Storyboard: Michael Zhu

The forever student

My involvement with ArtCenter’s recent Blue Note Therapeutics project was my first experience working in a corporate-sponsored work environment. Our challenge was to develop technology for cancer patients that allowed them to retain a sense of mental wellness during treatment.

Blue Note approached our group of students knowing full well that we are trained to consider user engagement in everything we do. What they really wanted us to do was present our ideas in a digital medium.

Our instructors were Jeff Higashi and Brian Boyl, who are known for teaching product design and interactive design at ArtCenter. On a weekly basis, we would check in with Jeff and Brian, and they would give us feedback. The sponsors were not always physically in attendance, but they certainly made their presence felt through the critical response they gave.

Obviously, living up to the standard of these professional sponsors created lot of pressure. That said, the sponsors, especially Mark Elfers, made it easy. They were candid and forthright with us, and consistently gave us amazing feedback on our work.

Jeff and Brian were more focused on the design aspect of what the students were doing, while our sponsors were more concerned with the practical business components of the concepts we were dreaming up. Blue Note was great about casting a wide net in terms of critique, whether it was bringing in guest consultants, or directly conferring with actual patients.

On one end of the spectrum, you’re getting purely academic feedback from instructors who are experts in their field. On the other, you’re hearing raw, lived experience from the very same people we’re actually trying to help. When we came up with our ideas, we looked forward to presenting them directly to the patients.

Jeff and Brian wanted our group to split into teams for research purposes. The groups were not permanent, and it wasn’t unusual for students to splinter into factions and regroup. As with anything ArtCenter-related, you have to be adaptable. I did research with my team for about three weeks before I began working on a solo project.

The project I started led to my intellectual property getting purchased. I’m not going to lie, that was a surreal, amazing feeling. It felt good to present a dynamic, well-thought-out solution to a company like Blue Note, knowing that they do such invaluable work.

I continued to refine my concept throughout midterms season. Our instructors pushed us to think outside of Blue Note’s expectations. They said, “Blue Note wants something digital, but as designers we can’t limit ourselves to one specific solution; we have to look at the bigger picture.” By the time we were all ready to take our finals, my project was not entirely digital. It involved some real, tangible, hands-on experience, and Blue Note went for the idea.

Mark Elfers was a tremendous guide throughout this process. He has such incredible ideas about how to develop products. After the project concluded, when I learned Blue Note were still interested in the IP, I came to find out that they were actually interested in me, Michael Zhu, in a vocational capacity.

I’ve begun doing freelance design work for Blue Note lately, and it’s been an unbelievable learning experience. Mark still reaches out to me to recommend certain professional design opportunities, for which I am deeply grateful.

That’s sort of the idea of an ArtCenter sponsored project in a nutshell. It’s about establishing the connection between students and companies, and realizing that you never stop learning. In that way, you can remain a student forever.

Blue Note was an incredible sponsor – proactive and responsive and incisive in the criticism they gave. Whenever Blue Note calls me up to work on something, I’ll be there. They look to us, the forever students, to determine what the products of tomorrow will be. In that sense, we’re predicting the future of design. And we’re doing it exactly as we planned.

Michael Zhu
BS 20 Product Design
Freelance Designer at Blue Note Therapeutics

That’s sort of the idea of an ArtCenter sponsored project in a nutshell. It’s about establishing the connection between students and companies, and realizing that you never stop learning.

Michael ZhuFreelance Designer, Blue Note Therapeutics
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