An ecosystem of impact

Jacobs Institute
Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation
9 min readMay 17, 2016


“I just love the human aspect of it,” said Lily Nguyen as she talked about the process behind her team’s “solar box” prototype for an affordable, bacteria-killing lunchbox. Nguyen, an undergraduate student who has taken multiple courses in Jacobs Hall — including User Interface Design, Introduction to New Product Development, and Industrial Design and Human Factors, for which she worked on the solar box project — is no stranger to “being around a bunch of people who build things.” Whether building a physical project or an app, she added, she and her fellow designers tend to ask the same question when thinking about eventual users: “What can we do to make their lives a little bit easier?”

Nguyen and her teammates are not alone. Jacobs Hall was the site of nearly 30 courses this semester, with enrollments totaling roughly 1700. Many of these courses, from an introductory design process class to upper-division offerings in computer science and mechanical engineering, put designing for real-world problems at the center of the syllabus. The Jacobs Spring Design Showcase on May 4 and 5, at which Nguyen — along with students from 16 courses held in the building — presented her project, offered a look at the ways in which an interdisciplinary ecosystem at Berkeley is fostering a focus on design for real impact.

A prototyped frugal cast design from the Industrial Design and Human Factors course.

Over the course of the spring semester, project teams at Jacobs Hall took on a range of complex challenges. Exploring the projects on display in May, some common threads emerged, connecting projects across fields and topics. One such thread was the relationship between design and the body. Through courses like Designing for the Human Body and Industrial Design and Human Factors, students explored elements from color perception to muscle adaptation, prototyping new services and products with these interlocking factors in mind.

Students in Bioinspired Design, a lower-division integrative biology offering taught by Robert Full, went beyond just the human body in their design work: they looked to the whole of the natural world for guidance. For Crystal Lee, an integrative biology student who has worked as a research assistant in Professor Full’s lab, the course offered a novel opportunity to build on research insights. “[The course] applies the principles we use in the lab to real life, and to making awesome products,” she explained.

Along with team members majoring in subjects from computer science to English, Lee prototyped a cast inspired by the bone structure of the seahorse. Seahorses’ tails are highly flexible yet robust, and as the group learned more about how their bony plates slide past each other to relieve stress, they wondered how they might apply this to a useful product for humans. Considering arm injuries requiring immobilization and the discomfort that rigid casts can cause, they had the idea to design a cast with flexible support.

Other students in the course created prototypes like a “self-circulating jacket” inspired by rabbits’ ear anatomy and a maple-seed-inspired device for airdropping humanitarian relief packages. Sydney Le, a statistics student whose team worked on a prototype for consumer product reuse based on the healing process of pangolin scales, noted that the hands-on design element of the course gave him a new method for grappling with complex challenges. Connecting research with a design approach, he explained, enabled him to better understand the constraints and possibilities around a problem like consumer waste. Reflecting on the semester, he added, “It’s been an amazing experience…being around so many people with a mind on, basically, designing the future.”

Bioinspired Design students in class (above) and sample prototypes from the course (below).

Elsewhere in Jacobs Hall, students in User Interface Design, a popular computer science course, approached the links between design and the body from a different angle. Each of the course’s 39 project teams took up the challenge of designing a smartwatch app focused on a health or medical theme. The resulting apps offered services and experiences for users from diners with dietary restrictions to family caregivers.

For Courtney Pasco, the course offered a unique opportunity to apply her skills to creative, real-world problem-solving. “I’m so used to doing projects where they give you the spec,” she said. In a class like User Interface Design, she continued, “you can see the bigger picture.” Pasco’s team created Bee Calm, an app designed to be a customizable, intuitive source of support for people who suffer from panic attacks. The team explained that their process was highly iterative, and that the app’s features — which include a visual breathing-exercise guide and an option to pre-record calming messages from loved ones — were highly informed by interviews with target users.

For most of the team, conducting user interviews was a new experience. One surprise was how much this input — and feedback from classmates — shaped choices like the navigation and even the color scheme. One team member, Ilakya Palanisamy, noted that being able to learn from users and incorporate this into the app’s design had been a rewarding educational experience. She added, “It helped me develop as a person, too.”

