Anyone who has visited the surreal world of late-night infomercials knows that the simple promise of “new and improved” is enough to tempt shoppers into buying things that they don’t need — from high-tech vegetable peelers and fleece blankets with sleeves to telescoping feather dusters and electronic facial exercisers. As global challenges continue to mount, however, the temporary comfort of materialism is being countered by a demand for more genuine and lasting solutions. Conspicuous consumption is out and conscious consumption is in, making the ethics of a product as important as its aesthetics. And thanks to the work of students in Purdue’s industrial design program, there won’t be a long wait before it all comes to a store near you.
On many levels, socially relevant design is part of a larger movement toward “simplexity,” an emerging theory that proposes a complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity. As David R. Butcher explains in Industry Market Trends, “designers are placing new weight on a simple, easy-to-use approach to the complex, seeking fineness in function, brilliance in the everyday and, quite simply, better ways for us to use things.”
Creative pragmatism is a key characteristic of Purdue’s industrial design program, which offers a four-year undergraduate degree as well as a two-year master of fine arts (MFA) degree. “We expect our students to be innovative and original, but we also expect them to create designs that can actually be produced,” says professor and program chair Steve Visser.
A professional program within a liberal arts college further distinguishes industrial design at Purdue. “Most other programs across the country are located in art institutes or technical schools,” explains Visser. “Having a strong liberal arts education allows our students to think outside of themselves, to be good researchers, to be aware of the world around them, and to integrate that understanding into their designs.”
Another key element is generational change, adds Visser. While style and fashion remain priorities, they’re balanced by an increased focus on social, environmental, and economic responsibility. “Today’s students possess a strong social awareness and are more concerned about making an impact on the world than on making money or a name for themselves,” he says. “Historically, that’s not been a typical path.”
A trend toward interaction design –– which addresses the relationship between a device or system and its users –– is already visible in the work of Purdue industrial design students.
Now debuting as a spring class, interaction design will be formally introduced with more undergraduate course offerings and an MFA specialization beginning next fall. But it's been on the syllabi of most courses since the program's inception, says Professor Steve Visser.
"Interaction design is to some degree integral to every product design and every student's work, from a latch that opens a panel to digital readouts on a touch-screen device," he explains. "It can be very simple or very complex."
Visser says the field has become even more important to industrial design as computer technology has become more embedded in products and accessible in products. "Everyone with a remote control knows it's the key to unlocking dozens of high-tech TV features, but if it's not easy to operate, those features and the TV itself are essentially useless.”
Joining the CLA faculty to build the new specialty area is Cheryl Zhenyu Qian, who worked as an architect in China before earning graduate degrees in interactive arts and technology from Simon Fraser University in Canada. Qian, pictured above teaching the inaugural class, will use that background to help students understand design as a cognitive process that can complement their capabilities in creative and flexible ways.
"We want to focus on the interaction between the user and a product, and not just technology-driven products, but everyday products," she says. "Other programs focus more on the computer interface. Purdue's industrial design emphasis is on the human interface and how it can be improved."
That unique approach is coming to Purdue at the request of industry, specifically Whirlpool Corporation, which provided seed funding, and its vice president of global consumer design, Charles L. Jones. "It was his and Whirlpool’s vision," says Visser. "They wanted to see interaction design developed within an industrial design program like Purdue’s." Photo by Mark Simons
Among the young men and women leading the trend is senior Nora Flood, who earned first place at the International Housewares Association’s 2009 Student Design Competition with Escape, a residential fire escape ladder that uses the window frame for support rather than hooking onto the windowsill. It’s also compact and easy to use, store, and repack, allowing homeowners to practice with it before an emergency arises.
“Escape was driven by my mom’s fear of having a fire in her house and not being able to get out,” says Flood. “Based on research, I identified problems with existing fire escape ladders and looked for new solutions that make the user’s experience as simple and risk-free as possible.”
Rewarding designs that help people in traumatic situations or those with physical limitations, the panel of judges was especially impressed by Flood’s unique combination of elegance and practicality.
