A hidden gem of design education

A hidden gem of design education

Visiting Kansas State University

Two hours outside Kansas City, Kansas State University is located in the college town of Manhattan—endearingly nicknamed “The Little Apple.” Much like the city’s name, the idea of a world-class design program in this pastoral landscape feels unexpected, even ironic. But the Master of Interior Architecture and Product Design program is the real deal, with impressive facilities, expert faculty, and graduates employed by top design firms around the country, such as Gensler and HOK.

We spoke with Neal Hubbell, the program’s instructor for contract furniture and an associate professor. When we asked about their location, he told us: “I actually like to think of us as one of the best-kept secrets in design education in the United States. Kansas is typically thought of as a flyover state—and that the centers of design are really located on the two coasts. I don't think most students, nationally, think of the Midwest as really being a design center, but I think we're proving that very wrong.”

The innovative master’s program offers a unique track to completing the degree: KSU undergraduates can apply to join the program after their freshman year, allowing them to graduate with a master’s degree in just five years. (For post-baccalaureate students, the program requires three years.)

The degree’s lengthy name reflects a holistic approach to design: a Master of Interior Architecture and Product Design (M.IAPD). Rather than honing in on product design, furniture design, or interior architecture, students learn each of these three disciplines in the context of the other two.

Neal explained the thinking behind this approach: “For instance, in product design, it's important to understand the context in which a product is actually being used. In interior architecture, it's important to understand how furniture and products are going to be used in their spaces. All of those different scales lead to a much more comprehensive, in-depth understanding of design.”

Only about 20 to 30 students graduate from the IAPD program each year. After five years together, this small class size and the rigorous, collaborative work required by the program creates a tightly knit community for each cohort. While they work alongside aspiring architects and designers in adjacent fields, the students describe a uniquely close kinship with their IAPD classmates.

Zach Simpson, a student from the 2019 graduating class, put it as such: “I think the influence really sparks creativity, and pushes each of us to be a better designer more and more because I see friends and students beside me continuing to build their skills and continuing to grow.”

We spoke to several students from the program about their experience. In each conversation, we heard that same theme echoed over and over—where collaboration and critique helped students develop their design voice.

Jake Mullins, another graduating student, told us: “There's a little bit of a competition, and you're also trying to impress everyone a little, but it all helps you work toward the best design possible because you're working with your friends and help each other improve.”

Jake Mullins crafting his prototype

The product development program

Jake Mullins found his way into the design world through a high school project to imagine a new approach to prosthetics based on the experience of his father, a single-leg amputee.

The core of the program, as described by department head Nathan Howe, is found in the workshop: “Making has been a part of this program since its inception. The shop is a foundation for everything else. So much has been driven lately into the digital world that we all know we have to deal with. But the critical problem you’re solving with design is to actually bring something into reality.”

If you can't actually take a vision and make it a reality, then it's almost meaningless. And our students really understand that, that making is the essential ingredient.
- Nathan Howe, IAPD Department Head

This approach to making underpins much of the department’s philosophy. Rather than exploring ideas solely in an abstract context, students interact with actual materials and the constraints of physicality. Whether it’s the way that ambient light scatters on a shape, or the practical comfort of a seat, professors maintain that some things that cannot fully be learned on screen.

This workshop sets the stage for some of the program’s most important interactions, where shop specialists and professors help students explore ideas and materials. Spread over 20,000 square feet of metal and wood manufacturing, the space includes an upholstery studio, 3d printers, laser CNC cutters, and much more.

In a hallway outside the shop, a lengthy wall of past student projects serves as a friendly reminder that “pretty much every idea you think of as a student has been tried before, in some form,” according to Neal.

While the IAPD department celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014, the workshop facility is much newer, the product of a major renovation that was completed in 2017. Before the space was completed, the various departments in the College of Architecture, Planning and Design all had their own shops. In the new facility, the different departments, including IAPD, share this comprehensive making space.

“That's been really important because it has allowed for I think our students to learn adjacent to the other disciplines. It's the kind of one place where all disciplines really come together and students get exposed to each other’s work.” said Howe.

I look at myself as, really, a facilitator and a critic. The most important thing that I can do is to ask questions so that the students learn to ask the questions of themselves.
- Neal Hubbell, Director of Graduate Studies

Another of the IAPD program’s defining traits comes in its corporate collaborations, including one with our own product design team. OFS first connected with KSU several years ago, when an alumnus of the IAPD program suggested our organizations should develop a professional relationship.

The project began as an effort to enrich the curriculum by providing students with real design briefs and giving them the opportunity to receive real feedback from a client. Students research and develop a concept, then design and prototype a concept using real materials. Some student designs have even been put into production.

This year’s briefs range from creative approaches to workplace storage to developing furniture for specialized medical environments. The specificity of working to meet the needs of these different environments requires deep research and understanding of the users they design for, something the department leaders emphasize.

“I think one of the best parts about the collaboration is really getting to understand how the industry thinks, and what companies like OFS really care about, because it’s more than just the almighty dollar. It’s important to know that there are companies passionate about end users.” Howe said.

Working within the constraints of an authentic project brief, students are required to solve problems they otherwise might not consider in an academic setting. Students described the challenges of developing designs with manufacturability as a key constraint, and how they encounter unexpected questions like “how will cleaning products affect our materials over time?”

Alexa McCallum, another student, spoke to the value of working with an actual manufacturer: “I think it helps us as students know how the professional world will be handled in a realistic way. Learning what a client needs and wants and then translating that into a project is a great preparation for whatever we’ll do after we graduate. It's a very unique experience that a lot of programs don't have.”

The collaboration with OFS has produced some exciting and encouraging results, but the IAPD program has already been leaving a powerful legacy, sending graduates to influential roles in firms throughout the country. While a handful of other schools may be able to give KSU a run for its money on one particular feature of the IAPD program, its academic excellence, creative opportunity, and supportive community are a uniquely powerful combination.

Based on a foundation of making and the vital relationship between students and mentors, the IAPD program continues to challenge assumptions and equip a new generation of designers.