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Found in Translation: Using the Language of Design to Help Startups Take the Next Step

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Portfolio magazine. Read the complete issue here

Imagine, for a moment, working at the helm of an internal design team for a government-backed startup researching cutting-edge, energy-saving technologies. You, along with a cadre of your peers, are responsible for translating heaps of technical and scientific data into a marketable product that customers will actually buy. The workload is intense, the deadlines are real, and the success of a company depends on your expertise. For Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) students, that situation has become a reality. 

Over the past two semesters, students from a number of KCAD design programs worked closely with Grand Rapids-based Mackinac Technology to commercialize a heat-repellant window covering that could significantly enhance the energy efficiency of buildings. Unlike a traditional internship, the collaboration has put students in a real-world entrepreneurial environment where the stakes are high, yet one where they still have access to a seasoned KCAD professor to help guide their work.

Mackinac Technology founder John Slagter (left) and Industrial Design Program Chair Jon Moroney (middle) review concepts with KCAD students.Mackinac Technology founder John Slagter (left) and Industrial Design Program Chair Jon Moroney (middle) review concepts with KCAD students

KCAD worked with Mackinac Technology to secure a $40,000 grant through the Michigan Corporate Relations Network Small Company Innovation/Technology and Commercialization Assistance program. Sponsored by the University of Michigan, the program allows small companies to partner with universities to conduct product development research. 

“Mackinac Technology is a customer to our students, and because it’s a startup, that’s where things are really different,” says Assistant Professor and Industrial Design Program Chair Jon Moroney, who leads the collaboration from the KCAD side. “It feels more like the students are the internal design team for the company.”

During the first semester, students conducted interviews with a wide variety of professionals to determine what potential users would want from a heatrepellant window covering, as well as how it should function. The second semester focused on producing a salable product based on the market research, which included one variation that could be integrated into window shading while still allowing the window to open.

“Essentially, we’re creating the system that will end up being someone’s product in the end, which I think is pretty awesome,” says Collaborative Design student Jordan Johnson-Verburg. “KCAD has worked hard to make this experience more of a studio atmosphere rather than a classroom.”

Students also designed a show booth and marketing materials for Mackinac Technology to take to the annual Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy Summit, a key energy industry event that could lead to more funding for the company. In every instance, the students were pushed to collaborate with professionals, especially those working outside of their own disciplines; explain key decisions to the client; and meet strict deadlines.

“Experiencing how art and design interact with technology, science, engineering, and business is eye-opening. I think at one point in time everyone at KCAD has been asked, ‘You’re going to art school? What are you going to do with that?’ People don’t always see where creativity fits in, but it’s everywhere,” says Mackenzie Tucker, a junior studying Collaborative Design with a Graphic Design minor. “In this collaboration, you get more than a grade; you gain validation and a real sense of accountability.” 

For John Slagter, who founded Mackinac Technology in 2009, working with KCAD allows his company access to design expertise that he couldn’t find elsewhere, especially on a startup’s budget.

“If you don’t design a product that people want to buy, you’ve got nothing, no matter how good the technology is,” Slagter says. “I work with PhDs and scientists who are very technical people—they see graphs, charts, and data.”

That’s where Moroney and the students come in: helping Slagter and his company position their product through the design process.

“Collaborating with KCAD has helped us understand what customers want and how they would potentially interact with our product so that we can design and prototype solutions,” Slagter says. “It gives us an angle that we didn’t have before.” 

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