Changing The Design Mindset
By Alyssa Schoeneman, AEL Intern
Quick, picture the one thing that you interact with most on any given day. Got something? Good. Now think about your interactions with that object. Do you ever find yourself getting frustrated with certain features; wishing that the product was designed a little less with the layperson in mind and a little more in consideration of your extreme usage? Welcome to Deana McDonagh’s world.
Industrial Design Professor and AEL Faculty Fellow McDonagh is deeply invested in rethinking product and service design. She considers extreme users who are underrepresented – people with disabilities and people with above- average product usage, for example – in her research and practice.
“Instead of supporting this notion of the ideal user – which doesn’t exist – we are instead looking at real people with real needs,” McDonagh says. “We then begin to develop products that are usable by that population.”
McDonagh’s new class, development of which was funded by the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership, looks at alternative ways of pursuing tasks and at how the design field can learn from users with disabilities, who may complete tasks and interact with the material landscape differently than the typical user. This allows designers to alter the ways in which future products are made. As well, students are asked to think more fully about entrepreneurial aspects – identifying a market for their newly conceived product (often beyond the specific disabled users first considered), and creating a strategy to pursue it.
“The inspiration for this course was twofold – first it was the Industrial Design students, who have a thirst and drive to enhance the quality of life for all,” McDonagh explains. “Secondly, it was the fact that we have such a rich, vibrant community of people on campus who are registered with the Illinois Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services…physically they might be registered as having a disability but there is a lot that we can learn from them.”
McDonagh aims to encourage her students to recognize, pursue and seize opportunities in the design field. By doing so, she hopes to lessen their fear of failure.
“We’re in a culture that doesn’t embrace failure,” McDonagh notes. “I try to teach my students to deal with early failure so they can learn from it, grow and better themselves…the students are learning life lessons in this class.”
Students say that they are being pushed to think in new, innovative ways in this product design course. But while such immediate feedback is helpful, the biggest measure of McDonagh’s success will be how this approach to problem solving impacts the students’ professional practice.
“The way we will know if we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve is by observing an overall change in the design mindset,” McDonagh explains. “We are working with the thinkers of the future…if the students are more all-encompassing and if they view the world differently in the future, I will know I have had long-term success... It is all about generating an impact that is sustainable.”
Her students, McDonagh says, are generally looking to do more than sit in a classroom and passively accept knowledge; they are students who want to take charge of their own learning – to be more involved and active learners.
“I urge my students to cultivate all of the skills we work on in class – innovation, confidence to embrace failure – and to learn from the entrepreneurs around them,” McDonagh says. “There is a
saying, ‘You know you are getting old when regrets replace dreams.’ I think you find that entrepreneurs generally have few regrets.”
McDonagh considers her teaching to be inherently entrepreneurial.
“In the long term the most impactful thing I’ve done is to inspire students (future designers) to look at the world with eyes wide open…to put aside their bias and assumptions,” she observes. “I have also encouraged those individuals who would not necessarily be otherwise impactful (people with disabilities or female users) to have a voice and I have allowed the design field to become more accessible to them.”
As one of three co-chairs of the Academy’s Faculty Fellows, McDonagh is highly involved in the Academy events and decision-making.
“Now I am involved behind the scenes – working out who we can fund and how we can fund them. I love that I can now enable faculty to get the funds that they need,” she says. “Having the AEL’s support enables faculty and gives them that little bit of additional encouragement to go the extra mile.”
It is obvious that McDonagh is a fan of the Academy.
“The Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership is sowing the seeds that anything is possible in the classroom,” she says. “We as faculty can all learn so much from educators with different backgrounds – I have learned so much more about myself, and I have been developing and being made aware of so many new ways of teaching.”
But the AEL Faculty Fellows are not the only ones who benefit from its funding and support.
“The main goal of all of the Faculty Fellows is to help to shape really great students before they graduate from our programs; we strive to facilitate our students to become creative, innovative problem solvers who aspire to change the world,” McDonagh asserts.
Sounds like the apples won’t be falling far from the trees.
Entrepreneurial courses taught by Professor McDonagh
Disability + Relevant Design: Lecture course
The lecture course will be delivered prior to the D+RD. This course rings diverse students together to generate innovative design solutions to everyday tasks and
activities, with a particular emphasis on target users with different life experiences (students with
disabilities). An interdisciplinary team (industrial design (McDonagh), engineers (Bretl and
Coleman) and Visualizer (Haczmarski) has been created that will support and facilitate the lecture
series. The main goals are:
- To create interdisciplinary design teams through a lecture course that focuses on enhancing
quality of life through innovation;
- To generate innovative design outcomes and educational student experiences with
- To bring key faculty from across campus from diverse disciplines together to co-teach.
Inventor’s Studio: Designing for the Sexes (in collaboration with Professor Sharra Vostral)
It is clear that environmentalism has had great success in pressing for sustainable design, and most architecture programs have now embedded these tenets so that they are an unquestioned assumption in the design process. However, this is not the case for gender. Products that creatively and insightfully take gender into account can catalyze societal change, and be inspired by entrepreneurial approaches. By addressing how men and women use objects differently, new entrepreneurial avenues can open in design innovations. This course will revolve around designing and re-designing everyday objects to better serve women’s needs. Students will be required to include gender as a design element, and their success in doing so will be assessed and reflected in their project grades. The course will utilize the resources of the Fab Lab. Not only will students create and design a technology, they will be able to fabricate it to create a prototype. The prototype can then be the basis for a marketable product, patent, or business plan.
Visit Course Catalog website for course availability
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About Professor McDonagh
- "Beckman Research Experience Benefits Undergraduates and Labs", Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology (Winter 2010)
- "Deana McDonagh - Human Perception and Performance Group", Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology (Spring 2010)
- "Fellows announced for Community Informatics Institute", Inside Illinois (May 2009)
- "New teaching tools aid visually impaired students in learning math", Inside Illinois (March 2010)
- "Deana McDonagh talks about the ubiquity of industrial design", iFoundry (March 2009)
- "Exhibition highlights students' design efforts to address disability issues", Inside Illinois (May 2008)
- "Design-conference book a must-have for leading U.S. design houses", Inside Illinois (December 2005)
- "Design conference at Illinois focuses on nexus of design,business, technology", Inside Illinois (March 2005)
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