflicts with the authorities without relying on a cellular signal or wifi. The paired armband has vibration points evenly spaced around the circumference of the band, guiding the user “right” or “left” through a choreographed “pulsing” in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Loop thus allows its users to be more focused “in the environment,” and eliminates the need to look at a phone screen for directions. The designers beautifully sum up the offering: “With Loop, the software, together with the hardware, provide directionality through rotational vibration.”


In other applications, Loop can work with GoogleMaps to provide turn-by-turn directions, but also has an open API that allows the developer community to create new uses for it. From intuitively directing jogging routes, to helping tourists visit  hot spots while still looking up at the sights, there are countless applications where a directional, haptic prompt outweighs the nuisance of having to pull out and look at a smartphone.

And since the app helps users stay within range of their chosen group, the device could serve to keep families together on vacation, for example, or friends together at a festival.





The core of the product packaging doubles as an induction charger for the device, and the designers imagine that the product would be sold in stores such as Best Buy and Radio Shack.



“Loop,” at its brand essence, offers users a kind of “directional animal instinct” through the use of technology, while allowing the engagement with that technology to happen without the use of screens. Comment the designers, “Loop leverages technology to allows users to be fully present where they are.” Perhaps that’s the best technology of all.



Moments of (Super) Power: Object-Experiences from Richard Clarkson

Moments of (Super) Power: Object-Experiences from Richard Clarkson



Richard Clarkson has always been fascinated with superpowers. Presented with the opportunity to study Superpowers for his Masters thesis, he began by researching where the desire for powers comes from. Early psychological experiments included ‘Sculpt-your-own-power’ and ‘Masks of power’ which encouraged participants to reflect on what their true power was. Richard comments that Superpowers could be dissected into two distinct elements:

“Firstly ‘the super’—a fantastic abstraction of oneself. This is based primarily on the wish fulfillment for powers we covet but can never posses. Secondly ‘the power’—an intrinsic understanding of oneself, one’s weaknesses, strengths and uniqueness. This form of power is something we already posses, hidden, forgotten or undervalued. In conversation with expert, such as Superhero artist Issa Ibraham, Richard discovered that the second kind of power was accessible through discourse of the first.”







Further research into mythology, psychology and philosophy (including works from Joseph Campbell) led the thesis from exploring discourse to one of creating experiences. These experiences of the joy and delight relating to power can be leveraged to create a kind of inward reflection. Richard calls such experience-objects “Moments of Power.”

Moments of Power represent a series of referenced gestures, actions and postures that allow participants to feel powerful; a sensory experience of being more than human, followed by a reflective experience of discovery. The extrinsic and the intrinsic come together for a brief moment to create meaningful delight.

In the following semester Richard will expand on and refine certain areas of research such as experiential design, further exploration of what denotes remarkability in different cultures, and methods for better reaching inward reflection through sensory experiences. He continues to develop the Moments of Power collection in preparation for his Masters Thesis Presentation show in May 2014.

Spring 2014 Visiting Lecture Series Announced!


We are thrilled to announce our Visiting Lecture Series lineup for the Spring 2014 semester:

Panthea Lee, Founder of ReBoot: Thursday, January 16, 2014

Matthew Manos, Founder of A VeryNice Design Studio: Thursday, January 21, 2014

Tom Gerhardt, Founder, Studio Neat: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 [This lecture is open to the public, but seating is very limited; RSVP here.]

Emily Pilloton, Founder of Project H: Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Steven Heller, Author: Thursday, April 3, 2014

Cameron Tonkinwise, Director, CMU: Thursday, April 24th, 2014 [This lecture is open to the public, but seating is very limited; RSVP here.]

 First up on January 16th is Pantha Lee, principle of Reboot. As Reboot’s lead designer, focused on the practical applications of ethnography and systems thinking in delivering effective international development and governance programs. She oversees all aspects of the program management process, including research, design, implementation, and evaluation. Panthea has managed complex projects in over 20 countries, including sensitive political environments. In Afghanistan, China, Nigeria, Pakistan, and others, she has facilitated cross-cultural collaborations among diverse stakeholders, including government, civil society, donors, and the private sector. Her experience includes work in education, financial inclusion, government accountability, human trafficking, and public health.

