Designing Local

We eat local food, listen to local music, and shop local at boutiques and craft fairs. The local movement reflects our current expectations of transparency and sustainability enabled by small businesses’ access to resources needed to succeed amongst the big brands and the big box shops. How might we take the movement into manufacturing? How might partnerships between small manufactures and retailers develop into a new system for local making?

The design process is rarely a linear path. Navigating the nonlinearity, as well as the ambiguity that often accompanies it, is something every experienced designer must be able to do. In that spirit, IIT Institute of Design (ID) partnered with the non-profit organization DesignHouse. Instead of designing a product and then seeking out a manufacturer, DesignHouse reverses the process. The organization looks into the capabilities of a manufacturer and then ideates around their particular talents. The process is the farm-to-table movement applied to manufacturing and it is a new effort to bring design and manufacturing closer together.

Working with these constraints, professor Marty Thaler’s Product Design Workshop students applied the processes needed to design valuable new products to a local ecosystem. The relationship with the organization and mentoring of Paul Hatch and Susan Estes pushed students to represent real-world problems and provided a variety of perspectives at every step in the design process.

Framing user needs and desires

The exploration began with a look at the current climate of manufacturing in the midwest. In the last two years, there has been a renewal of local production and manufacturing. Businesses are also adopting a social and civic mindset. The Plant in Chicago was founded on a model of closing waste, resource, and energy loops to show what truly sustainable food production and economic development looks like by growing and producing food inside an repurposed industrial building. Shinola in Detroit is making an investment in skill by training a community of workers to focus on excellence of craft creating luxury products made in what has been dubbed a failed city. Businesses are after both economic growth and a sustainable future.

Students created videos showcasing the capabilities of the manufacturers

Students visited local factories and retailers around Chicago to learn more about the materials produced locally they could incorporate into their products. “It’s a little contrary to our normal practice at ID. We are starting with what we could possibly make and sell rather than the user’s needs and desires,” Marty said. The designers turned their focus to two factories in particular: Chicago Protective Apparel, makers of personal protective equipment for industry, and Twisted Traces, a circuit board printer.

To consider what might be made from the materials made in Chicago, the students visited local shops and spoke with their owners. How could the materials produced by local industry be transformed into something relevant to the customers who frequent some of the small shops dotting our city?

Identifying insights

Design Jam at DesignHouse

Half way through the semester, students brought their research to a Design Jam hosted by DesignHouse. The Jam is a co-design workshop that brings together a community of makers, designers, engineers, and marketeers to consider new avenues for local manufacturers. At the event, the students shared two videos they made highlighting the materials produced by Chicago Protective Apparel and Twisted Traces. Hundreds of ideas were generated, but how do you decide what to make?

Transforming insights into design principles

Charles Eames’ stakeholder model defines the space a designer can work with conviction and enthusiasm as a convergence of concern on the part of the designer, client, and society. A new set of principles needed to be developed to address an expanded set of stakeholders: DesignHouse, the manufacturer, retailer, end user, student, and IIT Institute of Design. The students mapped the ideas generated to a terrain model to determine if and where the product would fit into the new ecosystem.

Ahmet Burak Aktas reviewing ideas generated at the Design Jam

Developing prototypes

Despite beginning the research with the manufacturers, the goal is always to make a user-based product. Students began prototyping not just to decide what to make, but to learn what to make. Each student is dozens of iterations deep into their product. They are working directly with the manufacturers to continue testing proof of concept and the capabilities of their materials.

Prototype (and GIF) by Gaurav Bradoo

Over the next semester, the Product Design Workshop students will prioritize solutions informed by user and stakeholder recommendations. Finished products will be developed alongside branding and communication materials to aid in the search for funding for the new line.

IIT Institute of Design is excited to be part of a new paradigm for making in Chicago. Through their work, the students are creating an opportunity space for Chicago Protective Apparel and Twisted Traces to delve into a new market of tech soft goods together.

Special thanks to professor Marty Thaler and his students Ahmet Aktas, Gaurav Bradoo, Will Cwik, Do Hyung Kim, Ian Morrow, Ian O’Donnell, and Shaunali Shenoy for sharing materials and their good work.