Nate Young (BS 87 Transportation Design), senior vice president of design at Newell Brands, a leading global consumer goods company, had sustainability on his mind when, in May 2019, he attended an ArtCenter event featuring student work from the school’s Product Design program.
Newell Brands, whose brand portfolios include Paper Mate, Sharpie, EXPO, Coleman, Contigo, Sunbeam, Mr. Coffee, Graco, NUK, FoodSaver and Rubbermaid, had been seeking new ways to tie sustainability into its operational plan.
As he walked among the students’ projects, Young was acutely aware that societal mores among millennial and Gen Z consumers were trending toward sustainability and better corporate stewardship. He knew the time was right to initiate a Sponsored Project with the school.
Each team took a deep dive into the unknown, not knowing where the exploration would lead.Heidrun Mumper-DrummProfessor, Product Design
ArtCenter’s long-standing Sponsored Projects program, which brings industry thought leaders into its creative environment to work in partnership with the school’s next generation of artists and designers, is increasingly in demand by industry leaders. “We are often approached by alumni who now hold decision-making positions at innovative companies and are looking to collaborate with ArtCenter,” said Meredith Madnick, the College’s director of Sponsored Projects. “Their perspective allows them to see the value on all sides. They recognize their ability to enrich the student experience, as well as to create new pathways to discover young talent and procure fresh ideas and design solutions to meet internal goals.”
In a Sponsored Project, companies have an opportunity to purchase directly from the students the concepts they’ve created for the course. Should the company choose not to purchase a project, the concept remains the intellectual property of the student. Another bonus—participating in a Sponsored Project is a great way for students to get on a company’s radar. Over the years, many sponsors have offered students internships and even full-time jobs after being introduced to their creativity through a sponsored course.
Life Without Plastic: Alternative Explorations Through Design launched in Spring 2020 as a 14-week Sponsored Project, with Young as the project’s executive sponsor and James Caruso, Newell’s senior principal, industrial design, acting as the company’s lead.
Young, who previously served as the College’s chief academic officer as well as a Trustee, was excited to work with ArtCenter students once again. “Their view is really the magic of the Sponsored Project,” he said of the fresh critical perspective students bring to a brief. “They bring an unbiased perspective to a challenge that corporate teams may not see because of their own orthodoxy.”
For his part, Caruso was attentive to how the students would meet the particular contextual problems that Newell Brands brought to the table. “They have to think critically and develop an understanding of the broader world of product development and design for the consumer,” he said. “Most importantly, they need to rise above the limitations and barriers placed on them by the project’s brief.”
Students bring an unbiased perspective to a challenge that corporate teams may not see because of their own orthodoxy.Nate YoungSenior Vice President of Design, Newell Brands
Newell Brands’ focus was on innovation around alternative materials and on the creation of substitutes for plastics. They wanted the designers to invent new brands or to redefine or disrupt existing ones. Life Without Plastic would ultimately give students agency to design six different products with alternative materials that would not only reduce reliance on plastics, but would also demonstrate a direction toward minimization, modularity, durability and repairability, recycling and reuse, and circularity. The students were tasked with using life cycle thinking to drive the environmental impact of their solutions and the creation of an aesthetic or brand impact through industrial design.
For the project, Product Design Professor Heidrun Mumper-Drumm, who is also the director of the College’s education-based sustainability initiatives, and alumnus and Adjunct Assistant Professor Jonathan Abarbanel (BS 06 Product) organized 24 students from Product Design, Graduate Industrial Design, Graphic Design and Interaction Design into six teams. Each team was given one Newell product to serve as a benchmark for product research, new product/service system goals and design innovation. The teams brought their fresh-eyes approach to a significant lineup of Newell brands and products, including Coleman insulated containers, EXPO dry erase markers, Holmes air purifiers, FoodSaver vacuum sealers, Graco strollers and Mr. Coffee coffeemakers.
