The Questions | Vas Obeyesekere | Point Innovation

His modular concept for a computer that can transform between mobile and home computing configurations claimed the People’s Vote Award in the ReGeneration: International Green Computing Design Competition, sponsored by Dell and endorsed by IDSA.

JUNE 2008 - Vas Obeyesekere, IDSA grew up in Clear Lake, TX, near the Gulf of Mexico. Compelled by his passion for music and physics, he chose to study mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. After growing frustrated with the dearth of creative thinking in his engineering work, Vas transferred into the University of Houston’s (UH) ID program. There, he earned a student internship at a computer company where he worked on high-end gaming desktop designs. Following that internship, he was offered a full-time design position at Point Innovation in Dallas TX, where he currently works as a designer/design manager.

Vas claimed the People’s Vote award for his work on the “Evolve,” a modular concept for both mobile and home computing. It can transform between mobile and home computing configurations, can expand or contract its module based components to meet any user’s needs and has an aesthetic fitting most modern environments.

When did you first start thinking about the challenges of ecologically responsible design? What provoked your interest?

Well, it was when I first became aware there was a problem, in college. Nothing specifically provoked my interest outside of wanting to maintain a planet for my children to live. Personally I have always tried to steer away from the "buying things make you happy" creed, but as a product designer, I realize my strengths didn't lie in changing the way people feel about consuming, but changing the products that they consume. I really think what’s great about ecologically responsible design is, if done correctly, the average consumer doesn’t see a difference. The innovation and design is what’s inside, and what happens after the products’ use.

Where did the inspiration for your design come from?

Since sustainability was the core of this design, I began with metaphors for sustainability. The initial inspiration came from human skin, like how dead skin sheds and flies away, making room for new skin. This sort of unending "upgrade cycle" was the initial idea for the early concepts.

In developing a modular system, which components of the computer were most difficult to devise an effectively sustainablemeans of upgrading for?

Oh, the monitor. I played with a lot of ideas like projectors and eyepieces, but the manufacturing processes with those pieces are quite involved, so I decided on OLEDs. It is also hard finding any kind of manufacturing/lifecycle process information for these things.

What is the anticipated lifespan of this system?

Well this design was meant to shed and replace pieces as they became outdated, so the whole system could function indefinitely. The probable end to the system would be when the paradigm of computing shifts away from a PC.

Did you already know what you needed to know in order to design the "Evolve?"If not, what were your best sources? Where were the information "holes" you encountered?

No, I had no idea when I started. That's the greatest part of being a designer. I knew how a computer worked, but as far as how to integrate it with green ideology I was stumped. The best sources were the people I interviewed and treehugger.com. The biggest holes were found when I was trying to complete an LCA on every part. It is pretty difficult to track down the whole lifecycle of a component you want to use in a design.

What were some of the more interesting responses that your design received from the dialoging during the People's Vote period?

There were a few that mentioned that I didn't push the aesthetics far enough. I think that is a valid point. The purpose of this design was to reach the masses, and I felt it was crucial to keep it visuallysimilar to what they are used to. I guess my design was more about how it works and less about how it looked. They have a point, though If I could rework it, I would spend more time on the aesthetics... Also, there was a negative reaction to me choosing black as the laptop’s primary color. That was specifically for manufacturing. Recycled material can be most effectively produced in black.

You've given universal design a new twist. Did you intend for your system to also accommodate the diverse needs of variously abled users?

Oh definitely. The modules were made to be as non-threatening and easy to install as possible. The power slider was created specifically to be an obvious, iconic input device. It was the older generation I envisioned when designing those things. If you can ease them into upgrading components instead of throwing away an entire computer, then you can get all the others to do the same.

What needs to happen in design education to fully prepare design students for the challenges of designing truly sustainable products?

More education in manufacturing. I feel that is a weakness with many design students. They need to know how their pictures or models become true products. Only after you understand that can you find ways to make your products sustainable. Having an engineering background myself, and working with the engineers at Point Innovation, has really furthered my ability to design sustainable things.

How can designers better prepare themselves for the environmental impact their decisions have?

Really the best thing you can do is train yourself to look beyond the end product. Sure a hybrid saves gas, but how much energy and resources does it take to create a hydrogen fuel cell? Also, I subscribe to the "nature is a better designer than you" idea. I find if you can instill nature's methods into your design, you can avoid waste.

Who has been the most influential designer to your career?

Axel Thallemer once came and gave a lecture when I was a student. He was the first to show me the strength of bio-design, and I've carried that idea with me always. You can’t out-design nature, man.

What are your professional/career goals? How do you think this award will advance them?

I just want to leave the world a better place than I came in. I think this award can put me in a position where I can make that change.

What about this competition caused you to focus on it and not one of the many other competitions?

I am always happy to see a progression of the green design initiative. Design is the intention of mankind, so seeing a competition like this I feel it’s my duty as a designer to compete. Also, this competition occurred during a period that I could afford to yield a lot of my free time to the proper research and legwork necessary to fully understand the specific problem. I honestly did not even realize that there was prize money involved until after I won, but that was a great moment too.

What suggestions can you offer to improve the competition?

Regarding the competition and public votes, I understand the reasoning behind it, to get people involved, but that should be a different category (like "the peoples design"). I think the final designs should always be judged by professionals in the fields of sustainability and design. I would also like to potentially see it broadened past industrial design; maybe engineering and marketing can be involved.

What do you think Dell could do further to keep the dialogue going within the design and design education community?

Dell has the unique ability to make change due to its powerful nature. I feel everyone would do their part if they knew the gravity of the situation. Education has the ability to do this. Thinking broader than just design education, perhaps they could deploy a grade school environmentalism class. Maybe start in Texas and move out to the rest of America.