The Graduate Class
It’s been said that a degree in industrial design is the best liberal arts education you could get. A look at the typical curriculum of a top ranked, accredited BSID program is rich in creative problem solving, high-level technical skills ranging from microcontrollers to materials and processes, business fundamentals, and social science. A good designer is part humanist, part artist, part technologist, and part capitalist.
The winter 2018 issue of Innovation, the IDSA journal, provides a look at the quality of graduate and undergraduate design education in the U.S. through its 2018 Student Merit Award (SMA) winners. It’s an encouraging outlook.
The SMA process is rigorous, beginning with student winners selected at the local university level. These winners then compete with their peers from other schools within each of the five regional districts that comprise the IDSA. These district award winners are recognized by the Society at the annual IDSA International Design Conference. There were nine SMAs handed out at the International Design Conference last August in New Orleans: five undergraduate winners and four graduate winners.
The student work presented for award consideration represents their most significant project activity over the course of their academic career. I found particular interest in the design philosophy of the four 2018 graduate SMA winners.
Jacob Rynkiewicz, the Midwest district winner from the University of Illinois at Chicago, dedicated his graduate work to the study of sustainability. Specifically, how to make packaging truly disposable through the use of materials that not only fully decompose, but also deals with any non-degradable residual material in the packaging. Think printer cartridges, beverage cups, even the remains of cigarettes. This led him to exploring the science and application of fungus-based materials. He cleverly termed this form of waste management “subversive sustainability” shifting the responsibility for a sustainable environment to the packaging designers and manufacturers, and not simply “guilting” the end user.
The Graduate SMA from the Northeast district, Xiaoyong Wang, is a graduate of Pratt Institute in New York. Like our Midwest district winner, Xiaoyong elected to focus on social design issues in his studies. He took particular interest in healthcare related product design. This interest led him to work on traditional medical hardware solutions as well as on design solutions that address cognitive issues, such as those associated with Alzheimer’s disease. His design of a cervical splint for use by EMTs to safely immobilize patients with spine injuries during transport followed more traditional medical design practices. He then explored the use of “mimicry” as a way for Alzheimer’s patients to successfully eat and groom by copying the actions of the caregiver. This led him to design a piece of furniture that creates a virtual mirror between the patient and caregiver.
Wen Hua, the South district SMA from the Georgia Institute of Technology, described his journey as an international student pursuing his master’s degree. This included experiencing life in the U.S. for the first time, his first exposure to a cohort of students with a diverse set of experiences and backgrounds, the nearly overwhelming access to any type of prototyping technology, and most importantly, dealing with the rapidly shifting roles designers assume today. Fortunately, this young professional was able to get grounded through a robust internship experience.
Ryan Cunningham from the Art Center College of Design represented the West district. Like our South district winner, Ryan recognizes the need for designers to face the changing technology landscape and its impact on the role of the designer. While it is important to address the need to stay technologically relevant, he feels this must be built on a strong foundation of traditional design skills. He calls attention to the shifts in the work environment, where it’s common for multi-disciplinary teams collaborating on projects. With goals that don’t always align across such teams, he feels the designer’s skills in visual and verbal communication can become critical assets in overcoming conflicts. In the broader development environment, Ryan describes empathy as “the most powerful ability designers have.”
While these four Graduate Student Merit Award winners have each developed their own distinct and personal design philosophy, they share some common viewpoints. They see the need for designers to help address larger societal issues, whether it be protecting our planet’s resources or enhancing our health. They also understand the significant role designers can play in understanding and meeting the implicit needs of the people our products are designed for.