The Industry by Design

Form and function combine in usable art.

By Janalee Card Chmel

Publish Date: September 4, 2013

Few people can actually define what an industrial designer does, but everyone has experienced industrial design.

From the shoes you wear, to the patio chairs where you sit, to the car you drive, you are the beneficiary of an industrial designer’s craft.

MSU Denver has one of the largest Industrial Design programs in the country with approximately 300 students. Furniture design is one of the program’s most popular areas of emphasis.

“So much of furniture design comes down to ergonomics,” says Ken Phillips (B.S. industrial education ’83), chair of the Industrial Design Department in MSU Denver’s School of Professional Studies. “It is not easy to make a chair that’s comfortable. We’ve got some devices in our labs that allow quick mock-ups of height, back position and other aspects, but there is a stage at which you will have to do a mock-up that people can sit in. Then, you have to do focus group research to find out what works.”

After all of that, says Phillips, there are the business considerations, such as manufacturability, ease of shipping and pricing.

To encourage healthy competition and creative problem solving among furniture design students, the department runs several contests. Bill King (B.S. ’12) won the public furniture competition in 2012. That competition challenges students to design a public bench that the winner then loans to the University for two years. The benches can be seen in the Student Success Building and plaza.

“I learned a lot about production in that class,” King says. “The concept had to be driven by the idea that the bench must be mass produced so that it could be on campuses all over the country. The bench I designed is made entirely of repeating parts. It’s one piece that’s mirrored 50 different ways.”

King says he chose MSU Denver’s program because of the wood, metals and plastics labs where students receive hands-on training. The labs include a laser cutter, plasma cutter, three-axis router, mill and a 3D printer. Several of these machines include computers and software to help guide the work.

There also are sewing machines because Phillips says that students who want to work with textiles, such as those who seek careers as outdoor gear designers, must understand the sewing process.

As Phillips puts it, “We are extremely well tooled-up for an industrial design program.”

With a strong emphasis on producing students who are career-ready, complete with professional portfolios at the time of graduation, Phillips says the program’s alumni have been able to find jobs and even launch their own businesses in an industry that seems to get hotter every year.

“It’s all about creative problem-solving, answering real-world problems through a creative design process,” says Phillips. “Industrial design enables creative students to follow their heart but also pursue a profession with lots of career potential."