Our second speaker, on January 21st, is Matthew Manos, founder of A VeryNice Design Studio. Matt is a neo-philanthropist, creative director, and social entrepreneur that is dedicated to disrupting the way the design industry operates. Manos began his freelance design career at the age of 16, which is the same year he took on his first pro-bono client, and launched his first company. Three years later, he founded verynice, a global design and innovation consultancy that dedicates over 50% of its efforts toward free services for non-profit organizations. Manos has helped build over 300 brands in every sector and industry across the globe, and his studio works with a diverse clientele that range from Fortune 500 companies to small local shops. As of 2013, verynice has also provided over $800,000 worth of pro-bono design and consulting services in 40+ countries spanning 6 continents to benefit 200+ organizations thanks to a team of 200+ people located around the world. Notable clients of verynice have included The United Nations, NASA, MTV Networks, Edison International, Facebook, Kaiser Permanente, UNICEF, Disney Imagineering, and Human Rights Campaign.

Tom Gerhardt, Co-Founder of  Studio Neat, visits the studio on Tuesday, February 11, 2014. Tom  is an internationally recognized artist and designer who works across a broad range of disciplines; and is one-half of Studio Neat. As a hardware and software developer at Potion, Tom helped create interactive installations for some of the Nation’s most prestigious museums and retail spaces. As an artist, Tom’s work seeks to reconcile modern man’s dual citizenship in the physical and digital worlds through projects like The Mud Tub: an organic interface that allows people to control a computer while playing in the mud. Most recently, Tom and his design partner Dan Provost, created the Glif: one of the world’s first crowd-funded commercial products and subsequently founded Studio Neat, a design practice dedicated to making things simple and making simple things.

Our fourth speaker, Emily Pilloton, is the founder of Project H Design. Founded in 2008, Emily believed deeply in the power of design and building to excite learning and citizenship. Her first crush, MacGyver, sparked her love of constrained problem-solving and tinkering. She went on to study architecture and building because it was the one thing that allowed her to geek out about everything, from math and structural engineering to ethnography and the fascinating behavior of people. Emily believes that by giving youth, particularly girls and students of color, the skills to design and build their wildest ideas, we can support the next generation of creative, confident changemakers. Her ideas and work have made their way to the TED Stage, The Colbert Report, the New York Times, and more. She is the author of two books, Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, and Tell Them I Built This: Transforming Schools, Communities, and Lives with Design-Based Education. When she isn’t welding with her 10-year-old Camp H girls or co-teaching Studio H, Emily loves to run, write, rabble-rouse, and eat unreasonable amounts of Mexican food.

Steven Heller visits on Thursday, April 3rd. Steve is the co-founder and co-chair (with Lita Talarico) of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts, New York, where he lectures on the history of graphic design. Prior to this, he lectured for 14 years on the history of illustration in the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program at the School of Visual arts. He also was director for ten years of SVA’s Modernism & Eclecticism: A History of American Graphic Design symposiums.With Seymour Chwast he has directed Push Pin Editions, a packager of visual books, and with his wife Louise Fili he has produced over twenty books and design products for Chronicle Books and other publishers. For over two decades he has been contributing editor to PRINT, EYE, BASELINE, and I.D. magazines, has had contributed hundreds of articles, critical essays, and columns (including his interview column “Dialogue” in PRINT) to a score of other design and culture journals.

And rounding our season out, on April 22nd (and fittingly Earth Day!) is Cameron Tonkinwise, Director of Design Studies at the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. Cameron has a background in philosophy; his dissertation concerned the educational philosophies of Martin Heidegger. Cameron continues to research what designers can learn from philosophies of making, material culture studies and sociologies of technology. Cameron is facilitating the School of Design’s creation of a new Design Studies sequence of courses that better prepare designers for a wider scope of work and the more interdisciplinary challenges of 21st century societies. Cameron is also chairing the PhD Committee that is currently restructuring the School of Design’s PhD program. He has extensive experience with practice-based design research, having supervised and examined reflective practice and artifact-based research projects and written about the epistemologies particular to this kind of work. Cameron’s primary area of research is sustainable design. In particular, he focuses on the design of systems that lower societal materials intensity, primarily by decoupling use and ownership – in other words, systems of shared use. Cameron has published a range of articles on the role of design, and in particular, service design, in the promotion of the sharing economy and collaborative consumption.