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A Very Metaproject

RIT students collaborate with Herman Miller to create designs to enhance collaboration.

In Greek the prefix meta means “after” or “beyond.” In English, meta has a far more esoteric meaning—one concept, abstracted from another, that completes or enhances the original. Both have relevance to the philosophy behind Metaproject, a semester-long industrial design course offered by the Rochester Institute of Technology in cooperation with the Vignelli Center for Design Studies.

Metaproject helps students learn a problem-solving approach to design by giving them the opportunity to execute on a project brief. This year, Herman Miller issued a brief asking students to create designs that enhance interactions between people, tools, or technology in the workplace. A group from Herman Miller’s design exploration team—Daniel Rucker, Tony Rotman, Chris Hoyt, and Gary Smith—provided guidance throughout the course.

“Without such depth of insight from an industry partner, student output could be restrictive and too tightly programmed,” says Josh Owen, Metaproject founder and Professor and Chair of Industrial Design at RIT. “Herman Miller represents a kind of penultimate partnership. The rich history of Herman Miller’s involvement with designers… is a perfect fit for an educational challenge in an institution which values innovation by design.”

During the first half of the course, students learned about the history, theory, and practice of product design through the lens of Herman Miller’s problem-solving, human-centered approach to design. Then, with guidance from Owen and the Herman Miller team, students worked through the process of bringing a product to life, from ideation to execution.

Personal Space Bar by Kat Given. This dual-component workspace offers a standing-height counter and a quiet place to retreat for more focused work (or potentially a nap). A multi-functional, moveable cushion supports a variety of postures and can be used for guest seating away from the desk. Relationship Focus: Human-to-Tools Personal Space Bar by Kat Given
This dual-component workspace offers a standing-height counter and a quiet place to retreat for more focused work (or potentially a nap). A multi-functional, moveable cushion supports a variety of postures and can be used for guest seating away from the desk. Relationship Focus: Human-to-Tools
Snack Station by Tony Han. Designed as focal point, the tri-tiered Snack Station is a place where people can comfortably gather while sharing refreshments. Relationship Focus: Face-to-Face Snack Station by Tony Han
Designed as focal point, the tri-tiered Snack Station is a place where people can comfortably gather while sharing refreshments. Relationship Focus: Face-to-Face

“What really struck me about the brief was that it was an opportunity for collaboration,” says senior industrial design student Alexander Bennett. “Throughout my time at RIT, collabroation was a guiding force behind all of my projects. This inspired me to try to say ‘collaboration’ in an object.”

Bennett was interested in encouraging the sort of spontaneous interaction that drives creativity in the workplace. His solution—a chair that splits in half and offers two people places to comfortably perch while sharing a screen—was the result of a highly iterative process. To get to a place where the chair was both comfortable and structurally sound, Bennett built cardboard mock-ups, crafted full-scale prototypes out of wood, and made further refinements in CAD.

The design’s success lay in this process of refinement. “When I was pitching the idea for my design, it was really Dan Rucker and the rest of the team who allowed me to feel comfortable in constraining the solution a bit and really defining where it would have an appropriate use,” says Bennett. “They really helped me define the use case so I wouldn’t try to solve all the problems but solve one problem really well.”

Social Furniture System by Richard Luo. Seating, storage, and work surface in one, the Social Furniture System enables a casual setting where people can socialize or informally share ideas. The pie-shaped blocks can be stacked or rearranged to suit the needs of the people using the space. Relationship Focus: Face-to-Face Social Furniture System by Richard Luo
Seating, storage, and work surface in one, the Social Furniture System enables a casual setting where people can socialize or informally share ideas. The pie-shaped blocks can be stacked or rearranged to suit the needs of the people using the space. Relationship Focus: Face-to-Face
Discretion Barrier by Gino Santaguida. The Discretion Barrier solves a problem common in many office environments—disruption by people talking on the phone. The simple design provides enough of a physical and acoustic barrier to offer privacy without isolation. The frame enables an additional layer of privacy with added functionality as a coatrack.  Relationship Focus: Digitally Mediated Discretion Barrier by Gino Santaguida
The Discretion Barrier solves a problem common in many office environments—disruption by people talking on the phone. The simple design provides enough of a physical and acoustic barrier to offer privacy without isolation. The frame enables an additional layer of privacy with added functionality as a coatrack. Relationship Focus: Digitally Mediated

After completing their projects, the students’ designs were juried by the Herman Miller team, who appraised the work on craft and performance, aesthetics and implementation of concept, and the relevance of the project to the initial brief. According to Rucker, Bennett’s design was exactly what the panel was hoping for.

“When we speak about building and enhancing relationships, we can't overlook how sensitive and empathetic the design must be—and the winning design was no exception,” says Rucker. “Sharing your personal technology with another individual is often addressed through software and display technologies. We typically default to the belief that amplifying the experience is always ideal rather than allowing it to remain intimate. In a sense, this chair exists as a counterpoint.” 

Bennett’s project, along with the work of seven runners-up, was produced by Herman Miller and then displayed at a showcase at RIT and at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair during Design Week in New York. “ICFF was the first time we got to see our finished designs,” says Bennett.  “It was almost surreal—a unique opportunity to share a design with the world.”

Alex was one of the few students in the class who addressed digitally mediated relationships in a truly novel and brave way. His approach was novel because it added the computer as a third party in a triangular conversation between two individuals in the workplace. His approach was brave because he took on the biggest challenge from a company famous for chairs.

Josh Owen, Metaproject Founder and Professor and Chair of Industrial Design at RIT

Invitation Chair by Alexander Bennett. The Invitation Chair shifts from a comfortable seat for one to a perch for two co-workers viewing a digital device. Relationship Focus: Digitally Mediated Invitation Chair by Alexander Bennett
The Invitation Chair shifts from a comfortable seat for one to a perch for two co-workers viewing a digital device. Relationship Focus: Digitally Mediated

“Courses like Metaproject are both valuable and important for students of design because they provide a depth of experience that cannot be replicated in their early careers in the field,” says Owen. “To be treated as independent designers while being guided by faculty mentorship in tandem with leaders in the industry is kind of a guided tour through an experience that many designers never receive.”

As for Bennett, who’s off to intern with Microsoft for the summer, participation in Metaproject was the fufillment of an aspiration he held since his freshman year at RIT. More importanly, Metaproject allowed Bennett and his fellow students to learn an approach to design held sacred by both Herman Miller and RIT’s Vignelli Center for Design Studies. “Metaproject is not really focused on one specific industry like furniture or cars or footwear,” say Bennett. “It’s more finding what enables you to solve really interesting problems.  That’s what Herman Miller’s brief was—an interesting problem to solve, and my solution just happened to be a chair.”

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