In the Lead: Kiersten Muenchinger, IDSA

Jul 15 2021 - 8:30am


Busy is an understatement when it comes to describing the daily life of Kiersten Muenchinger, IDSA. She's the founding director of the Department of Product Design at the University of Oregon---credited with starting it from scratch and spanning it across UO's Portland and Eugene campuses. And Muenchinger is principal of UO's Green Product Design Network, working to advance the development of sustainable products. In 2015, she earned a high honor, spending a year at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, teaching and researching design innovation as a Fulbright Scholar. 

Muenchinger has been an active member of IDSA since 2006, holding positions such as IDSA West District education representative and IDSA West District Design Conference (WDDC) planning committee member. In 2011, she was named IDSA's Young Educator of the Year, and in 2015, one of DesignIntelligence's "30 Most Admired Educators." The design engineer has worked for IDEO, Ford, Fitch, Sottsass Associatti, Walt Disney Imagineering and the Long Now Foundation. Muenchinger founded the company Parapluie. She was also the assistant chair of the ID program at California College of the Arts. Muenchinger earned a master’s degree from Stanford University and her bachelor’s degree from Ivy League Dartmouth College---both in mechanical engineering.

So, we were thrilled when she had a few minutes to answer some questions, as she and UO prepare to welcome students, educators and professionals to WDDC 2018 this spring.

IDSA: You’re a Stanford and Dartmouth engineering alum. How did you transition to teaching product design?

Muenchinger: When I was working as a design engineer at Fitch in San Francisco, I was asked by colleagues to teach courses at California College of the Arts (CCA) as an adjunct professor. Through CCA, I was asked to teach and develop a new design program at University of Oregon, which was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Which is cooler? (We couldn’t resist asking.)

All are cool, but the order is: engineering is cool, designing is cooler and design engineering is coolest!

What lessons did you learn from your work at powerhouse studios and brands such as IDEO, Walt Disney Imagineering and Ford that you apply to your leadership roles in academia?

Those three amazing companies had very different work environments that happened to be similarly supportive in three ways: they trusted me with creativity on projects, they were active in my professional advancement and I could maintain my personal life. I doubt that I realized this at the time, but I do now!

Your work in experimental sustainable design has been exhibited with the Green Product Award, Germany; ShowPDX, Portland; and Salão Design, Brazil. As principal of the Green Product Design Network at UO, what motivates you to make a difference through sustainable design?

Sustainable design is simply excellent, thoughtful, insightful design. It’s easy to be motivated to produce excellent, thoughtful, insightful products.

In professions such as engineering and industrial design that have a limited number of women, what advice would you offer to female students to advance in these fields?

My advice is to notice and work with professors, colleagues and managers who you can tell are actively promoting your work and introducing you to other people in engineering and design fields. The more your work gets out in the world, the more opportunity you have to find people with similar backgrounds, interests and experiences who are also interested in making great work like yours.

2018 is the second year in a row that WDDC will be held at the University of Oregon-Portland. What are some of the new things that attendees can expect this year?

The variety of internationally-recognized design that exists in the Western District: tech, sport, furniture, experience.  And advice and tricks for ensuring your design work is recognized as internationally significant!