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Designing in a Different Country: Nicaragua Summer Study Away

In this guest blog, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) Collaborative Design student Elizabeth Bush recounts her experience working alongside faculty and students from KCAD and Grand Valley State University this summer to help students and faculty from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua learn how to design and implement solutions to pressing challenges.

While most college students spend the first month of their summer break road-tripping, working, or just binging on Netflix, I, along with a group of students, professors, and interested community members from both Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) and Grand Valley State University (GVSU), ventured to Nicaragua to explore how the power of design extends beyond cultural and geographic boundaries.

There, we partnered with professors and students from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua, (UNAN), to better understand environmental and social issues that occur in the country and help drive solutions to those issues.

This trip was condensed into a tight timeframe of three weeks. Before we departed, I prepared myself for what would be, in my mind, a “normal” trip—some exploring of the land (hiking, swimming, etc.), some relaxation, and lots of getting to know my peers in the class. However, it was much more of a learning experience than that.

While there were many things we could have focused on during our time in Nicaragua, we narrowed down our learning and exploration to three main topics: rising temperatures (I used to think Michigan summers were brutal, but these temperatures were like nothing I’d ever felt before), water contamination and conservation (we were advised to not eat street food or drink any water not from bottles to avoid becoming sick), and toxic and compact soil. All three issues pertain to environmental and community impacts that Nicaragua experiences year after year.

On top of that, while staying with host families, we did not have air conditioning and rarely did we have running water for a shower, two things that feel like blessings after a long, hot day. Before embarking on the trip, I had envisioned witnessing these problems, but didn’t realize how much we’d encounter them personally. After a while, it became natural to empathize with Nicaraguans and the problems that their environment creates for them.

When we were not focused on learning, researching, and designing solutions to problems, we were playing. We hiked, kayaked, swam, tasted, talked, and explored the beautiful environment that Nicaragua offers. We traveled around the country to many cities to sample different types of cultures, environments, and living situations. One of the most enriching parts of this experience was being able to talk with peers in Nicaragua. We specifically got to know our translators, college students from UNAN, remarkably well. Making connections in Nicaragua with students, professors, and community members are some of the best things I could have brought home from my experience.

The last week of the trip was spent in Esteli, one of Nicaragua’s fastest growing and progressive cities, where we held a design workshop titled “XIII Taller Iniciativa Global de Innovacion Aplicada” or, in English, the “XIII Workshop Global Initiative for Applied Innovation.” Here, our group from KCAD and GVSU led 150 students and professors from all of UNAN’s different locations in practicing the full design process, from researching and comprehending the problem all the way to sketching, prototyping, and presenting ideas.

Not one UNAN participant was alike; everyone brought different education levels, income levels, backgrounds, experiences, and interests to the table. This made for diverse conversations and ideas, which in turn made the whole experience that much more engaging. However, with a diversified group came predictable problems that most teams encountered. There was some head-butting when it came to solution ideation, with some members hyperfocusing on a specific solution and ignoring other’s suggestions. Yet when creative minds set aside their differences, genuinely great ideas can result from it.

User-centered design was at the forefront of the design process during the workshop. As workshop facilitators, we encouraged groups to remember their target audience’s education levels, main speaking language, and age. Designing and marketing for a target market is key, especially when trying to sell products that are brand new to a market.

Nicaraguans, just like other people all over the world, seem to be set in their ways. Traditions are passed down from generation to generation with little desire to change. With these challenges, participants of the workshop managed to tailor their designs to counteract these difficulties.

In the end, workshop participants did a stellar job of using limited resources, narrow and occasionally stubborn user groups, and combined group efforts to create and present their ideas and products. It was inspiring to watch peers imagine and make their ideas reality. It was even more inspiring to watch them motivate each other.

Boxing up and bringing home this entire Nicaraguan experience was a challenge all its own. The ideas of splitting work and play equally (and learning from both), creating with a diverse group of people despite major design constraints, and always thinking about the target audience during the entire design process will transfer directly into my work here at KCAD.

Not only did I make connections with students and professors in Nicaragua that I now consider dear friends, but I also experienced and learned about problems that we do not regularly encounter in the United States.Designing in, and for, a different country is only learned by being there and experiencing the issues first hand. I encourage any student interested in design, travel, and truly “thinking outside the box” to attend this, or any study away opportunity, in the future.

