I Was a Senior Designer. Now I'm a Senior, Designer.

by Allen Samuels, L/IDSA

Oct 21 2020 - 3:22pm


After over 50 years working as an Industrial Designer, I am retired. That is, I no longer seek to make a living as a designer and I no longer seek clients and sponsored projects. However, I do continue to design products.   

My self-initiated projects deal with issues important to me: poverty, disasters, the disabled and the aged. I work to identify problems, voids, challenges and more that I believe can be mitigated by Design. I gather information and create meaningful problem statements. I conceptualize, visualize, model and assess my most promising concepts. When I think I have a design that has merit, I then identify and contact corporations that may share my interests and who have appropriate capabilities and I request that they assess my work. 

This is not a way to make a living, by the way. Very few companies welcome unsolicited ideas and product designs and I receive very few responses to my solicitations.   However, every once in a while, a company will respond and seek more information. I am careful to share my objectives without giving too much away about my actual concepts and product designs. If a company remains interested, we work out some mutually beneficial working arrangement.  Actually, I would rather gain an interesting collaboration than a simple sum of money for a design. This makes my chances of any meaningful arrangement even more rare. Still, I love the work, the process, the tools, the materials and the opportunity to learn and discover a new and useful way to solve a challenging problem. 

With the coronavirus pandemic, I found a number of opportunities to try and contribute. Since March 2020, I have designed and modeled a number of products that have some potential to help as we work our way through this most challenging and dangerous time. 

Face Shield Concept

I first designed the obvious: a face shield.  My solution consists of die cut, thin and clear plastic that can be rolled up in storage and unrolled when used. It simply opens up and fits around a wearer’s full face, and a left and right extension with ear holes are located around and over each ear. This one piece shield requires no assembly and is very inexpensive. It simply works to block harmful droplets when people are face to face. 

Pre-Assembled Treatment Rooms

I then saw on the news non-hospital facilities being used as temporary hospitals. Technicians had to first deliver various components and parts to the site, and then they assembled and created individual patient spaces with numerous components to include tube frames, soft walls, lighting, power and more. I proposed factory-made, individual isolation and treatment rooms, all pre-assembled, pre-wired, pre-plumbed and ready to go. Just deliver and locate the fully self-contained unit, rotate upward the left and right side walls, and plug it into a power source. A transparent plastic cover seals the space and enables staff to see in and patients to see out. An integral hospital bed is in place and forms the unit’s base. No assembly required once on site.  The result: a full-sized, sealed, ventilated and illuminated room, ready to function and all on wheels. 

UV-C Devices and Safe Distance Fashion

When I learned that certain UV-C lamps could kill viruses, I designed a series of mobile, taple-top UV-C hand sanitizers. Each unit could be used at home, in an office or in a classroom. It would enable users to simply insert their hands into the openinig and, within minutes, the UV-C lights would sanitize both hands, 360 degrees. Another version is a stand-up robotic unit that could move slowly up and down grocery store isles, inviting shoppers to sanitize their hands as they shop and handle grocery products from a shelf.   

Often, I really do not know if a concept and design is practical. Because I begin with and place emphasis on what outcome do I want to create, I am  free to conceptualize beyond what is practical now. So, I continue to propose designs that I feel have potential often, not knowing if my design can actually work at this time. Interestingly, proposing what can be is more important to me that proposing what is doable now. Can’t do it now, work to find a way. This is how new ideas and inventions come about. 

With this in mind, I designed and modeled a UV-C device that would be worn on one’s head, instead of a typical plastic face shield or face mask.  The battery-powered headband would fit around a user’s forehead and provide UV-C light to wash downward over the wearer’s face. The virus-killing light would wash the entire face and kill all incoming and outgoing droplets. 

How to remind people in public spaces to stay a safe six feet away from one another? I propose a line of fun clothing that is so garish and bright in color and pattern that it can be seen from a mile away. One may end up looking like a clown, but a wearer would be seen at more than a safe distance, and the clothing would work to alert and remind everyone within view to stay at a safe distance.  The clothing is for men, women, adults and children with tops, shirts, pants, skirts, etc, all bold, loud and very VISIBLE! 

A Way to Be in the Room

Sadly people die from the novel cornoavirus and, because they are contagious, family and friends have been prevented from saying goodbye in person, or even visiting their loved ones when they are sick. I propose an off-the-shelf solution where a large, mounted and mobile computer monitor would be brought to a patient's room and located next to the patient’s bed. It would deliver full-scale, real-time images and audio of the family. Full-scale images are important here, creating as close to an in-person experience as possible.   

In addition to the audio-visual message, there would be a standard blood pressure cuff on the patient’s hand. It could be activated by a family member or by a nurse, or it could gently pulse automatically as a way to simulate a gentle hand squeeze to go with the audio-visual display. Never as good as actual family in person; however, under the circumstances, this set-up may provide some comfort to a patient and theirfamily at this most difficult time.  

An Idea for Socially-Distanced Public Waiting Areas

At 77, I do not welcome visiting public spaces, but places like doctors offices are sometimes required. I sat in one waiting room recently where all the chairs were in place as before the pandemic, except rows of five chairs had a paper sign on each seat saying, “Please do not sit here," The result was a room full of mostly empty chairs with people seated five chairs apart. This is somewhat confusing and there is always someone who will choose to sit on a chair with one of these signs, violating the safe distance guideline. 

I designed a simple spacer for public waiting rooms where I propose unused chairs be removed, leaving only the properly spaced chairs for people to see and use. Keeping the chairs properly spaced and creating what would appear as an open, planned and safe environment seems better than a room filled with “do not use” chairs.   

My chair spacer consists of a simple 2” diameter PVC tube with a notch cut out on the underside of each end. The notch fits over almost every standard and typical waiting room chair armrest. When spacers are located on the armrests of each chair, from one chair to another, chairs are automatically spaced at 6’ apart. The result is an uncluttered overall space with only chairs that are to be used. The spacers provide a bright-colored (if painted) physical and visual detail. 

In Conclusion

My purpose here is not to brag about my design work  Two points to make: (1) there are always challenges and problems for designers to engage and resolve by Design; and (2) now that I am a senior, designer, I am still eager and able to work, learn and contribute after all of these years. There will be other projects and designs for me as long as I continue to seek and find challenges and problems to solve by Design.

Allen Samuels, L/IDSA is Emeritus Professor and Dean of the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design, where he taught industrial design, innovation and invention courses for 34 years, while simultaneously working in the industry. Since retiring in 2008, Allen continues to design and develop products that deal with aging, poverty, the disabled and disaster relief. He also is a contributor to IDSA's INNOVATION magazine.