The basics of design research:
supporting student projects in industry

Axel Thallemer, Abteilung KC-CI Corporate Design
Festo AG & Co. KG

The word ‘design’ tends to conjure images of beautiful, stylish things. But for our company, Festo, design education starts with the so-called ‘non-sexy’ objects. Because it is by focusing on functional objects (in our case, filter regulators and oilers), that design students develop the communicative tools that will enable them to converse freely with engineers and scientists — the people with whom they will have to collaborate on a daily basis in the future.

It is only when students have learned such fundamentals that we embark on our research studies. And because research is important to us, we believe that students should be able to focus wholly on a project. And so we provide them with extra funding, avoiding the need for them to find part-time employment that is not related to a design environment.

Combining research methods
Our research focuses heavily on computer use — not because we want our design students to fake things but because computers now provide opportunity for powerful simulation. When students have mastered the software basics, we involve them in valid research topics. The emphasis tends to be on areas that people have so far overlooked, creating strategies and setting up design clinics so that students are free to make their own discoveries and form their own viewpoints. We also let students oversee our product lines, so that we have an alternative to the professional viewpoint. They are encouraged to become involved in rapid prototyping. In short, our students have a lot to learn, whether it is getting to grips with computer technology, machinery or tool making.
It would be impossible for universities to fund this level of education, or to offer state-of-the-art equipment, so our corporation provides it for free. We then work in tandem with universities in training students, with the aim of achieving the desired goals of both parties. The result is that when students finally move into the employment arena, they are trained to an extent that could not have been achieved via education alone. And, when it comes to student participation in ongoing production research, we let them work on an idea, such as a new hand tool, and allow them take it to a certain point before encouraging them to collaborate with our studio team and other professionals.

Sources of knowledge
Our research process, then, is always inter-disciplinary, and our design teams boast a mix of designers, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, plus students from those disciplines, too. For instance, we might bring together textile designers to advise on new materials in weaving, and then chemists to look at coating materials and techniques. Students are also prompted to look to nature for inspiration, because nature solved the answer to certain problems hundreds of millions of years ago.
This combination of application and industry allows scope for the development of avant-garde or directional ideas — projects that are unlikely to be financed through normal industrial approaches because companies are often unprepared to spend money on something that they can’t actually see. Allowing students to do that kind of research, however, builds on their skills for the future, imbuing them with unique knowledge. And this knowledge amounts to an excellent qualification when it comes to looking for employment later on. Many of our students who worked on directional projects for a diploma or doctoral thesis, for instance, are now working in major corporations throughout Europe and the United States. There is also emphasis on those students who are interested in material development.
Mathematical issues — such as the wrapping of a 3-D object, for instance — are not dealt with only by engineers but by designers who are interested in stretching their boundaries, too. It is this blurring of boundaries that allows the designer to break free of just being concerned with surface styling or beautification issues only. And it is worth pointing out that it is not only designers who benefit from this system. Other students, in biology, say, have also been known to qualify with a design degree, while design students have ended up as trained biologists.
And because young people often have difficulty pinning down exactly what it is that they want to do, this system gives them freedom to allow for positive deviation so that they can adjust themselves according to what it is they are really interested in.

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Design Management
VIZO Workshop

“Design makes the Difference”
Brussels, Belgium - 29/30 November 2002

  • Axel Thallemer, Festo AG & Co. KG
    The basics of design research:
    supporting student projects in industry
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