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Where is product design headed? A U of M symposium offers up-to-the-minute answers

In the 1990s American affluence, branding/marketing/advertising and "designer" products reached a point of maximum synergy. Target launched housewares by architect Michael Graves. K-Mart offered Martha Stewart product lines (this was before she went to prison). Colorful iMacs and a reinvented VW Beetle came on the scene.
In other words, design was democratized. Consumers proclaimed their allegiance by purchasing mass-produced items that made a lifestyle statement.

Amid the hype, however, unnamed, uncommodified and unheralded design continuedócontinuesóall around us. Do you know, for example, the name of the person who designed that Coleman camp stove your family has used for decades?  Or that superb hammer no one else in the family is allowed to use? Just because a product comes without a celebrity name, doesn't mean the designer didn't work diligently to create a useful, aesthetically pleasing product.

That notion was the theme of the presentation "Hired Guns: An Appreciation," by Dave Barnard, engineering project manager at Solid Design Solutions, during "Making, Selling, Buying, Using: Emerging Issues in Product Design." The one-day symposium, on September 17, was sponsored by the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. The occasion? The college's launch of a new product-design grad minor, which is intended to bring new attention to the discipline within the Twin Cities' vibrant design community as well as to educate young designers. The gathering highlighted many aspects of product design, including some timely warnings about China's rise in this sphere.

Interdisciplinary, Naturally

According to the symposium program, product design is "the planning of an item intended to be manufactured and sold. These items exist both as discrete artifacts and as actors in large social systems, such as branded environments, services, experiences and social interactions." Because product design is inherently interdisciplinary, the new grad minor is housed in the College of Design (which, some years back, consolidated several departments and now includes architecture, landscape architecture, housing, and apparel).

But the program also includes stakeholders from the College of Science and Engineering, and the Carlson School of Management.  "Our intent was really to bring numerous, diverse disciplines together in the design minor," said Steven McCarthy, a graphic-design professor and program director. He also co-chaired the symposium, with assistant professor of wearable technology and apparel design Lucy Dunne, and delivered a presentation on "The Graphic Product," which explored such the meaning of "graphics" to include product logos, instruction manuals and store receipts, recognizable or iconic shapes, and cards, stationary and computer-screen interfaces.

How did the college manage to create a new minor in the midst of a recession? By aggregating existing classes into the minor, and adding a capstone seminar. But the college also hired Barry Kudrowitz, a toy designer with PhD in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His talk during the symposium, "The Humor of Invention," dealt with the need for "spontaneous humor production"--or comedy improvisation--to spark creativity and generate product ideas.

Laughter, Swallows' Nests, and Second-Hand Stores

Other presenters during the day discussed products as concepts, as topics of academic study, and as adventurous new ways of addressing community needs or inspiring consumer desire. Daniel Jasper (associate professor in the graphic-design program) revealed that he removes all the labels from products brought into his house, in order to study "their graphic signatures" of color, shape and form.

Marc Swackhamer, assistant professor of architecture, discussed the research and development of his OSWall (open-source wall), whose construction is based on that of the swallow's nest. Sustainability was a hot topic, particularly among presenters from College's department of Design, Housing and Apparel. Presentations--ranging from how many more women today are buying vintage, to how many items in closets can be mixed and matched into previously unconsidered outfits, to the co-design of clothing online--emphasized trends toward reuse and recycling among clothing buyers.

The Widening Gap Between Designers and Makers

One of the most-provocative talks, however, was Greg VanBellinger's off-the-cuff and charismatic call to action. A vice president of design at Target, VanBellinger cited a Fast Company article about China's growing design community, and the corresponding lack of design leaders in the United States. The problem? The growing "gap between design and manufacturing," he said, as the formerly close relationships between designers, craftspeople and the materials they use unravels across the globe.

"Students are not understanding materials, in part because the manufacturing base has moved out of the U.S., and the use of computers and the need for speed in the design process" has increasingly divorced designers from the people transforming their concepts into products, VanBellinger argued. Case in point: VanBellinger was involved in the construction of one of starchitect Frank Gehry's fish sculptures in the Twin Cities. Gehry was so unaware of the materials he specified, VanBellinger recalled, that only after VanBellinger nixed steel (too heavy for the floors supported the weight) did the architect request lead (requiring workers to wear protective clothing).

When VanBellinger reminded Gehry that a barrier would need to be erected around the sculpture to protect children from getting to close to it, the architect looked as him, bewildered, and asked, "Why?" Well, because lead is a toxic material, especially for children, VanBellinger gently told him. Amidst gasps, followed by thunderous applause, one might wonder: where was Blaine Brownell in the conversation.

A new assistant professor in the College of Design, Brownell's expertise is in materials, particularly sustainable products derived from high-tech, sustainable, digital and hand-made processes. "The design community is moving out of the U.S., and going where the manufacturing base is, which is not here," VanBellinger warned.

The College of Design's new product-design minor aims to do its part to reverse the trend.

Camille LeFevre is a St. Paul-based arts journalist. Her last article for The Line, "From Locavore to Art-avore," looked at innovative forms of arts funding.

Photos, top to bottom:

U of M design professor Steven McCarthy addresses the product design symposium.

McCarthy: "Our intent was really to bring numerous, diverse disciplines together."

Co-organizer Lucy Dunne, professor of apparel design, presents.

A familiar product morphs into a collage in McCarthy's office.

McCarthy in his office on the U of M's Saint Paul campus

All photos by Bill Kelley

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