Breeding creativity

(Edmonton)  As students in the University of Alberta’s industrial design program continue to win one international award after another, they do so having been nurtured on an idea that is quite uncommon at a university.

“We know that if you’re not prepared to fail, you never be creative,” said Robert Lederer, industrial design professor who heads the program. “We encourage students to fail, so they’re able to explore. If they fail in doing so, that’s not such a bad thing. Students are encouraged to experiment.”

The program’s unconventional approach has helped produce a tradition of successes. Industrial design students have gone on to win top prizes at some of the world’s most prestigious design competitions.  One of them, Laila Steen, says she left her native Norway for the U of A after having learned about the program’s approach to design.

In February, Steen won best student design at the Interior Design Show, Canada’s largest contemporary design fair. She credits that success to another unusual approach, which she says corrects a misconceived dichotomy between industrial design and art.

“The common thought is that industrial design and art are quite different, but in this program we have opportunities to do a lot of things by hand and get to know the craft process in design. A lot of universities don’t focus so much on students getting the opportunity to do things by hand.”

Lederer says theprogram is designed to put a premium on getting students to explore materials and processes from a wide variety of perspectives. “This is not typical in other design schools,” he adds. 

As part of his award for winning in the category of fan favourite in Avenue magazine’s annual design competition, industrial design student Rob Faulkner gets an all-expense-paid trip to New York to exhibit his design—a multifunction table—at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, the second largest furniture show in the world. The judges told him his table represents a fine balance between form and function. Faulkner says his eyes were not set on designing furniture until the former mechanical engineering student experienced the structure of the program. 

“I never knew that designing furniture was something I’d enjoy, but after the first class I realized that I enjoy it, he says. “In engineering, there’s a disconnect wherein you’re the one doing the designing, but the project is created elsewhere. Here, I could be designing upstairs and then go downstairs to the shop to build a prototype.”

Lederer says until students put a piece of material through a process�even just cutting it�the knowledge they gain from that is imperative if they’re going to become good designers. “It teaches students a language to speak with the people who’re at the professional production side of things. We’re one of the few programs that allow that blend between design and production.”

Understanding that blend is partly responsible for the success of Erin Cochran, who started collecting sneakers and basketball shows in high school. That passion, which was nurtured at the U of A, helped her engage some of the world’s premier footwear designers.

“I was always very interested in doing footwear, and that’s why I decided to pursue industrial design. But what I loved about the program is that it opened me up to other areas that I love, such as medical design,” said Cochran.

Coincidently, that medical design work, some of which had to do with facial reconstruction done at the Misericordia Hospital, led directly to a meeting with representatives from Nike who thought Cochran’s ideas might bring a different dynamic to sportswear.

“The people at Nike were amazed with what we do here,” said Cochran, who was subsequently hired by the shoe giant. 

The diversity of designs from the program can be seen at an ongoing design show�Sweat of our Brow�put on by the Student Design Association currently at Enterprise Square Atrium.  “If I ask you what Danish design is like, you have a picture it in your head, and the same for Italian design,” said Lederer. “And if I ask what Canadian design is like, you’d have no clue. This show is what that’s about.  It’s not Danish, it’s not Italian, it’s Canadian,” says Lederer.

“We’re here to facilitate students’ passions. And by allowing students to pursue their passions, they learn more, and they leave the program with a stronger sense of design. They can utilize design to further their own passions in the direction they want to go.”