User Interface Design students moved from brainstorming to designing and developing original apps focused on health and medical themes.

Moving around the showcase, the role of design in physical and built environments — and in everyday experiences of these environments — emerged as another common thread linking cross-disciplinary projects. One new course, Innovative Sustainable Residential Design, took a novel approach to exploring this intersection by pairing civil engineering students with architecture students in a sustainable design studio. For many of the civil engineering students, this was the first time they had worked alongside architecture students, and vice versa. This posed some challenges: several students described the back-and-forth of trying to balance artistic vision with concerns like viability in an earthquake, for example, and one architecture student, used to working alone, mentioned that working in a team was itself a learning experience for him. Despite these initial challenges, however, students agreed that the collaboration was not only preparation for the “real world” of the workplace, but also became a fun chance to understand different processes and try new things.

“Structural engineering is really all about the skeleton of the system. Architecture is more about the skin,” said Jeremy Edwards, a civil engineering student in the course. Teammate Jeremy Mack added that bringing these two focuses together from the start, rather than keeping them separate until later in the process, prompted “a very different way of thinking about problems.” As Edwards and Mack’s team worked to create a complete concept for a site in Berkeley, simultaneously crafting skeleton and skin, their approach encompassed elements from structural integrity and material responsibility to design for rich community interaction.

Prototypes and models from Innovative Sustainable Residential Design students.

These interconnected elements of design and community underlay conversations for several teams in Jacobs Hall. One such team focused on quality of life in Emeryville’s Vue46, an intergenerational residential community, as part of a course called Navigating the Human Path. The course, one of several Design Innovation courses offered through the Jacobs Institute, was composed of 16 undergraduate students and 15 elder volunteers from communities neighboring Berkeley’s campus. Together, students and volunteers considered how design might better facilitate healthy and meaningful aging in contemporary society.

“It’s very refreshing working with people with a lifetime of experiences,” said Matt Kozuch, a student who worked on the Vue46 project as part of a team that included a Vue46 resident. He noted that the course had reshaped his perception of many elements of his own environment, pointing to a broad range of needs and desires that he might not have thought about before. “[I learned] not to design for an ‘average person,’ but for a whole spectrum of people,” he remarked.

Navigating the Human Path participants applied this focus on designing for a spectrum of people to various systems and environments. Sheila Brown, a community volunteer, was part of a team that worked on designing more accessible guides and resources for users of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). “So many people can’t access this wonderful thing called public transit,” she said. “It’s intimidating, not just for older people but for all of us.” Her team worked to prototype an accessible, user-centered resource for essential information like station-specific wayfinding. She found that the diversity of perspectives on her team, which brought together people with different backgrounds in addition to being intergenerational, helped shape their ideas and solutions. “Everyone had a chance to have input,” she explained. “The students were incredible. They understood what we said, and we understood them.”

A small sampling of student work from the spring semester.

Brown’s observation seemed to apply to many of the diverse teams at Jacobs Hall. Several groups pointed out the importance of learning from each other as they took on complex challenges. In Introduction to New Product Development, for example, teams brought together wide-ranging bases of knowledge and experience as they designed for global and local contexts — from developing solutions for water transportation in global development settings to prototyping tools for public engagement with solar power in Jacobs Hall itself. In another course, Critical Making, students from across campus created “new wearables” exploring social and cultural themes. Student Corten Singer found design and fabrication processes — his team realized their ideas with “flora boards, a few wires, and a lot of sewing” — uniquely useful in bringing together views and concepts. Critical Making “puts you with students from all different disciplines and lets you design something that uses all of those disciplines in one thing,” he observed.

From bioinspired casts to residential plans, students from across campus applied their ideas to a broad range of real-world problems this spring. For freshman Claire Lee, who was new to design when she enrolled in this semester’s Introduction to Design Process course, the potential to use design to make an impact on the world was invigorating. Listing the design courses she hopes to take next year with a fellow student at the spring showcase, she mentioned that her instructor had jokingly told her class about one downside of studying design: they’d start seeing design, and room for improved design, everywhere. “He called it the designer’s curse,” she said, “but I’d call it a designer’s blessing. [With design,] you can think about so many things in the world you can improve.”

By Laura Mitchell