We are excited to share student projects, department news, event information, and visuals from the MFA in Products of Design program. Check back frequently for updates.
This semester, Sinclair Smith led a new workshop series entitled “Transitions,” where students are led through a refresher in three dimensional design concepts and semantics, and a crash course in 3D sketching and model making. We sat down with Sinclair to talk about the workshop and its outputs.
PoD: The Transitions workshop is something that you brought to the department as a result of your experiences during your Design Performance class last year. A foundational training in 3-dimensions can take many forms (sorry for the pun)—and you’re taking a certain approach, through the notion of “transitions.” Can you talk us through its meaning?
SS: The origin of the name is three-fold and consequently so are the course objectives: logistical, formal and philosophical.
The logistical goal of the workshop is to literally transition incoming students into working in the Products of Design studio and in the Visible Futures Lab next door. Students learn basic methods of sketching in studio materials and learn how to use the tools in the VFL to create durable models in finished materials. After the workshop, they’re familiar with the tools the department provides and can feel at home as they move forward with their course load.
The formal goal is to highlight the role of transitions between primary elements in 3D composition. We see transitions between forms in composition as the spaces that define those forms in relation to one another, and we take the opportunity to discuss the whole in terms of its transitions. Transitional points and connection points are opportunities for ornament, for space, for surface and material change; they are the makings of style. But they are also structural—they are where things need to be held together and where things fall apart. We use transitions as an opportunity to discuss hardware and design-engineering.
Finally, the philosophical goal is to see that the ways in which all things are held in system and sequence is what gives them meaning. No object, form, person or material exists alone. We all exist in context. By training ourselves to observe the transitions between artifacts and behaviors in systems we can become better problem solvers. This leads to a sustainable practice, where we learn to rearrange the relationships between our existing tools to solve existing problems—instead of throwing all our tools out and building new tools with new problems.
PoD: The notion of “using what we have “or of using current resources” is something that’s consistent with a lot of the teaching in the program. How do you see students better leveraging their talents and resources as they progress through the program?
SS: That question goes directly to a conversation I have with each student midway through the Transitions workshop. At a certain point, it becomes clear that no one will be able to digest and address all the parameters of the syllabus. I throw a lot of material at them very quickly. So we look at their individual progress and I tell them to pick their battles and ask themselves some questions, “What are my strong skills? What do I want to improve? How can I get the most out of this?” Everyone comes to the program with different skills and areas to develop. Students have to relearn themselves in the program, and make fast decisions about what they want to achieve in school and what kind of work they want to be doing when finished. I think it’s important to leverage skills that students have coming in—they can be strong assets. But they can also be liabilities. I encourage students to try and forget what they know; habits from previous experience can prevent learning new ideas and techniques that will lead to a more well-rounded designer.
PoD: We talk a lot about the “sweet spot” between design making and design thinking; that both are essential, but that neither is sufficient. Do you find yourself traveling in one more than the other?
SS: No. I am an avid generalist. I like to wear many hats and I find each informs the other. I make as a thinker and I think as a maker. I think what I do well is take a broad view and make connections between seemingly unrelated things. Industrial design requires the ability to address a huge range of human needs with a huge range of available tools. It’s good to have a specialty, but it’s increasingly important to be broadly conversant.
PoD: Talk about your style of teaching. What kinds of input and nurturing do design students need, and do you see any particular opportunities unique to this moment in time?
SS: Teaching is a performance. It’s a conversation with an audience. And as they say in show business, you have to go out there and read the crowd. No two students in a class learn in the same way. I try to find out how people learn and what works best for them. There is information and perspective that I can relay in a rote manner, but I find that it only clicks and forms lasting memory in the student if I can lead the student to the place where the material resonates personally.
Fortunately, in studio classes where we are working with three dimensional design, that can often be as simple as literally moving someone by the shoulders and saying, “stand over here, squint, and NOW look at it!” and then the light goes on. But it’s different for everyone. So I try to make an empathic connection with the student and find out what works best for them. It can be a personalized approach that some students are not accustomed to, but I encourage students to get messy and take emotional chances with their studies and their work. That’s what school is for and I believe that’s what the world needs from designers: the ability to be emotionally open and to take significant risks.
During the fall semester of the second year, students take a course entitled Product, Brand, and Experience. They engage in a deep dive around creating products through a holistic, integrated methodology. This year the topic of the course is “Consumer Products for Protestor’s ”— a challenging and seemingly dichotomous brief that speaks to the very nature of commerce and behavior. We sat down with Rinat Aruh and Johan Liden to ask them about their course, now at its 5-week mark.
PoD: “Consumer Products for Protestor’s” seems, on the face of it, like a near-impossible design brief, colliding two things that don’t, well, seem to match. How are the students attempting to reconcile the notions of consumption—with all its attendant difficulties—with the idea of protest, which, by definition, doesn’t seem to want to be co-opted by the marketplace?
RA & JL: Sure, protest doesn’t seem to want to be co-opted by the marketplace, as its efforts are inherently aimed at creating change. But designing consumer products that can enable people to more easily be expressive for that change can, in turn, create more appeal and assumption for use.