Transdisciplinary KCAD Team Wins Trendway Student Design Competition

Posted June 12, 2015 in Student

Give a group of creative young minds a design challenge and you’re likely to get some very interesting results. That’s especially true in Collaborative Design classes at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD), where students from different majors work across disciplinary boundaries to solve problems by converging their individual perspectives and skill sets.

Recently, students in professor Ken Krayer’s User Centered Design class participated in a design competition held by Trendway Corporation that challenged student teams to explore the creative possibilities inherent in the company’s Feek® coated foam products. Ever since its 2013 North America introduction, Feek® has captured the imagination of designers all over the US and Canada. The material offers a fast, simple process to bring creative ideas to life – a blank canvas on which to create memorable statements for every kind of interior. By nature, the coated foam process enables shapes and configurations that traditional materials can’t match.

Feek foam seatingA physical prototype of a butterfly-shaped seating element made from Feek® coated foam, designed by the winning KCAD team (image courtesy of Trendway Corporation)

“Feek® coated foam offers unique design flexibility for a manufactured product,” said Krayer. “There’s no tooling, no molds required – concepts go directly from the computer to manufacturing. Students have the opportunity to see their concept through final production in an amazingly brief timeframe.”

The transdisciplinary makeup of Krayer’s class, composed of both Collaborative Design majors and students from other programs, allowed teams to think outside the box in order to make the most of the innovative material. The winning team, consisting of Industrial Design students Jordan Eastwood and Linghom Wang, Digital Media student Amanda Lumley, and Interior Design student Hannah Snyder, designed a series of seating elements for use in a pediatric care waiting room.

Winning team(left to right) Digital Media student Amanda Lumley, Industrial Design student Jordan Eastwood, Interior Design student Hannah Snyder, professor Ken Krayer, Industrial Design student Linghom Wang, and Trendway President and CEO Bill Bundy

“By converging our separate perspectives, we were able to understand the end user and the environment we were designing for,” said Eastwood. “We focused on pediatric care because we felt the current scenario was weak in providing an environment the user appreciated and could look forward to entering.”

Inspired by nature, the team arranged hexagonal elements in a honeycomb pattern that offers versatile seating options. They also designed separate seating elements shaped like butterflies, dragonflies, and bees and used a bright color palette.

design rendering by KCAD studnets fpr Trendway competitionThis design redering from the winning team shows a possible configuration of different Feek® coated foam seating elements in a pediatric waiting room setting

“We looked to nature for our design inspiration for two major reasons: One, nature has design elements that are aesthetic or pleasing to the eye, such as with color and geometry; secondly, children are drawn to objects from nature that are large-scale, colorful, and playful like in playgrounds or mall play areas,” said Eastwood.

By touring Trendway’s facilities and meeting with some of its employees and executives, the students got to know the Feek®coated foam inside and out. Along the way, they learned that the material is safe, easy to clean, and has no sharp edges or rigid framing, making it perfect for a pediatric setting.

“That emphasis on research and observation was huge,” said Snyder. “You have to make sure you really get the most out of the people you talk to, and focus on the user in everything you do, because that’s who’s really going to benefit.”

Eastwood added, “We were allowed to play with our color palette and think outside the box to come up with designs that pushed the envelope on complexity and construction.  We had to think within the restraints of how the foam is cut and coated during every stage of development. This didn’t make things difficult; it made us contemplate how something complex in nature could be translated into the design language of Feek®.”

Feek coated foam seating element designed by KCAD stduentsTrendway made physical prototypes of the bee-shaped seating elements designed by the winning team that will be displayed in the company’s Neocon showroom(image courtesy of Trendway Corporation)

A panel of judges, including representatives of KCAD, Trendway, and G&T Foam, evaluated entries on originality, creativity, form, and function. “It is always exciting to partner with young, creative minds,” says Tracy Reed, Trendway Director of Marketing. “Seeing the students’ thoughtful and innovative ideas for Feek coated foam inspired all of us!”

The winning design will soon be prominently featured in Trendway’s Chicago Showroom during NeoCon week, June 15 through 17, after which it will be donated to KCAD. Each member of the winning team also received a piece of Feek®QBee furniture.

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