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Intelligent design

Student Adam Fiala designs products that make life better. He shared his best ideas at an April 2 conference.

April 5, 2016

Senior Adam Fiala works on an original backpack design, one of several products he presented at the Industrial Designers Society of America 2016 West District Design Conference on April 2. PHOTO: Sara Hertwig
Senior Adam Fiala works on an original backpack design, one of several products he presented at the Industrial Designers Society of America 2016 West District Design Conference on April 2. PHOTO: Sara Hertwig

Adam Fiala’s moment has arrived. He stands at the front of a packed auditorium in MSU Denver’s Science Building. Every eye in the place is focused on him.

He is there to present his work to nearly 100 industrial design students, faculty and industry members from across the western United States as part of the Industrial Designers Society of America 2016 West District Design Conference.

He’s been preparing for this moment for the last two weeks, since he was declared MSU Denver’s Student Merit Award winner and learned he would represent the University at the regional conference. But in a way, he’s been preparing for this moment since he decided to become an industrial designer in high school.

Today, he gets to share the culmination of his work so far. And not only that, he gets to be measured against the work of his peers, the best and brightest from the district’s universities. By the end of the day, one of 14 students will be named district champion.

Fiala hopes it will be him.

He takes a deep breath and launches into his presentation.

The road to here

Like many of us, Fiala discovered his vocation when he wasn’t really looking.

In his senior year of high school, Fiala confesses, he was trying to avoid the “serious subjects” by signing up for classes in wood shop, drawing and ceramics. But then something unexpected happened.

“I found I really enjoyed working with my hands,” he recalled. “And at the same time, a close friend of our family was studying industrial design at MSU Denver. He showed me some of the products he was making. Before that, I didn’t even know people could do this for a living.”

Following in the footsteps of that family friend, Fiala enrolled in the Department of Industrial Design at MSU Denver. He took a marketing minor to complement his degree and never looked back.

Fiala describes himself as a “late bloomer as far as becoming a good designer.”

“I’m not the most naturally gifted artist or designer, but I’ve worked really hard at it and surrounded myself with smart people and the right tools. I’ve put in the time to get better.”

The hard work paid off this semester, his last before graduation in May, when he submitted his portfolio to the department for the IDSA Student Merit Award. He was selected as one of three finalists and got to present his work to a panel of industry professionals, as well as his peers and faculty.  

When he won the award, becoming MSU Denver’s representative at the regional conference, Fiala celebrated briefly that evening, before getting back to work the next morning. He began to refine his products and presentation based on feedback from the panel.

“I’m motivated even more now because I’m representing more than just myself,” he said. “I’m representing all the other students who put in so much work and so many hours. I want to show the other schools what MSU Denver is all about and the kind of quality work that’s happening here.”  

Nailed it

Fiala is a natural at the podium. His demeanor is confident, his delivery smooth. He is in full command of his presentation, and his passion can’t help but come through in each word.

For a young man who grew up in Monument, Colorado, Fiala’s products have a “do-what-you-know” vibe, reflecting the state’s active lifestyle and culture. He first pitches a shoe designed for snow skating then shares a kit he has created with urban commuters in mind, which includes a bike and handlebars, plus a slick, but not showy backpack.

As Fiala moves from slide to slide, the judges, scattered throughout the crowd, watch intently. They quietly scribble notes, nodding occasionally. One of the most exciting things about this opportunity, according to Fiala, is that he will receive feedback on his work, both from peers and industry professionals. He can use that feedback to fine tune his process, and become a better designer, which is his ultimate goal.

Of course, there is also a possibility that the right person takes an interest in his work. And that could open unforeseen doors. But if Fiala feels any pressure at all about any of that, you wouldn’t know it. He seems to be in his element.

The presentation culminates less than 10 minutes later with Fiala sharing the physical prototype of his bike with the audience. His work is met with warm applause plus a few hoots and whistles mixed in.

Afterwards, Fiala slips back into the throng, content to let someone else take the stage. He’ll have to wait several hours to see how he fared, but in the meantime, he’ll get to know the work of his peers, network and hear talks from several well-known professionals.

Among the speakers at the April 1-2 conference are Michael Paterson, senior industrial designer with GoPro; Mike Neustedter, executive director of Paradox Sports; and Lisa Abendroth, professor of communication design at MSU Denver, all of whom will speak to the conference’s unique theme – empathy-driven solutions.

The road ahead

The wait is finally over. At 5 p.m., an IDSA representative takes to the podium to announce the name of the Student Merit Award district champion.

It’s not the name Fiala hoped to hear. But as he commented later by text, he felt the quality of his work was validated at the conference.

“Everyone’s work was so good,” he said, “and I felt right up there with them.”  

Next up? Fiala will do what he always does – get back to work.

He has goals after all. Big goals.

“I want to work for a company that is really solving problems,” he said. “That is what design is all about. Not just making cool stuff, but solving problems that help improve people’s lives and experiences.”