January 19, 2011

Outreach project offers insights to design students

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A team of Southern Illinois University Carbondale design students learned an object lesson by participating in Object Art, a design gallery show presented by the St. Louis chapter of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA).

The team tackled a community outreach project the IDSA St. Louis chapter proposed for student members for the Object Art annual show. The SIUC team, along with teams from the University of Illinois and the Missouri University of Science and Technology, presented recommended design changes for Almost Home-St. Louis, a safe transition residence for teenage mothers and their children.

The core of the SIUC team was a group of three students who used the Object Art proposal as a final project for Aaron Scott’s advanced industrial design research and professional practices class. The students are Jaimie Johnson (Fairfield, Iowa), Ted Peterson (Rockford) and Wesley York (Decatur). All three are senior design students. They recruited team members from the SIUC student chapter of the IDSA for three research teams for this project.

Scott, an assistant professor of design in SIUC’s School of Art and Design, said the students had the opportunity to tackle a real-world problem with this project, including a public presentation of their project in a professional setting.

“They also learned the human side of it, that we don’t just deal with objects when we design, but that real designs require interaction,” he said.

To begin their project, the team of Johnson, Peterson and York toured the Almost Home facility, and selected a particular problem area for their re-design proposal project. The larger group, in teams by task, spent time at Almost Home with the staff and residents to learn more about the daily routines there, while other team members researched the particular needs of young mothers and young children as they related to the selected area.

The students chose an area comprising the dining room, pantry and facility store for their project. Among the problems they noted -- the facility seemed sterile and cold even though both residents and staff wanted it be a real home where young mothers, many from troubled backgrounds, could feel safe and comfortable.

“Since the sole directive of the project was to improve the lives of members and staff of Almost Home, we thought there would be a lot of freedom with our design decisions,” Peterson said. “However, we quickly found that policies and legal regulations at the facility -- as well as funding -- were real obstacles.”

Therefore, as part of their research, the students visited other multi-family housing units, daycares, and children’s hospitals to get some ideas about how their design proposal could best promote safety while still conveying cheeriness, how they could combine utility and easy maintenance with coziness. The result of this research was in part a child safety product list that included descriptions, illustrations and costs. Students also researched furniture and flooring options as part of their mission to make the space more versatile but still easy to maintain.

For their final presentation, the students created a computer model that showed the Almost Home space with the team’s redesign. The computer model included examples of furniture and storage units the students suggested, as well as floor plans for the furniture that demonstrated the variety of uses for which a single space might be used.

“Our team did a great job of finding design opportunities and developing viable solutions to give (Almost Home) the biggest bang for their buck,” Peterson said. “At the Object Art show, we were surprised by how enthusiastic the Almost Home staff was toward our work -- especially toward some of the simplest changes we suggested. It goes to show that small changes can have big effects.”

York noted the differences between addressing design issues in a real space compared to designing a product independent of environment.

“Normally, being industrial designers, we design products,” he said. “When we were prevented with this project, I was very unfamiliar with this type of design. We were given the task of looking at an existing space and determining the flaws of how the space was used. I learned so much about how the design of a room can convey different moods and feelings, and that is extremely important for a place such as Almost Home.”

York said the additional skills he developed during the project contribute to making him a more well-rounded designer.

Peterson agreed, adding that working on a project with real clients and requirements challenged him and gave him new insights into the world of professional design.

“I have more confidence in my design potential, and gained some professional exposure,” he said. “This project has helped me feel more comfortable about moving into the working world.”

Almost Home staff will present the design models submitted by SIUC and the other universities to its board.

Scott noted that students completed some of the work -- in particular the computer model -- in fulfillment of a graphic design course requirement.

“Because of the way our design department is structured, we are often able to help each other with projects in this way,” he said. “One area of design will almost always touch on another area of design.”

SIUC was the only university to include a full computer model in its design presentation.

For more information about the SIUC School of Art and Design, visit http://artanddesign.siuc.edu. For more information about Almost Home, see www.almosthomestl.org.