Interdisciplinary Design Conference: Creating empathy through design


Last year as a sophomore in Mechanical Engineering, I liked what I was learning in class, but I also felt like there was a whole part of me that I was ignoring. I was learning some of the tools for design, but not seeing the impact of my work. Because of this, I joined optiMize, a Social Innovation organization. Through optiMize I co-founded ADAPT, a design company creating beautiful products for people with health challenges. My team – made up of students from Engineering, Art and Design, LSA, and Ross – saw a huge disparity between how healthcare products are designed and how they are actually used. We wanted to use design to enact social change in this space, and ultimately fell into entrepreneurship as an avenue to make the most of our efforts.

I knew that my life-changing experience founding ADAPT did not have to be unique. Everybody comes into college with energy, passion, and drive. What happens along the way that allows students to stray from their passion? Why isn’t everybody constantly working on projects that they are personally invested in; projects that can impact real people’s lives? I saw that students, including myself, didn’t have the systematic support to bring their own interests into their schoolwork. That’s where I got the idea for an Interdisciplinary Design Conference. The idea was to bring together students from Engineering, Art and Design, and Architecture to learn about socially engaged design via the lens of disability design. Innovate Blue sponsored the event as a way to support entrepreneurial design while Mechanical Engineering sponsored all of the prototyping materials.

What happened at the conference?


Mike Harris, Director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), opened the conference with a talk on the importance of designing for everyone, not just able-bodied people. As Mike says, “Disability doesn’t discriminate.” Disability can affect anyone, regardless of race, gender, wealth, or geographic location.

Then Vic Strecher, professor in the School of Public Health and author of On Purpose, gave us all a mission for the day. Vic’s work centers around helping others find and follow their life purpose. Relating this idea to design, Vic showed how in order to follow our purpose in design, we have to break the rules, question the world around us, and make mistakes.

Students had the opportunity to interview wheelchair users from the community. This included Mike Harris, Eden Ericsson, and Jesse Lindlbauer.


The beautiful Eden Ericsson was the star of the show. Eden is a 5th grader obsessed with Taylor Swift, art, taking selfies, and all things colored pink. She has Cerebral Palsy which requires her to use a wheelchair, so she came in and taught us all about how good design could impact her life. Rather than waiting for the student designers to go through the process of building her a prototype, she was the first to take on the supplies table and begin crafting her own prototype of a cell phone holder. We all have a thing or two to learn from this rockstar.

Many students related closely with Jesse Lindlbauer because Jesse is a college student, too. Jesse goes to Washtenaw Community College (WCC). One of the challenges Jesse faces is that he currently needs an aide to go with him to class to set up his computer and notebooks. Jesse carries his backpack on the back of his wheelchair, but can’t access his things on his own. If there was a way for him access his belongings, he would be able to go to class independently like other college students.

We had mentors from Art and Design, Mechanical Engineering, the School of Public Health, LSA, and optiMize.

IDC_007John Marshall, professor at Stamps School of Art and Design, made the engineers present extremely uncomfortable in the best way possible. He gave us perspective on the difference between engineers and designers. Engineers explore a problem space by trying to find a mechanism that could provide a solution. Designers, on the other hand, don’t necessarily need a final solution in mind before diving into a problem space. Designers spend time looking at all aspects of the situation and figuring out what the design requirements are. John worked closely with a team at the conference building a portable wheelchair ramp out of cardboard for Eden.

Amy Hortop, coordinator of the Mechanical Engineering capstone projects, has played a pivotal role in garnering administrative support for this movement. In addition, she brought her enthusiasm, energy, and technical support to the student teams at the conference.

IDC_005Ken Ludwig and Jeff Pituch from optiMize helped the students zoom out and see the larger picture of social impact. Yes, the conference was focused on design. But more importantly, we were learning how design impacts people’s lives.

Student designers interviewed a wheelchair user for an hour, and following that conversation not only came up with tons of potential problem spaces to explore, but also followed through on one of those problems and created a rough prototype for it. We ended the day with prototypes of a portable wheelchair ramp, a cell phone holder, a table for a wheelchair that could easily roll up, and a mechanism for keeping a paraplegic’s legs in place. Innovative ideas made up of cardboard, plastic tubing, foam core, glue, duct tape, and rubber bands. Why was this significant? Each prototype was a proof of concept. The overarching idea was to demonstrate the power a simple conversation can have. Now, students are empowered with the idea that design can take shape in any space they are interested in, rather than needing someone else to tell them what to do.

Moving forward, I want to create an environment where students have the administrative and educational support to explore their passions in the University context. This means that we all must step up to the challenge. To the faculty: let’s figure out a way to incorporate interdisciplinary and socially engaged projects into the class curriculum. To the administration: let’s allocate the necessary educational and financial resources towards facilitating this movement. To the students: let’s make the most of our time at the University to start taking action towards our purpose in life.

I’ve already started working with several students from the conference on how we can develop their senior projects based on what we learned that day. In some cases that means continuing work on the problems identified at the conference and starting a custom project for either Eden, Mike, or Jesse. In other cases, it entails each student figuring out what they are passionate about and using the ideas of socially engaged and empathetic design to create an entirely new project in this space.

Long story short: we’ve got some movers and shakers heading your way in the design world, folks.

Written by Laura Murphy, mechanical engineering and Spanish student, and co-founder and chief engineer at ADAPT, LLC.

Comments (1)
  • Jean walsh

    April 19, 2016

    Love the ideas. Let me know if you need additional users.

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