Northern Michigan University’s new Studio for Experimental and Eco-Design will assist regional entrepreneurs in developing prototypes for products that are innovative, sustainable and customized. It will also give students career-building opportunities to interact with clients and respond to real-world design challenges.

            The NMU School of Art and Design established the studio to promote economic development and to extend its community service outreach.

            “We’ve had a history of working with people and organizations, whether it’s developing Web sites for nonprofits or providing graphic design services,” said Michael Cinelli, director of the school. “The studio builds on that, but in a formal way. It will focus on design concepts and the important role they play in product development. We won’t be engineering or manufacturing products, but we have state-of-the-art digital equipment for 3D development and prototypes. We also have great depth in terms of faculty expertise in everything from woodworking to metals.”

            The studio’s activities will be fully operational this fall under the direction of Peter Pless, a professor in the School of Art and Design. He will determine which product ideas to assign his students.

            “We’re looking for products that will improve people’s lives and stimulate economic development,” Pless said. “But sustainability will be a key feature. We’ve adopted the ‘cradle to cradle’ philosophy—that every product has a cyclical life and it should return to where it came from. Another important element is the ability to customize products so they have more personal value to their owners. People don’t lead disposable lifestyles; they become attached to things. So you want to create products that hold meaning for them and reflect their personalities. It’s more about independent manufacturing than mass production.”

            Pless offered an example of a local woman who wanted help designing protectors that would shield mailboxes from potentially damaging brushes with snow plows.

            “Instead of the visually unappealing palettes that some people erect on the side of the road, I challenged the students to come up with a design for a protector that was durable and effective, yet had some aesthetic qualities,” he said. “They came up with 15 different designs. Some could be customized with home addresses or other features, such as a flower pot on top for someone who’s interested in gardening.”

            Other projects range from social goods and fashion accessories to structures such as bus stops or green shelters. In addition to the hands-on design activities for students, the studio will be a focal point that provides a broad spectrum of information on design practices, along with global economic and manufacturing strategies. There will be lectures, symposia, joint ventures and opportunities for national and international travel to establish relations with design-enhanced businesses.

            “Some countries have a firm grasp on the role design plays and understand it should play a prominent role on the front end of product development,” said Cinelli. “The U.S. is behind that curve, though there are some places – like the North Carolina furniture industry – that are starting to get it. Successful entrepreneurs reserve a place at the table for designers before they begin to produce and market items. We are committed to filling that role locally to help create and drive new businesses. It benefits entrepreneurs, the economy and students who gain valuable, real-world experience before they leave college.”

Prepared By
Kristi Evans
News Director