A group of local senior citizens recently supplied a critical building block to the design projects of some Virginia Tech students — honest feedback.

“As opposed to loved ones, they’re not afraid to tell us our idea is not going to help them,” said Jordan Jones, a Virginia Tech student. “You know, my grandma would be like, ‘Oh, that’s so great, Jordan.’ But they’ll just tell us, ‘I don’t want that.’”

Jones was one of about 40 third-year students studying industrial design to receive such feedback from residents at Warm Hearth Village, a senior living community near the Blacksburg campus, on a recent Monday.

It was the students’ third of four visits to the facility as part of their semester-long group project to design and create items that make routine tasks easier for people as they age. This meeting was specifically scheduled to gather real-life insights from the very population they aim to help.

“It’s about learning how to really respond to those human needs when you look through the eyes of someone else by incorporating those needs into your decision-making process,” said Martha Sullivan, department chair and an assistant professor of practice in industrial design.

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Sullivan, who leads the studio course along with Ben Kirkland, an instructor in the department, said the project comes at an ideal time in the academic life of the average industrial design student.

“By your third year [in the program], you kind of know how the world goes together and you understand structure and materials,” Sullivan said. “Their third year is really focused on design research, which is really just getting good information from people through observations, questionnaires, surveys, and customer feedback, and then incorporating that into good decisions.”

Kirkland said learning to harness those soft skills is critical to the success of any designer and the products they craft.

“Design is all about communication,” Kirkland said.

This fall marks the 12th year Virginia Tech industrial design students have worked on aging in place projects with Warm Hearth Village residents. The partnership has resulted in products that have won prestigious national and international awards, and it echoes the industrial design department’s commitment to health care as one of its four pillars.

The projects have also been bolstered in more recent years by a partnership with the Roanoke-based SFCS Architects, which specializes in senior living design. The firm not only provides monetary support, but also supplies mentors for the students.

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SFCS, an architecture firm in Roanoke sponsors this program. The firm donates $5,000 every two years to pay for models and materials. Photo by Lee Friesland for Virginia Tech.

Sullivan said the duration of the relationship between the Virginia Tech department and the senior living community was largely due to the involvement of Loring Bixler, a retired IBM industrial designer who lives at Warm Hearth Village and has a history of volunteering in the department.

“It’s just fun to do it, and it gives the students an opportunity to do what they will be doing when they get out in the field,” Bixler said. “You have to find out what the client needs, and then show the client what you think will be the solution, hear feedback, and then present the final solution.”

Warm Hearth residents spent about two hours evaluating the students’ solutions, which ranged from gardening tool extensions and timed medicine dispensers to ergonomic art supplies and digital warnings for appliances left on. Their feedback helped the students better understand what the population really needs and wants from those solutions.

“We’re getting rid of our assumptions, our preconceived notions of the struggles that these people have on a daily basis,” said Farida Hanna, a student in the class. “You can get caught assuming a lot just by being around your grandparents or your own parents even, but it’s completely different being able to talk to people who live in a senior residential area and hearing what their problems are and what their friends are dealing with.”

Classmate Gabriela Colon-Melendez said the geographic diversity between the New River Valley-based facility and many of the students’ hometowns also proved important.

“This is a completely different community and region and even state for some of us, with different cultural practices and what’s acceptable than where we’re from, so I think it’s eye-opening to see that,” Colon-Melendz said.

While much learning was done by the students, there were also many moments that confirmed the usability of their ideas for the residents.

“Hearing them express that what we’re doing could help them, really means a lot,” said Tess Lunetta, a fellow third-year student. “We can imagine what could be helpful in scenarios, but actually sitting down and talking to someone who will be using it and hearing them say, ‘Oh, I know what I can use this for.’ It’s really validating.”

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