Alumni in Design
Eight alumni discuss their perspectives on design
Interviews by Elizabeth Kelsey
Emilie Fetscher ’03 Th’04
Co-founder, Veranda Solar, San Francisco, California
Design is an amalgamation of psychological needs and desires, engineering function, tactile and visual detail, and user experience. How we interact with products and experiences is all a result of design by some individual. Design can manifest in a new way of presenting information, a new product, or a change to a common experience.
At Dartmouth I was interested in sculptural art and the concepts of engineering but not necessarily in being a typical engineer. Once I understood what design could be, it was a no-brainer to try to pursue it.
In my work, I enjoy interacting with people, and I feel motivated to improve their lives in often small or simple ways. I have always had the desire to make people smile but never felt the need to save the world. Through design, I hope to give people moments of happiness.
The common thread in my design work is in design research involving consumer insights. I spend time talking to people with target topics in mind to learn how a group of people views the world, and then I design modifications of new products.
My design work ranges from sculptural pieces like bent-ply balancing chairs to the Mighty Mitad, a project that resulted in a very engineered, simple, cost-saving solution for Ethiopians by making their clay cooking surfaces more durable. [View the Mighty Mitad on YouTube.]
My master’s thesis at Stanford and collaboration with Capra J’neva resulted in the company Veranda Solar, which makes solar panels that hang out windows or clip to gutters and balconies. Veranda Solar won second prize — and 100,000 Euros — at the 2008 PICNIC Green Challenge, a competition for new green products and services.
Kiersten Muenchinger ’93
Associate Professor and Director, Product Design Program, University of Oregon
Design is a quantitative and qualitative mix of analysis that will lead you to a conclusion. You have to have both of those together in order to have a complete analytical process.
Peter Robbie led me into the design field. He told me about some leading companies in design especially well suited with engineering, including IDEO, which is where I went to work after leaving Dartmouth. I’ve worked in a lot of design consultancies all over the United States as well as in Italy. I’ve worked on paper products, gift boxes, and refrigerators — and the development of the Long Now Millennial mechanical clock designed to last 10,000 years.
Design education is a relatively new discipline. There aren’t a lot of people who get a master’s or Ph.D. in design with the thought of teaching the subject, though there is a long history of professionals with design experience who want to teach, who want to be inspired by young designers, or who want to give back. I wanted to have a discourse about what was going on in design.
My absolute favorite product is the Louis Ghost Chair by Philippe Starck. It’s a lovely chair but what I really love about it is that the manufacturing of this object is so precise. It’s complexly transparent and to get it transparent with so little witness marks from its manufacturing process is extremely rare.
Clay Burns ’87
Product Development Consultant, clayburns.com, New York
Product Developer, Design In Kind
We need to go beyond human-centered design to life-centered design. My goal is to bring to life meaningful ideas that promote social and ecological sustainability. By using tools we already have and focusing on building long-term value for society, we can make things that people enjoy while protecting the earth.
After years of considering the paradox of designing new consumer goods and saving the planet from over-consumption, I began to explore the idea of downscaling in design. Downscaling in design involves adopting a routine practice to reduce the size, features, and disposability of the products we develop. It’s similar to optimization, but it keeps the needle pointed at sustainability, not just cost.
If, as designers, we really want to help the world go green, we need to make an impact immediately. We can do this without waiting for new zero-footprint green materials. We already have the tools and know-how. We just need to shift the game from cost reduction to reducing the amount of materials and energy used on large-volume consumer goods.
As designers we can work with our clients to facilitate an evolution in product marketing and consumption by promoting solutions that imbed small reductions in material and energy use across the huge numbers of mass-produced objects. We can encourage sustainable consumption by changing what people expect when buying something.
While I was at Smart Design, I helped launch a sustainable design initiative for the company. We became an early adopter of sustainable “cradle to cradle” thinking — championed by green architect William McDonough ’73 — and of the guidelines of the Designers Accord, a global coalition dedicated to creating positive environmental and social impact.
I pursue sustainable and responsible design by seeking out green projects, applying the idea of downscaling to my own process, and collaborating with groups such as Design In Kind, which provides design services for under-funded and needy societies throughout the world.
Assistant Professor, Segal Design Institute, Northwestern University
Peter Robbie’s product design course set the direction for my entire career — both the content of his course and the way in which he taught the material.
Design is conscientious intervention into the environment to improve the way we live. Design is everywhere but rarely recognized as such.
I love that I can make an impact in people’s lives using my creativity and analytical thinking. I’ve designed toys for kids to encourage exploration and expression. I’ve designed medical devices to slow the development of brittle bones. I’ve designed educational experiences to teach kids about human-centered design.
I’ve founded an organization, Design For America, that calls on students to use human-centered design to make a positive social impact in their own environments. The organization is less than a year old but is taking off. It clearly is meeting a need for students to engage in human-centered design outside of the classroom in ways that improve their communities.
Two products of which I am fond are the pen and paper. Simple but profound, they allow designers to express ideas visually and instantaneously. No software needed. No complicated technology. At times it feels that we could make more progress in design — especially in the earlier stages — if we were limited to a pen and paper.
Editor’s Note: Watch Elizabeth Gerber’s recent Thayer School Jones Seminar on design on YouTube.
Brian Mason ’03 Th’04, ’05
Project Leader and Mechanical Engineer, IDEO, Palo Alto, California
Professor Robbie’s advanced product design class sparked my love for product design. In class, he showed a Nightline video in which the design and innovation firm IDEO was asked to redesign the shopping cart. As I watched this video I said in my head, “That’s where I want to work.”
