One of the goals Martha Sullivan sets for her undergraduate industrial design students is to study abroad, do undergraduate research, or engage in a real-world work experience before graduation. This year, Sullivan’s students were able to fulfill one of those goals with a little help from the Motor City.

Gregory Borbon, who earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial and product design from Virginia Tech in 2019, helped provide 38 juniors a chance to put their skills to the test this year. A digital product designer at General Motors (GM), Borbon contacted Sullivan and Ben Kirkland, an adjunct instructor in the School of Design, about a possible partnership with GM. The result was a GM-sponsored design studio that focused on the company’s commitment to accessibility and offered students a chance to tackle a real-world problem through innovative concepts as well as visit the GM headquarters and meet with design professionals.

“The visit was undoubtedly a highlight of my design education,” said Jordan Jones a design student from Atlanta. “It provided an opportunity to establish valuable connections, learn tools that I can apply in the future, and gain a genuine taste of working in the industry.”

The design studio covered a wide range of accessibility concerns including hearing loss, vision loss, wheelchair access, aging, and chronic illness. In addition to addressing how to better accommodate these issues in GM-manufactured cars, the research and design recommendations could be extended to other modes of transportation in which the company has a vested interest.

(From left) Gregory Borbon, Martha Sullivan, Drew Sigler, and Ben Kirkland at the GM Design Studios.
(From left) Gregory Borbon, Martha Sullivan, Drew Sigler, and Ben Kirkland at the GM Design Studios. Borbon and Sigler are both graduates of Virginia Tech’s industrial design program who now work at GM. Photo courtesy of Martha Sullivan.

Danielle Mason said the experience has inspired her to be a better designer.

“I think I really want to get into user experience and again look at accessibility,” said Mason, of Fairfax County, Virginia. “I kind of like bringing that into my designs from the very beginning because oftentimes accessibility is more of an afterthought in terms of design. You design the whole thing and then at the end, you're like, oh, what about it?”

Sullivan said experiences like these help both the students and the companies.

“GM partners with universities across the country and they want to include schools that are not historically considered automotive specialists to get new viewpoints,” said Sullivan, and associate professor of practice and chair of industrial design. “So Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture, Arts, and Design helped GM expand its base while offering our students a very exciting opportunity to work with a multinational company. It was a win-win.”

The students were assigned randomly to various groups and interacted with participants across the country.

“Asking questions while observing their real-life environment is very helpful to the students as they create appropriate designs to better accommodate any sort of physical, cognitive, or social barriers to using transportation,” Sullivan said.

The 10-week studio began with initial research on GM and its products. The company provided an online tool that helped the students chose user groups and specific individuals who could provide valuable feedback.

Borbon and other GM professionals were actively involved in shaping the curriculum and joined the class remotely throughout the semester both to provide information and to offer valuable feedback. These professionals include two other 2019 alumni – Anna Stapor, UI designer, Ultifi Design, and an advisory board member for the industrial design program, and Andrew Sigler, NX designer, GM Fabrication Engineering.

At the end of the semester, the students were invited to General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, to tour the facility and present their findings from research and interviews and where that led them as far as design direction to a group of GM executives.

A few examples of the student’s recommendations and design concepts:

  • Create a simple and efficient process to optimize storage and removal of a GM-branded wheelchair seamlessly integrated into the Chevrolet Bolt EUV car design. The materials should ensure that it is lightweight, durable, and cost effective for mass production.
  • Using RFID technology, design a door handle band accessory for rideshare cars that allows riders to simply tap their phones to the accessory band to indicate whether the vehicle is correct, making for a safer pickup experience.
  • Develop icons and language incorporated into a head-up display in cars that communicate out ideas clearly and seamlessly.
  • Increase investment in sustainable rail transportation to improve accessibility in urban environments.
  • Improve lowering and raising mechanisms to make entering and leaving the car easier.
  • Create a business within GM dedicated to new technology directed at accessibility that also provides a network of qualified technicians to provide maintenance service and repair as well as roadside service.
Industrial design students (from left) Jordan Jones, Tess Lunetta, Farida Hanna, and Jake Mulle .
Industrial design students (from left) Jordan Jones, Tess Lunetta, Farida Hanna, and Jake Mulle were part of the group that provided design feedback to General Motors. Photo courtesy of Jordan Jones.

“Presenting their work at GM and getting feedback from people who are actually making decisions was an invaluable experience for our students,” Sullivan said. “It will definitely impact their work going forward.”

Reflecting on the studio, Mason said that while accessibility was of interest to her, “I guess I didn't really know how difficult it would be — really bringing me out of my comfort zone within design because not only do I have to have good sketching and good prototyping, I now have to know how to use it to empathize with people and designs them in mind.”

Jones said she considered it a privilege to tour the General Motors headquarters and meet with design professionals.

“Presenting to top design leads at GM was initially nerve wracking, but they were genuinely impressed with many aspects of our projects and our ability to produce high-fidelity designs within a short timeframe. What made discussing our project even more rewarding was the number of people who could relate to our specific design solution,” she said.

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