Innovation and Design at Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech has a long history of success and acknowledgement when it comes to engineering, but how has this shifted over time to make Georgia Tech’s students more multidisciplinary in nature?
The answer is that it’s a work in progress but the institute has made strides in approaching education and problem-solving in a more collaborative approach among its six colleges. We find it largely true that two minds are better than one; but how about two minds in completely different industries collaborating? The results can only be better, more inclusive, and exponentially innovative.
A big influence in collaboration on Georgia Tech’s campus has stemmed from the Innovation and Design Collaborative, also known as Design Bloc. Spearheaded by Industrial Design Professor, Wayne Li, Design Bloc started as an initiative in 2014, with the clear purpose to bridge campus by teaching design thinking to all different disciplines on campus.
The idea was born out of a multiyear grant from alumni, Jim Oliver, who felt that campus was missing the collaboration and potential synergy of designers and engineers working together. With funding and Li’s expertise, Design Bloc brings Georgia Tech’s faculty, students, and their disciplines together, with design thinking in mind, to work on real world problems. “Designers and engineers who work together and are appreciative of each other’s skillsets make a better impact in the world.” says Li.
Over the years, efforts to combine disciplines in lectures has proven successful as the institute has gone from one cross-college multidisciplinary class to twenty. Giving faculty and students opportunities to work together to teach in novel and interesting ways with design thinking as the co-pilot.
“For many years, single discipline classes were the norm, but now we have popular collaborations that the students really enjoy” says Li. From courses that combine Computer Science and Industrial Design, Architecture and Biology, or International Affairs and Computer Science, campus has become more collaborative to innovative in new ways. “Every college is represented in the shift toward collaborative thinking and the most recent class is the VIP Design Bloc class.”
Design Bloc’s VIP class, hosted through the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program at Georgia Tech, empowers students from all majors to work on design problems they find in the community. Thanks to the VIP platform, that allows undergrad students to earn academic credits while working on research and interacting within multidisciplinary teams, Design Bloc’s VIP class serves as a technical elective for many students and is representative of campus majors. “We have a good mix” says Li.
Li’s goal on campus has been and continues to be an effort to bridge and breakdown barriers to spark interest in design work, together.
Design is Influence
Georgia Tech’s Design Bloc VIP Team teach on campus and in the community that design is influence, and we can be better through it. Good design is about enhancing an experience and that is just what the class has done this semester in partnering with the High Museum and Infinity Mirrors exhibit to further design thinking principles among Atlanta’s youth.
“Design allows technology to become more useful, more socially cognizant, and more empathetic.” said Li. That is the basis of the curriculum at the School of Industrial Design, and Li believes that this is true across all technologies and disciplines.
Through teaching design thinking, others not exposed to design can give their art purpose and disciplines like engineering expression. “There are artists that are highly technical and engineers that are creatively inclined. I don’t see this as completely exclusive things, I see them as taking disparate ideas and combining them.”
Design principles can make for better creators of technology, because through these principles we can inherently care about who technology is created for.
Infinity Mirrors: Mirrors Socially Cognizant Design among Atlanta’s Youth
Atlanta’s winter season hot-ticket item, Infinity Mirrors by Yayoi Kusama, sparked a wave of art and design appreciation in the city. With sold-out crowds around the U.S., Infinity Mirrors portrays Kusama’s signature work and famous immersive rooms. Seeking the experience, even infrequent High Museum guests wanted in on the creatively designed, seemingly endless and mesmeric adventure.
With the intent to flare the same interest on Atlanta’s youth and community through a design thinking innovation space, High Museum’s Hub reached out to one of the city’s most prominent proponents of design thinking, Georgia Tech Industrial Design professor Wayne Li. “Design thinking is using designer’s mindsets in order to create social impact”, expressed Li, similar to the same impacts an artist like Kusama hopes to evoke through her art. Li gladly saw the benefit of partnering up with the High to positively impact the community and it’s youth to foster a space for students to learn and be excited about design and contemporary art.
With years of experience in teaching design thinking, Wayne Li and a group of his Design Bloc VIP students at Georgia Tech were tasked with doing what they do best, user-centered-design. Their approach? “Learning by doing” says Li. In Li’s mind, to lay a foundation and case of the Hub’s potential to be a successful design thinking space for the community, him and his team needed to work on a project directly with the future users, Atlanta’s youth. “When you try a project in its actual space and environment, you will be able to figure out what works and what doesn’t”. Working hand in hand with a group of close to 30 high school students from The Galloway School and Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, Li and his team’s plan was to teach design by example.
In teaching design thinking to students, Li’s team and high school students studied the Kusama exhibit. “We walked the exhibit and contemplated design - What are her visual interest? What are her inspirations? What gives the visual texture? What makes this exhibit experiential? How do you create an experience though layered texture that expands your vision, and makes you see a horizon that’s not there? – to show that design thinking is very much about understanding your surroundings and drawing inspiration from it”, says Li.
With design principles in their toolbelt, students were asked to gather inspiration from Kusama to create their own version of the experience for the closing night of the exhibit. “We asked students to think like designers. To approach problems by understanding, defining, and empathizing with it; to research, express creativity and solutions; then test and rinse, lather, repeat.” At the end of the day, their project needed to reflect the goal for the High’s design thinking space – a space that adapts to how people work and does not dictate how people need to work.
Through much ideation, “we constantly raised design-thinking principles to the high school students to make sure we were being intentional with our ideas.” said first-year Industrial Design and Design Bloc VIP student, Margaret Lu. The student’s Kusama inspired exhibit ideas translated into a concept influenced by a Japanese garden. One that gave a similar feel to Kusama’s work but was different too, “we wanted our exhibit to be interactive and enhance the overall Infinity Mirrors experience” explained Lu.
Through need finding, an integral component of design thinking, the students researched the space and museum guest to figure out what they were missing out of the experience and hence, how they would attempt to enhance it. Their findings offered insight “We wanted to create an exhibit that’s purpose was to be interacted with” because that is some of what Yayoi’s exhibit experience was missing, not because Kusama’s exhibit lacked visual stimulation, but because in its nature, as a museum exhibit, it could not be touched or interacted with. Students saw this as an opportunity to enhance the experience. “With our project, the more you interact with the exhibit, the more dynamic the experience.” explained Alex Flohr, Industrial Design graduate student and staff member with Design Bloc.
The project rendered into an interactive exhibit called “Enchanted Lily Pads”, featuring hand-crafted wood-sculptures of lily pads with colorful LED lights. The interactivity was generated through programmed motion sensors that lit the lily pads with hand movement, causing a ripple effect that excited young museum guests. “We also built a bridge leading to the lily pads, inviting users into the space”.
“Everything was hand-drawn and digitally fabricated. We brought 2-D to 3-D. We wanted to pay homage to Kusama’s work through the lens of making, crafting and interactivity” said Flohr. “It was really fun to see people come in and start playing with our exhibit. Kids would come play and when things lit up, they would get really excited.”
Socially Cognizant Design
Design thinking is first and foremost user-centered. Students introduced to this way of approaching problems are more accommodating of others. “We did take into account the different groups of people that would be coming through to see the exhibit” says Flohr. “I was really happy to see the high school students emphasize that they wanted the bridge to be wheelchair accessible and accommodating to everyone.”
With design principles and collaboration spaces as available tools, youth are invited to explore and innovate, and with socially cognizant design, creation can be empathetic.
“If at the end of the day, the students come out with a great learning experience, to me it’s more about using design to help make a social impact. That is part of what makes this so exciting” says Li.
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