At IDEO, we focus on human-centered design, where we put the user first. Our process includes going out into the field to observe potential users (or, many times, extreme users) and bringing back those stories to inform and guide the design. Then we dive into the design process by brainstorming, prototyping, and testing things out. This process allows us to deliver cutting-edge designs, new-to-the-world experiences, and new market opportunities.
Design is about elegantly solving human needs. Design is the microwave that is easy to use, the laptop that you don’t want to set down, the website you keep going back to, or the medical device that changes your life. Sometimes good design isn’t even noticed because it fits so well into our lives.
For the past three years, I have been involved in product development projects in the health arena. I have designed and developed a transcutaneous drug delivery device, several in-home injection devices, a body temperature measurement device for surgery, and a patient recliner chair for hospitals. In between my focus in the health sector, I have been involved in projects ranging from early-phase concept generation around charcoal barbecues to detailed manufacturing and molding of a playground structure.
Recently, I worked with a team of designers to create a water filtration bicycle prototype, the Aquaduct, that won the grand prize in Google’s first Innovate or Die contest (check it out on YouTube). I am passionate about all opportunities where design can be used to genuinely improve people’s lives.
Design faves: The bicycle, because it is so simple. People keep trying to redesign the bike, but the basic cog and chain works so well. Experiences are also candidates for good design. I love that whenever you call L.L.Bean, someone picks up within three rings. That’s a conscious decision they’ve made to design a positive experience for you. The website Mint.com is another designed experience where they rethought how individuals could interact with their finances.
Colter Leys ’96
Product Development Lead, Orbit Baby, Newark, California
Design is a way of combining pleasure and utility. The job of a designer is to make the back-end human research, manufacturability, and business side of products seem effortless, so all that’s left for the customer is pleasure and utility.
I enjoy design for its variety. One day I dive in and learn about how metric bolts and nuts are specified; the next day I’m talking to a mom about how her child sleeps; the next day I’m working with a fabric mill on a new dobby weave.
Orbit Baby is unusual, especially in Silicon Valley, for its physicality. The majority of product designers in this area put electronics in boxes for medical devices, mobile devices, or server farms. Everything that Orbit works on can be prototyped out of plywood, a couple of drywall screws, and some laser-cut delrin. This easy relationship with hands-on shop work, instant testability, and human scale is enticing.
Baby travel gear is a tremendously constrained problem. The government has a two-inch thick binder of regulations concerning kids and cars. Our products get driven over cobblestones, thrown up on, fitted into hundreds of kinds of cars, shoved down plastic chutes off airplane holds — it’s the big time for mechanical design.
Orbit designs from the napkin sketch to the final product. It’s a full-spectrum design experience. We get so involved in the details of everything that by the time a product launches I visualize every radius on every part, dream about alloy contents, and have memorized many of the standards that govern our products.
Design Fave: The Trangia alcohol stove. It was designed during the Second World War for Norwegian ski troops. It’s quiet, efficient, simple, elegant, and bombproof. One of the first things that drew me to my wife was her love of this little stove that I had also grown up with.
Marc Fenigstein ’01
Senior Strategist, frog design inc., San Francisco, California
I had always assumed the design field was disconnected from technology and business innovation. It was great to find out I was wrong. At frog my two most recent products to hit the market are the HP SkyRoom Collaboration Suite, which is the first product to bring the rich graphics and interaction of dedicated video conference systems to desktops and laptops, and Carmanah Technologies’ EverGEN 1710 Solar Area Light, which has the potential to completely alter the way we plan and install lighting for sidewalks, parking lots, parks, and other public spaces. Both of these products combine disruptive innovation across markets, technology, and user experience.
My favorite products simultaneously solve business, technology, and user challenges. One is Project Masiluleke, a project to address HIV/AIDS in Africa. It’s an extraordinarily complex, systemic challenge that requires a deep contextual understanding and consists of products, services, technologies, and market innovations. It’s a wonderful example of how design thinking has evolved and what it can accomplish.
Jonathan Kling ’04 Th’06
Mechanical Engineer and Project Lead, Synapse Product Development, Seattle, Washington
In 2005 I came upon Professor Robbie’s first advanced product development class. Every surface and space held the evidence of people iterating on their designs. There were project boards with pictures drawn on napkins connected with pieces of string, Post-it notes, and exclamations pinned everywhere. Cool! Students had gathered into groups and everyone was clamoring to get their ideas out on butcher paper. Watching the design process made me think that pretty much any problem has a better solution. All it takes is some butcher paper and the freedom to put all the options on the table — literally.
Working at Synapse, I make daily use of many of the design control and collaborative brainstorming methods that Professor Robbie taught us. His class influenced me to pursue a career in product development.
Synapse was started by Christoph Mack ’88 and operates very much like Thayer. We combine mechanical, electrical, software, and industrial design with the goal of changing the marketplace with our products, including the next wave of remote monitoring and body-integrated medical devices.
I like any physical product in which the physical parts are highly interdependent and integrated while being simple or elegant in design. Air directors for the passenger cabins in commercial airliners are an example. They only have three parts. They’re self-cleaning and elegant. If you say, “Well sure, air direction is an easy problem to solve,” I invite you to look in every car you’ve ever ridden in and see how that car’s particular designer solved the problem of directing and controlling the flow of AC. There are a bazillion different solutions, some good, some bad, but none outstanding as “the” way to do it. However, every plane has the same air-director design! It might not be glamorous, but I’m geeked about it. Perhaps this is what makes me suited for a career in product design — a childlike excitement for elegant and purposeful engineering.
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