Students in the Industrial Design Program combine design, tech and business knowledge to complete a five credit hour studio senior project course.
When customers consume a product, from a Coke can to a candle, they are connected to a long process of design and manufacturing not wholly visible in daily life. For product designers at Appalachian State University, the trinkets used by the general population on a daily basis become a future and lifestyle.
Three years ago, industrial design program coordinator Richard Elaver and professor Donald Corey collectively sold design work at Boone Art Mart. Now, the senior level studio in the industrial design major offers students a similar opportunity. The class combines necessary industry processes, like sketching, prototyping, and computer-aided design with skills found in the ASU entrepreneurial department.
“When we started, the class was a half semester long and now it’s grown into a full-scale five credit design studio,” Elaver said. “This is no longer just a design project, but an entrepreneurial project where students come up with an idea, a business plan, a marketing strategy and pricing – it’s kind of grown over time.”
This year, Elaver challenged students to create a product related to outdoor adventure, encompassing activities from kayaking to music festivals. Kevin Brown’s designs target road trip culture and people who travel for an extended period of time.
“I’m designing a backpack that starts out as a blanket, where people can have a place to eat or lay down,” he said. “It’s a flat platform you can put all of your stuff into, and it folds into the backpack. It went back to the hitchhiker handkerchief-on-a-stick idea and turned it into a more modern idea.”
The class, Brown said, is incredibly time consuming, an expected and perfectly reasonable requirement for a product design senior. For now, his focus is on proof of concept, or “the dirty work,” and figuring out how the product actually works.
“For me, proof of concept is taking the idea, making a pattern, and sewing the whole bag together and seeing if what I drew will actually work. It’s in this transition phase where I drew it up on paper and now I have to make it useful,” he said.
Carl Weaver is designing a product for birdwatchers, a hanger for bird feeders that doubles as a plant holder and place for other items that attract birds to an area. He originally started with a scoop feeder idea, he said, but ultimately chose a product more universally applicable and timely.
“I chose birding for the process, and, out of three, I narrowed my ideas before I began my sketches and research so I wouldn’t limit myself by designs that already exist,” Weaver said. “From that, I picked certain ones I wanted to move forward with and created new forms from them. I like the idea of a bird silhouette, it’s something I’ve carried through this whole process.”
The production process for both items is complex. By the end of the project, students will undergo sketching, target market profiling, comparative product research, experimental research, and observational research during preliminary planning, in addition to manufacturing and cost estimates, business plans, branding, packaging and actual product production. The entrepreneurial department partners with the students for all business aspects of the operation.
It’s a new concept for many students to include a search for production resources and cost of labor for projects, Elaver said. Often, students produce through service bureaus that make products in high-grade materials at a low cost.
“A lot of time students are simulating larger scale production processes where they’re making molds out of silicon rubber to make multiples instead of machines using steel molds to make thousands,” Elaver said. “But it aligns well with a lot of mass production processes. One student today is working on a tea bag and a tea process, and another student is working on a squirt gun to use as a regular water bottle.”
Elaver calls a degree in product design a “permit to learn.” While in school, students learn computer-aided design and take a design for manufacturing class. In most classes, students learn to prototype their projects. In the final class, students produce physical and identical products at a low enough cost to retail.
“It’s one of those things that’s ever-evolving,” Weaver said. “You can’t do things linearly, you have to try one thing and leave. Your design will change depending on whether or not you can use a certain material or process, or feasibility. You just kind of keep bouncing around for a while and a lot of it comes from form variations.
At the end of the semester, each student will sell their product in a culminating pop-up shop, Elaver said. In previous years, the Plemmons Student Union and the Turchin Center have hosted the shop during Art Crawl.
Elaver said the true magic lies in this final culmination, where many of the students sell their product for the first time. In previous classes, students scrap their projects after one prototype. The shop affords students an opportunity to receive returned value for their time and creativity.
“At the end of the semester the students kind of hate me,” Elaver said. “I put them through the ringer on design, design process, packaging and purchase displays and branding, and a business plan. A lot of these guys are design majors because they don’t want to do that kind of stuff. When they get to the end of the semester and we do the shop and somebody hands them 20 bucks that they’ve made, they smile and their attitude changes.”
