Using Design to Empower Communities
ay you have an idea for a new product. It’s simple and brilliant, you tell your
friends—something that could become the next Roomba or Post-it note. All you
need is a designer to conceptualize it, an engineer to prove it works, a manufacturer
to build it, a retailer to sell it, and an investor with the foresight and bankroll to make this
the Next Big Thing.
No surprise that most people in the design industry would probably scoff at you
faster than you can say “paradigm shift.” But Tong Jin “TJ” Kim, an associate professor of
industrial design in the Patti & Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts, isn’t your
typical inventor. Kim, an award-winning product designer who holds more than 50 patents,
wants to see the citizen inventor succeed.
“The whole manufacturing process has changed,” says Kim. “We’re going back to a time
when people made things in their own shops. Now, everyone can create and start a business
in their own home—if they know how.”
The traditional model for industrial design is giving way to a new do-it-yourself
mentality. After all, the craft beer, artisanal food, and local farm scenes have already
proven the power of a grassroots approach to commerce.
And the advent of cheap technology platforms, such as 3D printers, laser cutters, online
retail stores, and crowdfunding has created a digital-age channel for inventors who can’t or
don’t want to pursue more traditional means of product design. So yes, says Kim, the tools
are there for the everyday inventor. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that most
people don’t know where to begin.
That’s why Kim has taught middle school students in Chicago and orphans in South
Korea how to sketch designs for products, create 3D models, and bring their creations to
fruition through a multistep prototyping process. Now he’s bringing his design expertise to
a “makerspace”—a hub for artists and artisans to collaborate and share resources.
Samples of simple objects that can be
created using a 3D printer like the one
at right. Photos by TJ Kim.