New Program Balances Artistry and Functionality

Human-centered design is a new program that blends creativity and craftsmanship with computer-assisted technology. In developing objects or architectural structures for everyday use, such as the "ArborBench" at left, students are learning how to exercise creativity within the constraints of what can be mass produced and distributed worldwide.

It is a delicate balance – in sharp contrast to the romanticized vision of an artisan laboring long hours over a single work that will never be replicated. But the goal is to nurture budding entrepreneurs who will design products that are functional, aesthetically pleasing and marketable in volume.

“The hope is that graduates will start small businesses, generating economic development in the Upper Peninsula and Michigan,” said NMU alumnus Peter Pless (Art and Design, below right), who developed the program by merging the former environmental design and product design. “We’ve started contacting factories that might play a role in the manufacturing aspect. It would be nice if students could walk into Northern Initiatives with a prototype and business plan and start their own company.

“A lot of products are stylized to be beautiful, but lack function. With human-centered design, you study how people interact with products so you can make them as user-friendly as possible. But you can also find ways to personalize them so consumers have more of an emotional attachment to the products. We see it now with designer covers for cell phones, laptops and iPods. It’s mass customization. Everything you come in contact with can be a form of self expression while also serving a useful purpose.”

Pless said human-centered design is a hot field nationally and internationally. Much of the growth can be attributed to advances in “lean technology,” which offer a seamless transition from computer concept to machine-generated object with little investment. Northern’s studio is equipped with two-dimensional, computer-aided design (CAD) and three-dimensional modeling/rendering software to visualize concepts and help determine how to use the least amount of material, reducing cost and increasing efficiency.

The studio houses a new 3D printer that turns out layered, physical models and a computer numerically controlled (CNC) router that cuts and sculpts non-ferrous metal, prototyping foam, wood or plastic into finished 2D and 3D forms. Both devices prevent students from having to resort to more dated measures such as manually creating prototypes and products by hand or relying on less accurate fabrication methods. A new addition is a 3D scanner that will develop computer models from a physical object. This can be used to create hyper-customized ergonomic designs and products. The scanner will essentially reverse the process of developing complex forms.

Michael Cinelli (Art and Design) added: “This program enhances what we’ve already been doing with electronic imaging. It takes us to the next level: using computers to generate ideas for rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing. You can do just about anything with computers now—from refined, limited creations to artifacts that can be mass-produced for a global marketplace. These machines are new tools, but you still require basic problem-solving skills and knowledge to be successful. We’re trying to instill in our students the idea of integrating design into daily lifestyles.”

The program began this fall with about 35 majors. An online gallery showcases student designs. 

In other departmental news, an “ArtWorks” store recently opened on the first floor near the DeVos Museum entrance. It features pieces by students, faculty and alumni – many priced at $100 or less. The store is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“We had thought of starting a store in downtown Marquette that would offer items for sale, workshops and other activities,” Cinelli added. “It would be great exposure for our programs and highlight our commitment to entrepreneurism. We may revisit that idea, depending on whether we can maintain inventory in the campus store for a couple of years.”

Art and Design Web site enhancements include student digital cinema and electronic imaging projects, as well as an alumni film trailer, which can be downloaded to Apple Video iPods; and a special “business of art and design” page dedicated to entrepreneurial alumni.


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Updated: February 1, 2007

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