The students often break even, Elaver said, for their time and money spent on the project. Goods sold at previous pop-up shops can still be found in Boone today, Elaver said.
“One student put his work in Footsloggers and as far as the last time I checked, two years after the class he was still selling them there. He was selling these little koozies with climbing rope, really simple, and he was working on a totally different thing than what he had done the entire semester, and it sold better. It fit right in with the theme and he kept selling them.”
The job placement and business competition aspect of the product class is a big success, Elaver said.
“Three years ago a student won a business pitch competition and it was great for me to see an undergraduate design student competing with students from Vanderbilt, Harvard and Wake Forest,” Elaver said. “He took his business pitch and received $5,000, and it lit up our whole student community about these business projects and got our students interested in the business school. Since then, we’ve have several other students win business pitch competitions.”
Students are “cleaning house” on business competitions, Elaver said. Previous design majors have won $10,000 at a national pitch competition in Texas and a people’s choice award from a competition at Wake Forest. Graduates now work for various design firms including Kikkerland Design Inc. One student’s umbrella project landed him a position at a luxury fashion boutique in New York.
“This shows me the value of the stories these students are telling,” Elaver said, “not just the product ideas, but this class is really encouraging them to dig into stories and relevancy and backing up their product with research. A good idea is one thing, but something you can actually tell about to a consumer who has a need – that goes really well into a business pitch.”
Elaver presented information about the senior studio to an international conference in the U.K. last year, resulting in an exchange with a sister school in Belgium. He said the partnership opened his eyes to design students who produce their products through a mass distribution channel and identify potential buyers.
“It is much more real world,” said Elaver. “They produce hundreds of thousands of units – they have to find the funding and the manufacturer, and that ties it back to industrial design. There’s not a lot of manufacturing around here to go to, but I would love to get there.”
The field of product design itself is growing internationally and on public consciousness, Elaver said, with the Harvard Business Review featuring “The Evolution of Design Thinking” on the cover of the September 2015 issue. He estimates over half the students in the major at Appalachian transferred in from another school or department after learning about the field.
“I always ask when new high school students come in, ‘How do you know product design exists?’” Elaver said. “I didn’t even know it was a field until I graduated with a degree in metal smithing, and then I went out and tried to find a job and this is what I ended up working in. For incoming students, I teach a class called intro to product design. I get a lot of students from other majors, but they have to know the field exists to have an interest.”
The department is taking measures to attract more students. The new applied design department on campus affords new opportunities for publicity and creativity, Elaver said. Previously, one technology department hosted everything from technical photography to building construction. Now, apparel design and merchandising, interior design and industrial design (split into product and furniture departments) are housed under one program.
“It’s the weirdest field,” Elaver said, “and sometimes I ask, ‘How do I explain this to my family?’ They might ask what it is and I would reply, ‘It’s lawnmowers and watches and glasses and everything. If you go into a Target, it’s there.’ If you don’t go into the field, it can be hard to communicate.”
Brown originally entered college with plans of becoming an engineer. He found the classes boring, and continued his search for the “cool” part of engineering. A self-described “Lego child,” Brown constantly found himself enjoying hands-on work.
After college, Brown plans to apply for internships in footwear design. His minor is apparel development.
“There are product design firms which are the middle mans,” Brown said, “and companies will contact them with an idea for a project because they don’t have in-house designers. You get way more variety in your work as opposed to working for a company like Vans, where all you’re going to do is design shoes and maybe some apparel. At a firm you can do anything from electronics to toys.
Weaver’s background includes being a previous intern as an engineering drafter for Decolav and Suite Simplicity. He also worked for Williams-Sonoma Home, West Elm, Pottery Barn and PBteen.
“With Deco I worked with sinks, but it’s like a bowl that sits on top of a counter,” Weaver said. “We did hotels and casinos all over the country. So we worked with them for a while and fortunately got a job offer to work with Sonoma when they shut down. I was doing reupholstery furniture, designing their frames.”
Weaver said product design is a calling.
“In some ways, you don’t know you want to do it until your immersed in it or you visit and see this cool studio,” Weaver said. “There’s a lot happening here and it’s just very creative, and not only creative, but it has an endgame. It’s not just creating a visual just for the visual, it’s creating an experience.”
Story by: Kelsey Hamm, A&E Editor