“This one-term studio provided an intense, exciting and real-world design challenge,” said Mumper-Drumm, adding that because these are user-focused products, students also had to consider how sustainability affects a person’s life, family, career, comfort, security, happiness and health. “Each team took a deep dive into the unknown, not knowing where the exploration would lead—[to] an eco-material Band-Aid or a radically different concept. An exciting aspect of this project was that we were dealing with real brands, real products and a real commitment to finding a sustainable design outcome.”
To determine life cycle impacts and current environmental footprint, the teams studied, tried out, completely disassembled and evaluated even the smallest pieces of each product. And sustainability benchmarking was just one facet of the overall research, which also included market and competition, materials and technology, and even inspiration from biomimicry. “They considered the retail value of the products as well as the social, cultural and technology trends surrounding them,” said Abarbanel. “They developed a deep understanding of the brands’ DNA, which gave them valuable insight during the design process.”
There were many limitations, but ArtCenter and the students pivoted seamlessly.James CarusoSenior Principal, Industrial Design, Newell Brands
Newell Brands and ArtCenter collaborated closely throughout the project. Student teams and their administrators met frequently with Caruso’s team, who provided feedback and guidance. But after a promising start, Life Without Plastic was nearly derailed by the arrival of COVID-19. In a matter of days, teams no longer had physical access to campus studios, which provided a new set of significant challenges. Without being able to build 3D models, a key component of the project, the teams’ attention turned to creating design directions via rendering formats.
“There were many limitations, but ArtCenter and the students pivoted seamlessly,” said Caruso, who added that the shift led to the students’ thinking more intensely about the topic. “Some of the teams created multiple concepts. In addition to the product story, they reimagined the UX story. The distance ending up adding breadth and depth to the entire exercise.”
By mid-May, the teams were ready to present their final projects. “It was a historic event,” said Mumper-Drumm. “Over 40 people from Newell’s innovation space were on the Zoom call. The value of Life Without Plastic had only increased as our students persevered through this format. It raised new questions that had to be answered. It further defined their engagement with the consumer experience and our relationship with objects.”
Over the course of four hours, the six student teams told compelling stories that transformed, reinvented and recast significant Newell Brands products. The students’ designs succeeded in reducing emissions and waste in materials throughout the products’ life cycles. Their designs also extended the products’ duration of use and provided multiple options for recycling and reuse.
Increasing brand transparency was addressed as well, as the teams found it to be an important piece of purchasing decisions among millennial and Gen Z consumers. Since these users also consider a digital component essential, each product came with an app—an addition that can greatly increase engagement in the brand.
Coleman’s insulated containers were reinvented as a user-designed, wholly recyclable product that came in a variety of sizes and allowed for different uses for each of its parts. Influenced by the pandemic, the team working on EXPO dry erase markers developed a multi-user digital whiteboard for collaborating remotely via Zoom. A key element of the design was the whiteboard itself, which was made from the product’s recyclable packaging.
The students developed a deep understanding of the brands' DNA, which gave them valuable insight during the design process.Jonathan AbarbanelAdjunct Assistant Professor, Product Design
FoodSaver’s vacuum sealers were entirely reimagined for a generation whose focus is on saving space, keeping food fresh longer and reducing food waste. Holmes’ air purifiers were transformed into an entirely new product, greatly reduced in size and featuring an easy-to-replace, nonplastic recyclable air filter. The new purifier would last four times longer than its original, and a digital component compelled high user engagement.
Nodding to the groundbreaking appeal of the original Mr. Coffee, the new version focused on affordability and sustainability. The coffee maker’s design was greatly simplified, yet it provided an indulgent and sensory experience. In an example of pure disruption, students envisioned a Graco stroller that eliminated the use of metal and plastic altogether and turned the carriage into a wonder of simple lines, origami-like folds, and soft, gender-neutral colors.
When Young gave his final thoughts on Life Without Plastic, he reflected not only on the overall benefits of Sponsored Projects but on the extraordinary outcome of this particular project. “I’ll never forget this presentation,” he said, citing the remarkable work by the students and the passion that Mumper-Drumm and Abarbanel brought to the classroom. “The solutions were meticulously well thought out. They were clever, considered and thoughtful.”
He added, “In this unprecedented COVID-19 environment, designers’ voices are needed, and their skills are needed, as they never have been before.”