Life as a Fox: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Design Education

Louise R. Manfredi, PhD
INNOVATION Winter 2019

Vol. 38 No. 4, p. 74

I thrive on unique learning experienes. I always have. At 18 years old I decided to take a chance on a brand-new degree program that combined industrial design with all the engineering disciplines. It was a tough slog, but I made it through and was incredibly grateful for skill development that went beyond what I thought was possible for me. The experience empowered me so much that I went on to earn a PhD in mechanical engineering from the same university. Oh, and then a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience and biomechanics. I’ve always bounced around, trying to make connections between different fields on a mission to find answers to complex problems. That does come at a price though—few people see the value in a non-siloed researcher. I seem flaky. 

Fast forward a few years. I am sitting on a panel for the formation of Syracuse University’s Autonomous Systems and Policy Institute, and the keynote speaker starts talking about Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” I realize that after all these years of feeling inadequate because I did not follow a one-discipline path, I might be on to something important. I am a fox in an age when being a hedgehog is limiting. A fox, unlike a hedgehog, views problems from various approaches gathered through diverse experiences. We are thoughtful and agile. We like to ruffle some feathers and seek to make connections where there might not seem to be one. We are not single disciplined like the hedgehog—we are interdisciplinary thinkers. 

Multidisciplinary Collaborations in the Studio

I see the industrial designers I teach as foxes in training, so I try to expose them to as many learning experiences as possible.

Designing with a dose of science. My engineering and scientific training often floods into my human factors studio. Human factors is a highly multidisciplinary subject area that lends itself well to my experiment-driven teaching approach. The remit of the course it to teach designers about physiology and perception to better understand human ability. I like to expose students to scientific research as another lens to understanding how quantitative and qualitative research methods will give valuable insight. 

We’ll regularly read research papers in a journal-club format and critically assess methods, results and study limitations. My students and I will typically ask each other why multiple times during conversations about these readings to uncover merits of the approach or limitations in the results. I also employ this in a critique, for example, “You selected that material because it feels good. Why?” We keep moving down the chain of why until we arrive at an explanation about the mechanics of touch perception. Hearing students use the correct scientific terms is rewarding, as was the time students made the connection that waveform stimuli are what allow us to perceive light, sound and tactile stimulation.

All experiments are written up in the same format as the academic journal papers they read, and then they teach what they learn back to the class. This differs slightly from the traditional design, research, write-up method, yet it still reinforces the key written skills of objectivity and third-person narrative. One such write-up described how the students conducted usability experiments for the first time with vacuum cleaners, running through concurrent and retroactive, talking aloud and probing methods. They learned a lot about how users perform certain cleaning tasks with the numerous attachments we all either lose or look puzzled over. The studio has never looked cleaner!

Designing for autism spectrum disorder. I have previously partnered with neuroscientists, occupational therapists and a children’s science and technology museum to help students understand sensory processing disorders (SPD) that are commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children. The designers spent multiple weeks understanding how over- and underactive sensory systems change one’s relationship with the world. Almost instantly, they became deeply committed to finding a way to make children’s lives better. 

I like this project because it makes students uncomfortable. They are afraid to say anything insensitive. They are not sure what language to use to describe what they refer to as “symptoms of SPD” and are anxious to not make assumptions. This was particularly important as experiences with ASD and SPD are heterogeneous. As luck would have it, the students are guided by a suite of experts who assist then in finding interesting, unique primary data. For example, Reddit forums can be a marvelous resource if you ask the right question in the right way. 

The brief was very open—identify a problem and design to help solve it—and is one of the first open projects the students will have had so far. The solutions vary from an adaptive noise cancelling beanie to an arts and crafts kit that allows parents to pick colors their children are not averse to. At the conclusion of the project, the experts are given the process book to review and give feedback on the designs. They have been impressed by the depth of research and unique perspectives on helping to improve a child’s experience of the world.

Designing for manufacture with mechanical engineering students. I capitalized on that rare opportunity where you get to design a class to fill out your teaching load by creating a CAD class that focused on parametric modelling and understanding simulations for testing the manufacturability of designed products. The difference with the class is that it was open to ID students and mechanical and aerospace engineering students, and I had an aerospace engineer as a teaching assistant. This was their first exposure to working in multidisciplinary teams in a simple disassembly project. The teams modeled every part, created the assembly and 3D printed the output. It was great to see the engineering students teaching the designers about tolerance and fit, and how lucky they were that they didn’t learn geometric tolerancing! 

I also proctor the SolidWorks Mechanical Design Associate exam, of which we have close to a 100% pass rate. I saw that designers typically like to spend a great deal of time modeling in CAD. I taught them quick iteration through design tables and equations to simulate the pace of industry. Two instructions I gave for every assignment that will haunt them every time they open up a new part file: rename your features and fully define all sketches. I might just ask you to change a dimension quickly to recalculate the mass, and the last thing you want to see is the model collapse as soon as you make a change. You’ll be working all night to fix it and get me the new mass.