“Escape is a great example of a product that identifies a real need and a strategically thought-out solution that is also beautifully designed,” said Bill Lazar off, senior vice president of product development and design for Lifetime Brands Inc. “It makes a great deal of sense from a business and design standpoint, but most importantly, it could save lives.”
Another rising star is 2009 graduate Louis Filosa, who recently completed a six-month internship at the prestigious Marcel Wanders Studio in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Filosa received numerous awards during his time at Purdue, culminating with his selection as the only U.S. finalist in last year’s Electrolux Design Lab, an international competition attracting nearly 1,000 entries from undergraduates and graduate students in more than 50 countries.
Filosa’s design for Renew, a smart steamer that refreshes and cleans clothes, took third place among the eight product concepts that advanced to the final round. Using an infrared scanner and RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, Renew gathers information about a garment from specially designed clothing tags and safely disables itself if an unidentified object is detected.
“My research revealed that people are often troubled by the time and number of steps required to do laundry,” says Filosa. “Renew is simple, quick, and smart — the three things that most consumers look for in household appliances. A garment is cleaned by simply swiping it through two steam blades, shortening laundry ‘day’ to a laundry ‘minute.’”
Made of recycled glass and aluminum, Renew uses less space and energy than traditional washing machines. It also employs a touch-screen that allows users to learn about their wardrobe preferences, including a “you may like this” feature that suggests clothing purchases based on their individual style.
Now working as a freelance product designer in Chicago, Filosa hopes to form a small creative agency that shares the mission reflected in Purdue’s liberal arts curriculum and the work of classmates like Nora Flood.
“As a designer, I want to question the status quo,” he says. “I want to embark on a different journey with each project and challenge the reasoning behind current solutions, summoning completely new ideas that improve people’s lives.”
After bursting onto the world design scene with the 2004 International Bicycle Design Grand Prize, Purdue has racked up an impressive number of winning entries in competitions domestically and abroad. The International Housewares Association (IHA) 16th annual 2009 Student Design Competition, won by now-senior Nora Flood, also recognized two of her Purdue classmates, Darius Kamran and Jordan Bailey, who each received honorable mention awards. Kamran designed the Revo, a safe-to-use fuel container; Bailey created the Bru coffee maker. Other recent honorees from the University’s industrial design program include the following.
2009 International Aluminum Extrusion Design Competition
Daniel Schaumann, BA 2011
Hydro Sustainable Design Award
Used as a heat exchanger in forced induction automotive applications, the Alumi-Cooler design is a liquid-to-air intercooler device whose one-piece extruded aluminum core design, with two internal side-by-side chambers, would replace the current multi-component bar-and-fin design, which typically requires a welded tank. The cross-sectional profile of the extrusion was designed to maximize the surface area between the aluminum and the two fluids, which saves fuel and reduces greenhouse gas and carbon emissions.
2009 International Design Excellence (IDEA) Awards
Teaser is a next generation cookbook that offers taste sampling, enhances the food preparation experience, and assists in reducing food waste. It uses a variety of interactive features, including a portable touch screen and a print system that dispenses edible flavor strips via ink-jet print technology and 18 flavor cartridges that can be swapped out to match the desired dish. Users also browse recipes, test the flavors of a dish, and adjust the ingredients to match their preferences before cooking.
The self-leveling handlebars on the Level cooler tilt up and down, eliminating the lifting and lowering action required when carrying it over an uneven surface, such as stairs. It is slightly weighted at the base and has dividers for evenly placing the contents.
2008-09 “Zinc Challenge” Student Design Competition
Finger-Tips is an electronic reading system for the visually impaired. It allows the user to enjoy the power of reading at the touch of a button, converting any electronic text document into a series of bumps associated with the language of Braille. With its slim and simplistic interface and multipurpose design, Finger-Tips could become a staple product for anyone who is visually impaired.
2008 Idea-to-Product (ITP) Competition for Social Entrepreneurship
UberShelter is a concept for a portable housing unit that would help meet immediate shelter needs created by a catastrophic event, such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. The shelter, which can be reassembled with just a few tools, provides victims with personal living space and can be collapsed for ease in transportation. It's also made from recyclable and reusable materials.