Celebrating a semester of design innovation

On a Thursday afternoon in December, the top floor of Jacobs Hall was buzzing with the sounds of new creations. In one corner, students got their groove on as they demonstrated a prototype built for freestyle dancing. Nearby, a student-made device scanned items of all kinds and announced which waste bin — compost, landfill, and so on — was best for each item. Across the room, a music machine built with a laser-cutter could be heard producing its signature song, “Ode to Joy.”

For two December days, the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation welcomed guests to the Jacobs Winter Design Showcase, an open house highlighting projects from ten of the first-ever courses held in Jacobs Hall. Roughly 1300 students had taken courses in the building — opened earlier this fall as a hub for design innovation on UC Berkeley’s campus — in its first semester. The end-of-semester showcase, which featured dozens of projects spanning disciplines, offered a wide-ranging look at design innovation in Jacobs Hall’s flexible spaces for learning and making.

Courses displaying projects at the showcase ranged from entry-level design courses to capstone and advanced project-based classes. Among the entry-level sampling were two courses, Introduction to Design Methodology and Introduction to Prototyping and Fabrication, that helped compose the inaugural offering of the Jacobs Institute’s design innovation suite. The suite, launched with the opening of Jacobs Hall, is focused on broadly applicable design skills and provides lower-division students with entry points to the world of design.

Jennifer Chen designed and fabricated this spirograph drawing machine.

Jennifer Chen, a second-year business & computer science student, took Introduction to Prototyping and Fabrication, which focused on the basics of techniques like circuits, 3D modeling, and laser-cutting, this semester. For her, the course was a departure from previous experiences. The class was “completely new, completely different from anything I had done,” said Chen as she showed off a spirograph drawing machine she had designed. The machine combined gears and motors with a structure fabricated from laser-cut and 3d-printed parts. A gear in the center of the machine held the drawing utensil as it rotated to draw complex geometric designs. Pointing out that the course provided a unique opportunity to put theories to the test and apply concepts in real time — spirographs, for example, are an application of mathematical theory — she added, “It was great to be able to practice thinking out of the box and solving problems.”

The design innovation suite also introduced students to the iterative design process and the challenges of problem-finding and problem-solving. Students in Introduction to Design Methodology, for example, studied the product development cycle and took on the challenge of prototyping designs that could be used in the context of a social or professional mixer event. One group identified a need for solutions to mixer attendees’ hesitance to start conversations with each other. With this in mind, the team started work on a prototype they called Interbox. Interbox is a locked box, with a prize inside, that requires two people to unlock it — a natural icebreaker in a mixer setting.

As they demonstrated Interbox at the showcase, the team explained that it had gone through many iterations. When they took an early prototype to an actual mixer, for example, the feedback they heard from users surprised them: the prototype was too big to comfortably hold in one’s hand while mingling. Team Interbox took this feedback and continued to iterate, gaining experience with design methods and processes along the way.

A sample prototype from CE 186 (Design of Cyber-Physical Systems).

Elsewhere in the building, student makers from more advanced courses demonstrated sophisticated applications of these methods across a broad range of fields. Jacobs Hall’s flexible spaces played host to design-oriented courses from nine different campus departments in the fall semester. In project-based classes on topics ranging from medical solutions to civil engineering, students linked disciplinary knowledge with a new base of design skills in tackling real-world problems. “We started with the drought,” explained Anshu Maskara, a student in Design of Cyber-Physical Systems, in describing how her group began to conceptualize their project, an Arduino-powered aeroponics garden system called Garduino. Her teammate Anthony Salguero added, “We thought, ‘What problems can we tackle that are relevant?’”

Maskara and Salguero explained that in designing and prototyping Garduino, which could potentially help reduce agricultural water use in California, they took on techniques they had no experience with — including working with microcontrollers like Arduino. As they learned, the group drew from a range of disciplines and from each other’s areas of expertise, an experience both Maskara and Salguero described as uniquely satisfying. “In majors such as civil engineering, we can be limited…in Jacobs, we can design our own system and make it,” Maskara said. Noting the value of working in proximity to students from other fields at Jacobs Hall, she added, “[Design of Cyber-Physical Systems] is probably one of the best classes I’ve taken at Berkeley.”

Upstairs from the table where Garduino was set up, upper-division students from one of these other fields — computer science — displayed a dizzying range of smartwatch apps they had conceptualized, designed, and made as part of this semester’s User Interface Design course. Outputs of a process that had started with a massive brainstorm that covered Jacobs Hall with post-its earlier in the semester, the apps varied wildly in focus and function, with students displaying apps for musicians, first responders, athletes and the many more user groups that teams had interviewed and researched as part of their design processes.

Kelly Shen, part of a team that had built an app for young professionals looking to build friendships and connections post-college, noted that going through this process had helped her make connections between granular concepts and the bigger picture. “The second you go out and talk to people, you learn so much more,” she said as she explained how her group’s app had gone through numerous iterations based on feedback from target users — the team adjusted specific features when users told them the experience felt too much like a dating app, for instance. For Shen, much of the course’s value had lied in learning to embed these understandings into overall processes, bringing together many components to build a functioning whole.

From newfound user interface designers to creators of artistic interventions and novel smart products, students throughout the showcase were eager to share the skills they had learned. For many, the semester had been one of their first forays into digital fabrication. “I don’t think any of us…thought we were capable of executing this kind of technology,” said Serena Chang, a student in Critical Practices. Her team, which had collectively entered the course with little hands-on making experience, had built a “freestyle experience” called GrooveCube. Designed for freestyle dancing, GrooveCube uses a Raspberry Pi microcomputer to call a python script that plays music and records the user’s dancing. When friends pass the cube around, they end up with a compilation YouTube video that creates a virtual “dance circle.”

Across the room from GrooveCube’s display, Kevin Lee, a student in Interactive Device Design, demonstrated a device designed for footwork in another sense. He and his team had created Therasole, an in-shoe smart product for injury prevention and physical therapy. In working on the project, Lee had found himself working with equipment he had previously known little about. He noted, “Before you know what [a given fabrication technique] is, it’s very opaque.” For him, the course, which interwove topics from 3D modeling and circuit board design to embedded software development and user interface programming, provided a means of de-mystifying the process of making something tangible.

As the showcase wound down, students began to pack up their posters and prototypes. For many students, however, this felt more like a beginning than an end. Several mentioned plans to keep working on their projects, based in part on feedback they’d received at the showcase that day. Others talked about their newfound familiarity with equipment in Jacobs Hall, imagining what they might make next. For Jerry Cortez, a student in Introduction to Design Methodology, his experience with design techniques had been empowering. As he stood in front of his group’s project display, he remarked, “I can’t wait to go up to someone and say, ‘look what I made. I can do this.’”

By Laura Mitchell