DEC Fellows from Smart Design Teach Problem-Focused Design Thinking to DEC Honors Students

When UBC, a pharmaceutical company, released a new medication for Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis, it had a problem. Patients had difficulty manipulating the syringe to inject their medication because of their condition. The company turned to Smart Design to create a better product.

Smart Design is a multidisciplinary consulting company with international clientele. Perhaps best known for their award-winning designs for OXO’s popular “Good Grips” line of household items, Smart Design teamed with OXO again to design and produce a solution to UBC’s problem.

Yvonne Lin and Tara Marchionna, senior researchers at Smart Design, held a workshop for sophomore students in the College of Design, Engineering and Commerce (DEC), presenting on several design challenges Smart Design has faced and giving students an opportunity to practice what they’ve learned through field research. They stressed the Smart Design approach—finding the problem is 90 percent of the way to a solution.

In the UCB case, Smart Design spent time with patients using the medication, documenting the challenges they faced with self-injection. Compiling their research, the company was able to design a new syringe that had a loop on the needle shield to prevent finger pricks and an oversized rubber plunger that allows patients to more easily administer the medication, among other improvements.

The new design was received enthusiastically by patients and awarded the “Ease of Use Commendation” by the Arthritis Foundation. The syringe hadn’t been redesigned in years, but Smart Design’s ability to locate problems with the common medical tool proved to have a lasting positive effect.

Lin and Marchionna visited PhilaU as part of the DEC Fellows program, which invites experts in the fields of design, engineering and business to conduct workshops on campus with faculty and students. The women talked about several of Smart Design’s design challenges, including the UCB case, and how the company uses multiple disciplines to reach award-winning solutions.

“A lot of what we do in the design research world is much broader than the design of objects. It is not something typically taught in a class,” Lin said.  “Our techniques at Smart Design have been honed by professionals coming from all different disciplines. We must be able to look at complex problems for clients in a wide range of fields from Nike to Johnson & Johnson to Procter & Gamble to Ford or Starbucks. For those reasons, I think Philadelphia University’s College of Design, Engineering and Commerce programs are exciting.”

After the lecture, Lin and Marchionna took the students and several DEC professors to 30th Street Station to practice Smart Design’s problem finding approach. The students and faculty were split into three groups and asked to observe a specific subset of the population over a course of a few hours. The groups focused on parents with children, elderly travelers and the maintenance and cleaning crew at the station, respectively.

“The workshop was very valuable, especially with the opportunity to work with faculty as if they were also students,” said Kelly McHugh, a sophomore digital animation student. “It also helped to control your thought process to focus on what is important to the people you observing, rather than on what you would assume they need.”

Coby Unger, a sophomore industrial design student, focused on the needs of the elderly at the station. His group found through observation and interviews that many elderly travelers had trouble walking up and down a steep ramp that descends from the main level of the station to the SEPTA local transportation area. Many people had trouble finding the elevator to use as an alternative and worried that looking for one would cause them to miss their train.

“It was really interesting to look at a problem from a people-based perspective,” Unger said. “That’s one of the things I really liked about their approach. It’s very different from the typical aesthetic or product-based solutions.”

The other groups noticed that parents had trouble keeping their children entertained and that maintenance workers lacked a central place to keep their supplies. “The goal wasn’t to come up with a solution to the problem,” said Claire Reardon, a sophomore mechanical engineering student. “The Smart Design process is to assess the overall situation. You have to look for a need first.”

Reardon said that she is considering a minor in industrial design, and that the DEC workshop helped her think about ways she can bridge the gap between engineering and design.

“Teaching our students about the process of design helps them think holistically about meeting society’s needs,” said Ron Kander, Ph.D., executive dean of the College. “It changes the focus from products to people and helps students in all disciplines to think creatively about solving real problems.”

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