2013 SMA | Charlie Weber | CCA
School is a tool—one that can serve a good variety of purposes if you use it thoughtfully. No one knows that better than Charlie Weber, this year’s IDSA Western District Student Merit Award winner.
He first tooled up at the University of Miami—Ohio where he completed a four-year undergraduate degree in architecture in 2007. After graduating, the Minneapolis native moved to Portland where he interned for a year at a small firm, MCA Architecture. “I was part of the last class that snuck in and found a job before the economy crashed,” Charlie recalled. When the economy did crash, he was laid off in 2008.
While he was unable to find another job in architecture, Charlie stuck around Portland and found work in a few bike shops. During that time, he tooled up again at the United Bicycle Institute completing a frame-building class at the school’s campus in Ashland, Oregon. “I try to be car-free so I’m on my bike every day,” he noted. “Part of it is doing the right thing, and part of it is practical. What I like best about working on bike frame building is that it mixes my interest in craft and design.
To plot a more long-term move, Charlie returned to his family home in Minneapolis for a summer where he scouted industrial design programs. “It’s tough to search for schools online. You don’t always get an understanding of the current strength of a program versus their historical reputation,” he noted. Perhaps even tougher was the choice between undergrad and graduate programs. “In undergrad, you get to build hard skills. From what I could tell, the focus in grad school is much different,” Charlie asserted. He chose an undergrad at a school in Northern California that might help him build connections in the Bay Area.
“CCA was the only undergrad program I applied to,” he remembered. “All of the professors at CCA are working professionals. Also, prior experience is a real differentiator at CCA. Almost 1/3 of the students are getting a second degree, or have prior professional experience. We all could have gone to a Master’s Program, but we all had heard you’re not going to learn core ID skill like you would from an undergrad ID degree."
For Charlie, it didn’t hurt that he found so many people working on bikes and bike accessories when he visited CCA. “I met assistant professor Colin Owen who connected me with Nick Riddle, a graduating second degree student who was already a seasoned bike industry professional. Talking to [Riddle] about the program's collective passion for cycling and urban mobility is what sold me".
Living in San Francisco exposed Charlie to a common problem that can have some pretty grave consequences: the imperfectly designed communication systems employed during emergencies like earthquakes. He explored solutions to that problem with his Smart Radio project. “Our prompt was wearable sound, and I interpreted that as communication so I started looking at walkie talkie communication,” he said.
In his research, Charlie talked with the American Red Cross Bay Area chapter located in San Francisco, and he engaged with FEMA’s western region office in the East Bay. The two staffs helped him identify several needs: overcoming language barriers, making invisible tools visible for when they’re needed and the generation of light. In his final design for the Smart Radio, his solution is able to translate messages, can live comfortably on the wall in most homes and can be used for both communications and as a flashlight. Presently, it remains a design concept. “I didn’t pursue it apart from the project assignment,” he reported. “It’s tough to do that in school when you’re moving from one project to the next every semester. I'm proud of the work I produced as a student and would like to continue developing some of my best ideas once I'm out of school."
In addition to pursuing his second degree at CCA, Charlie has been pretty busy off campus. “Since starting school I've had a handful of contract side gigs, then interned at Motorola, Astro Studios and now Box Clever. Interestingly, all of that work has been through referrals from CCA instructors that I had I had worked with in past semesters, which affirms my choice to go to CCA and be in the Bay Area.”
He added, “The experience I've gained outside of school really helped me step up my game and helped me identify where I need to bolster my skill set: storytelling, verbal presentation, graphic design, sketching. I was already a tough critic of my work, but the exposure to professional work is how I evaluate my own projects now and inspires me to perform at that same level.”
In the long term, Charlie says, “It would be pretty exciting to develop my own company and a line of products and be responsible for everything that goes with that.” In the short term, he expects to keep building his skills. He’s accepted a full-time position with Box Clever that begins this June.
For more information on Charlie or his work, visit www.charlieweberdesign.com