This past September, the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture was renamed the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture & Design, and for good reason: the design programs at the College, including the Industrial Design (ID) Program, are exploding with new and innovative talent. Undergraduate and graduate programs in Industrial Design have already propelled some young design greats into the field, including Ricardo Salinas (’12), who now works for Lamborghini and Juan Jimenez (’12), who creates products for NiCE Ltd. in New York City.
The problem, from the point of view of the ID Director, EunSook Kwon, Ph.D., was that these creative individuals did not end up staying in Houston after graduation. There is a great deal of design work available on both coasts in San Francisco and New York City, but not much notable for designers to build a career on in Houston. Kwon decided to do something about it. She created the only think tank for product design in a six-state radius, ID Plus (ID+).
The University of Houston is good at creating business development incubators. For instance, the C.T. Bauer College of Business has RED Labs, which amps up the marketability of technology in the city. If there is a phone or texting application that can be touted, Bauer has a way of making business models into actual businesses that UH students go on to run. Rice University has OwlSpark, a summer business entrepreneurship accelerator program. So, Kwon thought, why not have a product incubator program that solves issues from everyday life? She decided there had to be a group of designers who could bring good ideas for sustainable and much-needed products to fruition.
ID+ is a way to integrate the highest caliber of creative design with industry partners: “Through innovative entrepreneurship and commercial collaboration, ID+ aims to explore new ideas in design,” says their mission statement. Dylan Bailey, a 2015 graduate of the Hines College Industrial Design program, has stayed in the city after graduation. “I see potential for this incubator to create something special for the design community in Houston,” he says.
The genesis of ID+ as it exists today began when Jerry Caroom, CEO of LED lighting company XtraLight Manufacturing, learned about the ID program when a first-year student worked as an intern. The intern composed an email to all the Hines faculty members asking them if they would be interested in collaborating on a project with Caroom. It was decided that the LED lighting collaboration would work best with a class taught by faculty member Jeff F. Feng. The first project they worked on with Caroom involved “smart” streetlights. These sustainable streetlights could be programmed to dim between dusk and dawn, to pulse or become bright when a 911 call was detected in the area. These lights conducted various other patterns that upped their safety factor, as well. This sustainable product could go 12 years or more without needing the bulbs replaced, and their energy consumption was low.
The relationship between Caroom and the ID program continued to grow stronger. “I still encourage ID students from UH to intern with us at XtraLight,” he says. “The students are so forward-thinking. I enjoy working with their fresh perspective.” He acknowledges that new ideas are important, and that the students in the ID program are full of energy and creative solutions to everyday problems.
Usually Kwon, Feng, the students and recent graduates have to design a project and then go looking for a company to invest in their design. That’s the case with a new lightweight bike the students have designed, called Spur5Cycles. Customizable, sustainable and complete with nifty platforms for carrying baskets and bags, these bikes can be produced for 60 percent less than the cost of average bicycles. They are currently looking for industry partners to commercialize their invention.
But with XtraLight Manufacturing’s involvement, they already had an industry partner for their newest design collaboration: Pixl. Pixl consists of multi-use tiles, or pavers, that light up as one approaches and steps on them. Since they are completely programmable, they can be “taught” to turn on at varying levels of brightness when one approaches a building or business in the dark. Tremendous energy savings would be realized from using these types of lights because of their unique programming.
Why does Caroom feel this is the project he should be investing in? “We’re looking for talent, and at Hines College of Architecture and Design, we’ve found it,” he says. He also remembers a time while earning his master’s degree when industry leaders helped him out. Caroom relates, “It’s rewarding to be able to do that now, to give back.” He says it’s important that the LED technology and design the students invent be both significant in energy savings and aesthetically pleasing. He is happy to facilitate that work by supplying UH with core LED technology for experimentation, and he allows Hines College students to use his facilities for creative endeavors.
Dylan Bailey had recently graduated from the Hines Industrial Design program when he worked on the Pixl project. He looks back on it now with fondness. “From my perspective, the collaboration with Professor Feng, Jerry Caroom and one other student went wonderfully,” he remembers. “There were experts who had experience with electronics and coding working with us from XtraLight. And as far as the UH faculty goes, it was great starting from a student/teacher type relationship and striking up more of a collaborative experience with gifted mentors.”
Extensive research went into the application for Pixl. For instance, there is a chart on the wall of the Gallery at Hines College that lists the major categories of people who enjoy parks. “Athletes, Families, Romantic Couples” the list reads. So, how can illuminated squares be used in parks? Children could play hopscotch on the ground, or perhaps a vertical rock wall could boast the light-up panels. There are also the public safety applications—light up crosswalks with arrows are shown in one of the artists’ renderings, as well as darkened areas in front of buildings lighting up as people approach the entrance.
“Sustainability” has become an almost-overused buzzword. Bailey explains sustainability in this way: “At the Hines College, we were taught to understand the gravity of abusing product design in regards to sustainability, such as arbitrarily using materials that don’t degrade or don’t last. In comparison to filling up landfills, we use tools that show you if a product will last, if it’s economical and culturally sound. If it’s not all these things, it’s a waste of materials.”
So where does XtraLight, the company, go from here? “We’ll probably continue to grow,” says Caroom. After all, XtraLight has been in the lighting business for 30 years so far and has adapted to every new technology that has come along. Their market exists across North America, because, as Caroom says, “Good design is attractive to people all over the country.” Caroom predicts that cities and utility providers will soon utilize the “smart” streetlights and that they could be seen in use across the city; their programmed patterns would keep people safe, even late at night, while keeping costs low.
It’s obvious that ID+ is on track to go places in the community, Bailey says. About being able to work on the ID+ project, “It was an honor. It was so special, and it’s the only product to market incubator in Texas. And particularly in Houston, if we can be ahead of the curve and lead the design movement in Houston, there is just so much that we can gain in the future.” He goes on to say, “Not to mention, there was a great confidence that came from working with the talent I was paired with, and the leadership that Dr. Kwon showed us.”
Being a designer is a special calling, after all. “There are just these moments where someone creates something entirely new that will change our lifestyle,” says Bailey. That’s what ID+ is intent on doing, and doing it against the backdrop of Houston. This vibrant, teeming and sometimes overwhelming city is always exciting, and its design component should reflect that standard.