And by “protestor,” we are not solely referring to the political activist—protesting comes in all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s a child refusing to eat their vegetables or a sports fan at the big game, the bottom line is that everyone, at various times, wants to speak up and to be heard.
It’s interesting to hear our students think about this problem space; how can they design consumable tools that will be a source of motivation or inspiration for any person, empowering them to express themselves. They often turn to organization and structure as a starting point, trying to reconcile the chaotic nature of protests with some sort of cohesive intent.
From solutions that enable protestors to brand their message, to a mobile kit that allows the consumer to protest an idea or speak up at a moment’s notice—the students are creating products that enable people to get their message across.
PoD: It also seems that “brand” might be antithetical to the topic, though that’s part of the challenge you’ve posed. Protests (and protesters) are branded all the time of course, or they “get” branded by media, storytellers, or various stakeholders. How are you able to leverage the notion of brand as a way for the students to see the context of their own work?
RA & JL: The idea of creating a consumer-facing brand for these products was important to humanize the products as well as the process of protesting. Creating a brand—a visual voice and look—for their products allows them to explore a point of differentiation for the offering. Many of the students are developing brands that are witty or humorous in tone to juxtapose the seriousness of the protesting topic. The “brand” aspect has really brought a new perspective to the products.
PoD: The students have really just gotten started sinking their teeth into the work. What’s coming up in the final two-thirds of the course?
RA & JL: They will be formulating their ideas in their entirety—from brand identity, research, ideation and mock ups—all the way to packaging their product to ensure that it meets the demands of the retail landscape. Ultimately, there is a commercial part of this project that needs to deliver an experience at retail.
PoD: How does teaching impact your own professional practice? You’ve worked with younger students in the past as well; how do find working with graduate students—especially students in a brand new program such as Products of Design?
RA & JL: Teaching has become part of our everyday. Whether it’s teenagers across New York City or our own staff or even graduate students, we approach each group the same way, actually. For Products of Design it’s most critical for us to teach the entire process of product, brand and experience, and to introduce all the realities that emerge in between. We’re having a great time.
[A reflection by Class of 2015 student Julia Plevin.]
“There’s no recipe for love and there’s no recipe for design,” says CEO of IDEO Tim Brown during a talk he gave to Products of Design students last week. Brown is busy running one of the most respected design consultancies in the world, but still makes a point to travel and give talks whenever he can.
Sharing knowledge is one of IDEO’s core beliefs. “I’ve always been more interested in making the pie bigger than making our piece bigger,” he asserts.
An industrial designer by training, Brown sees many aspects of running a company—such as company culture—as design opportunities and moments. From big open kitchens in all offices to the innate optimism in all employees, the IDEO culture is collaborative and friendly. It’s one of the reasons why so many of us are drawn to the company and why so many companies want to learn how to do things the IDEO way.
“I’m giving this talk in Korea next week, so you’re going to be my guinea pigs. I don’t even know how long it is,” Brown began. He started with a brief history lesson to put design into context. If design as we know it started as response to the Industrial Revolution, and then went on to support the consumer culture of the 20th century, design today has to change again as we enter the uncertain future.
Brown enumerated seven transforming forces that are causing this shift:
1. From Certain to Uncertain: Companies have ever-shorter lifespans so business leaders need to be creative. The pace of innovation has increased so much that it’s become really hard to apply intuition to strategic planning.
2. From Simple to Complex: Products don’t exist in a vacuum, but rather in a system and as part of a service. IDEO has started on more complicated projects, like designing a school system in Peru. Designers today need to be interdisciplinary and highly collaborative.
3. From Newton to Darwinian: The designed world behaves more like Darwin’s living organisms than Newton’s physical objects. In Newton’s laws there are few moving parts but in Darwin’s world, if organisms aren’t constantly changing, they will go extinct.
Brown says that design is not really like a blueprint for a building, but more like computing code. We design behaviors that determine the finished product. As an example, he mentions Bi Rite grocery store in San Francisco. The store is renowned for its customer service and according to Brown, the owner gives the employees a set of behaviors to follow such as, “If someone is standing within ten feet of you, smile and look them in the eye.” It’s the accumulation of behaviors like these that influence design.
4. From Some to Everyone: Technology has democratized making, so it’s up to designers to give people the right tools and processes—such as exploring through making, storytelling, and collaboration. Creative confidence is a mindset that can be applied across different industries.
For example, when GE Healthcare’s “innovation architect” realized how many kids were traumatized by CT scanners, he attended a class at Stanford’s D School and developed the Adventure Series, a child-friendly take on imaging machines.
5. From Centralized Control to Peer Network: Startups like Etsy and Kickstarter are disrupting design. The author of Future Perfect, Steven Johnson, talks about the power of peer networks in social, economic, and political life. Technology like 3D printing is helping to usher in a new era of bespoke design.
