UIC student projects, clockwise from top left: Roka, Cave, Hexacatch, and Hum
  • UIC student projects, clockwise from top left: ROKA, Cave, Hex-Catch, and Hum

Like many aspiring product designers looking for creative support and capital from the Kickstarter community, Jonathan Owens turned his bio into his sales pitch. The video he posted on the crowd-funding site to convince backers to buy his Cave Picnic Tray, a stylish walnut carrying case for serious cheese fans, references the summers he spent working at farmers’ markets for Wisconsin’s Brunkow Cheese. But for Owens, his inspiration was part real-world experience, part passion—and part graduation requirement.

Owens and a dozen other budding industrial designers launched their own products yesterday, from a ceramic-and-wax cup that molds to your hand to a modular building toy, as part of University of Illinois at Chicago’s new Entrepreneurial Product Development class. Local designer Craighton Berman, who’s successfully launched a series of products on the crowd-funding platform, conceived of this year-long professional development course as a way to impart relevant, real-world skills at a time when self-starting and self-promotion are becoming more prevalent in the professional landscape. It’s not coincidental the class Tumblr is entitled “Always Be Hustling.”

“I’ve been telling students that if you want to do independent design stuff, you need to learn how to market yourself,” Berman says. “For many, marketing is a dirty word. But the reality is these days, people are interested in looking behind the curtain, so sharing your process is marketing. That’s as authentic as it gets.”

Last semester the students immersed themselves in the “before” phase of a product launch: designing and sourcing materials, then prototyping and crafting their projects in the school’s wood shop and digital fabrication lab. Guest speakers, such as Max Temkin of Cards Against Humanity, spoke about their experiences with Kickstarter, and Berman guided the students through his own recent launch of the Manual Coffeemaker, showing them product updates and financial spreadsheets to give them an inside look at the numbers behind making such an object. He feels the introduction of a business-focused, money-making element into design education—projects becoming products—doesn’t detract from some lofty concept of pure creativity at school as much as prepare students to create their own opportunities.

“You’ll never experience pure design in your life, it’s always connected to many different things,” he says. “Connecting those dots is important, nobody is going to do it for them. The reality is there’s a lot of soft skills you need to know as well.”

The just-launched products reflect a wide array of passion projects. Berman put no constraints on the students, encouraging authorship and chasing after niches. Emily Rose Litten designed Hum, a custom hummingbird feeder that recalls her childhood in Washington, Illinois; Szymon Gluc made the Hex-Catch, an ash key tray in a yin-yang shape that references his martial arts practice; and Travis Koss was inspired to create the Roka water filter after continually losing houseplants to leaf burn. Students limited the amount of objects sold, in part to reduce competition but also to allow them to focus on finishing products without getting bogged down with fulfillment. For the rest of the semester, which started with a lecture from Kickstarter cofounder Charles Adler, students will learn about building a business, and they’ll cover topics such as marketing and licensing.

The class certainly fits into the existing Kickstarter narrative, which is that it enables and empowers designers and creatives of any age. It’s an ideal platform for students, according to John Dimatos, the company’s lead for tech and design partnerships. (Kickstarter doesn’t keep stats on the age of those launching products, so stats on the number of young users are unavailable).

“The all-or-nothing funding model works for students without capital, it de-risks things,” Dimatos says. “To be less starry eyed and more realistic, it can help them build up to more professional projects. It’s important when someone graduates with a degree in a creative field that they feel it’s fulfilling creatively and economically.”

The class also fits in with a more real-world, business-oriented view of design that some educators are starting to champion. Gary Chou, a professor at the School for Visual Arts in New York who has cotaught a class on entrepreneurial design since 2012, believes the experience of launching a product or drafting a media plan is imperative to prepare students for a shift to a world of networks and uncertainty. The syllabus he created with coteachers Leland Richis and Christina Xu includes assignments that explore the online economy (hire someone on TaskRabbit to do $50 of work on one of your projects) and culminates with the $1,000 Project, an open-ended assignment that simply asks students to make a grand on the Internet (no contracting of services allowed).

“Acquiring skills and becoming proficient at using tools was everything you needed to have a place in an industrial era,” says Chou. “But as we enter a networked world, the impact a designer will have will be more of a function of her proficiency at working with and understanding networks.”

School of the Art Institute professor Pablo Garcia, who successfully launched the NeoLucida Drawing tool on Kickstarter and raised nearly $425,000, has mixed feelings about integrating the platform into education; he worries that corporate and start-up cultures are invading creative fields. But considering the at-times predatory practices in those fields—zero-pay internships, undervalued skill sets, and gallery model profiteering—he sees anything that teaches self-reliance as a silver lining.

“There’s a real-world experience here that’s not just about shadowing a professional or learning by peripheral observation,” he says. “To make a campaign and get real money from real people is a sobering experience . . . it sounds vaguely capitalist, which to some is antiart, but it’s really just experience that a student can have now instead of five years after graduating.”

Gaining that vital experience now, instead of after graduation, was what attracted Owens to Berman’s class. He said he probably spent half the class so far learning how to market and get his product out there, and has a list of cheese bloggers to contact. Growing up in the Quad Cities with a father who owned a cabinetry shop, Owens has wanted to be a designer for a while, but sees a landscape where you need to make your own way. The class and Kickstarter launch—and possibly preparing a wine-and-cheese heavy dinner for any backer willing to pony up $350—may be part of paving that path.

“It’s given me hope,” he says of the class. “It’s a little daunting to think about how I’m going to get the money to make what I want to design, and then hopefully get people to see it.”