Consulting for Other Academic Units

I have limited experience as a practicing designer, so I am hesitant to pair my teaching with industry clients. Instead, I look for opportunities to partner with other academic units on campus so my students can experience the nature of the consultant-client relationship.

Exhibition design. I always try to blend visualization skills with written and verbal communication skill development. This academic year my students have had the opportunity to act as human factors consultants for two projects. One of the projects is assessing sensorial and accessibility design strategies employed in an exhibition proposal for the United Nations. This collaboration with students in communication design, environmental and interior design, and museum studies master’s students gives the industrial designers the opportunity to be part of a larger multidisciplinary conversation. My students work only from the information they are given, which includes concepts, narratives, plans and elevations, posters and interactive elements of the exhibition. Their objective is to succinctly communicate their recommendations to the design team and give them a path to achieving them. They will need to put all the theory they have learned so far into action on a real client assignment.

Medical device design. The biomedical engineering capstone class from the College of Engineering and Computer Science will be working with my industrial designers this year. Their briefs range widely from sensory prosthetics and catheters to breast pumps for working mothers and devices for use in neonatal intensive care units. I am serving as an adviser to one team (sensory prosthetics) and am working with the capstone director to bring the two disciplines closer together to discuss research methods and product development. The designers will give each group a report detailing their recommendations for cognitive walkthroughs, usability testing methods and the  design process. 

Both groups are excited to learn from each other, and I hope this interest in respective disciplines will continue. There is even interest from other students beyond my class who want to collaborate and help with product development. Learning from peers, especially when they come from a different discipline, can be a powerful experience. I am happy that I can find other professors across campus who also want to create these learning experiences for students. It is certainly more work on the professors to make the union successful, but it is worth the effort to see these  connections made.

Creating Opportunities Beyond the Studio

Research became a career option for me because I was surrounded by interesting academics as an undergraduate. I spent a great deal of time participating in research studies that blended design and engineering methodologies and talking to the PhD students conducting them. I was enthralled!

Funding research opportunities for undergraduates. As a researcher rather than a design practitioner, much of my time is spent hunting down money to fund experiments. Syracuse University has invested heavily in recent years to offer seed funds through competitive internal calls for proposals. I have had the good fortune of acquiring funds to hire designers as research assistants in projects that range from material development to researching life-cycle assessment tools and creating material exchange programs in the school. One student presented work at an international engineering conference as a result of her assistantship. I was so proud to see her communicating her findings with engineering professors from all over the globe and see her delight in meeting engineers from NASA. 

Independent research study and teaching students to write grants. Syracuse University has also begun to heavily invest in student research. Any undergraduate can apply for money to conduct research or produce creative work. I enjoy working with students who want to write a grant proposal. Often, they are intimidated by the grant writing process and need a little more support to get started. We’ll often sit down and work out a plan of attack to address their research questions, and we’ll co-author the proposal documents late into the evenings, watching each other type and add comments. It is good fun to co-write with my design students! They have probing questions and ambitious plans to reach their goal. The program will have many thesis students heading to professional conferences, places of research interest all over the globe to collect data, and studios with the materials they need to make the idea a reality.

Invent@SU. I am the program lead of a summer invention accelerator program at Syracuse University. This initiative is a partnership between the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the College of Visual and Performing Arts. I teach as part of a design and engineering duo. Undergraduates from any discipline can apply to spend six weeks developing a need-based invention that can be patented. We blend engineering and design methodologies alongside intensive presentation coaching to enable any student team to pitch for $5,000 at the program conclusion. 

We have many industrial designers apply every year with marvelous success, not just in competitive winnings in multiple regional and national start-up competitions but also in developing their communication and physical prototyping skills. We encourage multidisciplinary pairings, and often the designers choose to work with a non-designer. I love those pairings! It takes a little time to break down the perceived discipline barrier, but when they do, they really celebrate what each member brings to the team. 

The Invent@SU professorial team is looking to research the outcomes of this program and hopefully experiment with an in-credit experience with a similar format. It is a pedagogical playground for me. I can experiment with different teaching styles depending on the disciplines in the team and work out how to best support different learning styles. 

Everything I learn from creating these unique teaching experiences accelerates my ability to be a stronger educator and scholar. There is so much that designers can learn from other disciplines. Introducing them to this mindset in the studio seems to be the best place to start. I plan to keep encouraging designers who might be looking to take the same interdisciplinary path I did to embrace it. True to my fox nature, I’ll certainly keep trying out new interdisciplinary learning experiences in the studio.

—Louise R. Manfredi, PhD

Dr. Louise Manfredi has been an assistant professor of industrial and interaction design at Syracuse University since 2017. She is a new appointed faculty fellow of the Syracuse University Center of Excellence and is the current program lead of the Invent@SU student accelerator program. She has two research focuses: (1) sustainable material testing, development and adoption and (2) exploring methods to improve the working relationship between designers and STEM practitioners. 

Design Education