6. From Message to Meaning: There’s too much information out there so people are on the hunt for meaning through new trends like big data and the quantified self. We are moving towards a “meaning economy.” Harvard Business School Professor and author of The Progress Principle Teresa Amabile writes about “small wins” and how to improve everyday life for people at organizations.
7. From Matters of Industry to Matters of Conscious Capitalism: Design has an exciting potential to solve some of the gravest problems in the world today. IDEO.org and D-Rev are taking part in this movement.
As the world gets more complicated, design shifts from being about products to being about services and systems. Programs like ours and the Stanford D.School are emerging as a response to this shift in design. As Brown told us, in a world of tensions, systems thinkers and doers—people who can think at a high level and still have the courage to make things—are the most valuable designers.
We’re grappling with these tensions every day at Products of Design and it’s exciting to know that these issues are top of mind for a revered industry leader.
MFA Products of Design students presented a wide set of work at this year’s World Maker Faire 2013 in Queens, New York, attended by 75,000 attendees (! a record for Maker Faire). Piles of visitors came by our booth, and the work seemed to draw the wonder of kids especially. (There must have been 150,000 kids amongst the 75,000 attendees:)
Below are some photos of projects and people. [Photos: Kathryn McElroy, Clay Kippen, Marko Manriquez. Table illustrations by Joseph Weissgold.]
Email Notifier rewards you with an M&M every time you get one of your mounting emails read. Design: Kathryn McElroy
Mr. Indecision, a motion-tracking gentleman, enchanted everyone who passed him by. And won a Maker Faire Editors Choice Award! Design: Richard Clarkson.
3D Printed Camera TK. Design: Clay Kippen; Improvised Foam Device. design: David Thonis.
Speaker heads play “conflicting” and “complementary” audio tracks at each other. (Political speeches, poetry slams, music tracks.) Design: Damon Ahola
Digital Nunchucks by Damon Ahola.
Cloud remote control by Richard Clarkson.
Jay is a 3D-Printed buddy that helps children understand first aid and self care. Design: Damon Ahola.
iPhone car is an iPhone case that drives away from the user once the phone is placed inside. Gives you a run for your money. Design: Clay Kippen
Plush lightbulb is an LED lightbulb sewn of fabric. Push on, push off. Unbreakable. Comforting. Design: Joseph Weissgold.
Tiny is a digital microscope that let’s viewers check out materials, surfaces (and eyeballs!) up close at 70X magnification. Design: MFA Products of Design Class of 2014.
That famous Maker Faire paella!
Visitors to the studio are often taken aback when they see the kitchen we’ve built smack in the center of the Products of Design studio. It’s a bold choice for a school, and naturally begs the question, how will we possibly keep it clean? With two year’s of students, faculty, staff and guests, things can get pretty, well, busy in there—particularly during class breaks. So over the summer (and having learned some valuable lessons from last year), we made some improvements and created a few simple systems for managing what could be a messy situation. Here’s our recipe:
Assign 2 “KP Stewards” Per Week. This is something we did last year and seemed to work exceptionally well. At the start of the semester, we post a chart on the fridge with Kitchen Patrol responsibilities for each of the 15 weeks of the semester. Responsibilities included wiping up / straightening up at the start and end of each day, and photographing and posting “notable” behavior at the end of the week, namely:
Reward Good Behavior; Acknowledge Bad Behavior. We spent some time trying to figure out a fun, gentle, but unambiguous way to promote good habits. We wanted to insure that the KP Stewards weren’t cleaning up after people all week long in a way that went beyond the aforementioned “wiping up,” but also facilitated a way to highlight students who actually did great things in the kitchen. So we came up with the ”KITCHEN FAME” and “KITCHEN SHAME” rubric: At the end of each week, the KP Stewards are responsible for posting on the fridge two images: One image of something great that was created in the kitchen—and to name the winner—and one image of something sloppy, disrespectful, or wasteful from the week. (We liked the idea of being specific about the person who did well, but not about the situation that wasn’t so well…counting on the “you know who you are!” philosophy of behavior modification.)
Give People A Dedicated Space For Their Food.
This one was a year in the making, but we finally bought (and labeled) bins for every single student and staff in the department. We are encouraged to store non-perishables in these bins, and use the fridges for common items such as condiments, sauces, and for fruits, vegetables and beverages. On the fridge handle we tied tape and markers for people to label their food. (That’s a system everyone uses effectively.)
[The photo above evidences a distinct lack of labeling. Oops.]
Compost. We use the Vokashi composting service created by Vandra Thorburn. Vokashi uses the Japanese method of fermenting food waste, called EM-Bokashi. It is an anaerobic process, using bran as the fermenting agent. Learn more about it here.
[Salad Wednesday photo to come! (We've just started the semester.)
Have Salad Wednesdays. This is an idea we copped from somebody out there (?), where each Wednesday, students who want to participate bring 1 “bowlful” of 1 ingredient. We line them all up in a row with a stack of plates at the start, and students move down the line and take a bit from each. It’s a communal lunch and a great opportunity for first- and second-years to chat, share projects, New York stories…the works.