Leo Chen

2011 SMA | Leo Chen, IDSA | University of Houston

When 14-year-old Leo Chen began dissecting computers in his native Taiwan, he had only a faint idea of what design was. His Chinese upbringing did predispose him to understanding harmony. With that deep appreciation of how things flow together, he has emerged from the University of Houston (UH) as a certified problem solver.

In 2001, Chen’s family immigrated to Houston and obtained their US citizenship. He received an computer science certificate from Hastings High School and enrolled in UH to study computer science. It made sense given his passion for consumer electronics. But it wasn’t quite the right fit. “I tried computer science, ceramics, business, advertising, and architecture before I discovered UH’s ID program,” recalled Chen. “Design is about creating a complete and meaningful experience for people. I really liked the integrated, holistic approach of my school. When I saw what people were doing in the studio, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do!’”

During his undergraduate experience, Chen has positioned himself as a well-rounded designer. He finished three internships in one summer. During one of those internships—with blueMap design in New York City—Chen joined a design team to bring some real products to the market, including Kodak easyshare SPORT C123, which won a red dot design award.

His senior thesis, which was still being completed at press time, explores the future of computing and how to simplify workflow for users who move between different devices. It’s a natural conclusion for Chen’s design education, but it played no part in earning him the 2011 Southern District Student Merit Award as he did not present it at IDSA’s Austin Conference. Instead, two projects that addressed a civic experience and an emergency need, respectively, helped earn him top honors.

LeoChen_Fountain  The first project rethought the drinking fountain experience for US consumers. Chen identified three problems that deterred Americans from using public drinking fountains: 1) they are unattractive 2) they are ergonomically unsound and 3) they don’t permit refueling of a personal water bottle.

“I wanted to make it a delightful experience,” Chen asserted. His solution uses the fountain’s water to create an alluring sound effect drawing users to it. It also allows users to adjust its height from 26” to 48” and integrates a feature to accommodate personal bottle refill.

Chen also presented work that was designed in response to the earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010. “I wanted to make medical supplies that were cheaper and easier to ship,” he noted. “There was a huge opportunity to design a splint or leg brace.”

Current splints contain one hard layer and one soft layer made up of hard plastic and foam. The multiple structures require multiple molds, can be awkward to ship and are typically priced at $80 per unit. Chen thought he could use paper in multiple forms to secure and protect an injured leg.

With only two weeks to complete the project, he worked through 30 prototypes before arriving at his final concept: a paper-based splint that would require one die-cutting mold, can ship flat and costs less than $1 per unit.


 After receiving his diploma, Chen expects to carefully choose from multiple job offers. Wherever he lands, he also expects to draw from some of the most important lessons he acquired at the University of Houston. “We’re a research intensive school,” he declared. “We try to address issues that others simply ignore. Our method helps the students see ‘the real problem.’ So, students can create a simple solution.”

Presumably, a simple solution is also a harmonious one.

Leo Chen can be reached via leochen.uh@gmail.com.