For ten weeks, seniors in the University of Washington’s Advanced Industrial Design: Professional Practice course mulled over things like materials, functionality, and empathy. Their challenge was to create workspace furniture—everything from stools and accessories to informal meeting tables with integrated power—that would follow a complete design process, from an initial sketch to a finished prototype. The pieces also needed to adhere to core design philosophies of the Seattle-based furniture manufacturer Hightower, which partnered with UW on this project and provided students with mentorship, business expertise throughout the process, and the possibility of manufacturing their product and adding it to the company’s portfolio.
“The students spent a lot of time reviewing our collection and identifying gaps,” says Natalie Hartkopf, cofounder and CEO of family-owned Hightower. “Our products are multifunctional, with an element of simplicity while also being thoughtful. We work a lot with mixed materials, so we challenged them to think about what next-generation materials might be.”
Class instructor and industrial designer Michael Kritzer, as well as Justin Champaign, founder and principal at San Francisco’s Most Modest Studio, provided ample critique and feedback, emphasizing issues including understanding organizational psychology, empathy in the workplace, and what employees need to do their best work. “Michael is very passionate about empathy for the end user, so we worked with them to make sure they’ve been thoughtful on why this design is needed, how the user will interact with the product, and what need it solves,” Hartkopf says. Hightower’s marketing director, Jessica Ahlering, evaluated the students’ storytelling, presentation styles, and market fit, while Hartkopf focused more on a product’s manufacturability (i.e. how it’s assembled and if it can be manufactured without being too complex).
After narrowing down the selection from 19 total products to eight, the remaining student teams presented their furniture concepts to a panel of design experts: GRAY’s senior editor Rachel Gallaher; SkB Architects founding partner, Kyle Gaffney; Objekts founder, Doug McKenzie; and Amanda Wilson, manager of workplace design at Amazon. “The panel provided a diverse perspective with a variety of viewpoints, which is what it’s like when you’re working with clients,” Hartkopf says. Judges analyzed the concepts, considering each piece for its uniqueness, its functionality, overall design aesthetic, market fit, and, of course, user empathy. The winning team joins Hightower at the mega commercial design trade show NeoCon in Chicago this June, and has the possibility of having their product added to Hightower’s portfolio.
The winner: Groove, an open, square-shaped wood ottoman with grooves cut into its sides by Perry Burke and Audrey Levy. The low seating option offers a comfortable rocking motion for users who have issues sitting still for long spells of time. Its functionality includes storage for a laptop or books and it can be used as a footrest.
“Getting critical feedback at this stage, when it’s very low-risk, is important,” Hartkopf says. “The students are learning to understand their clients’ perspective, and realizing that a concept isn’t always going to resonate. Our conversations with them about empathy, and all the layers of the industry, are essential for any product designer.”