A Very Metaproject
RIT students collaborate with Herman Miller to create designs to enhance collaboration.
Written by: Mindy Koschmann
Artwork by: Nathaniel Russell
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 are relevant to the philosophy behind Metaproject, an industrial design course lasting one term 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 learnt about the history, theory and practice of product design through the lens of Herman Miller’s problem-solving, human-centred 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.
“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, collaboration 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 reach 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 to define the use case, so that I wouldn’t try to solve all the problems but simply solve one problem really well.”
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 New York Design Week. “The ICFF was the first time we saw 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
“Courses such as 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 mentors in tandem with industry leaders is like a guided tour through an experience that many designers never receive.”
For Bennett, who’s off to intern with Microsoft for the summer, participation in Metaproject was the fulfilment of an aspiration he had held since his first year at RIT. More importantly, 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 such as furniture, cars or footwear,” says Bennett. “It’s more about 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.”