Photo by Chung Chow
Philip Siwek decided to go back to school.
“It’s been a bit of a long journey,” he says of his career path. After studying arts for a year then doing an undergraduate degree in industrial design in Toronto, he worked as a design consultant before heading to Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Wilson School of Design to study again.
This time, he chose the 18-month Technical Apparel Design post-degree program.
“I guess it was the greater opportunities and also the opportunities to explore a new field of design and essentially branch out, learn new skills, learn what I could do creatively,” Siwek, whose name is pronounced “Sheevek,” says.
Siwek has achieved his goal. His wearable tech grad project used bar code technology printed onto a bicycle jacket so that driverless cars can “see” a bike rider and tell which direction they are going.
Wilson School of Design lecturer Dan Robinson says Siwek’s bike jacket addresses how to improve the communications between autonomous vehicles and cyclists, so the car can tell which side of the cyclist it is looking at and which direction the bike is going.
“It’s one thing to register that it’s a cyclist,” Robinson says, “but it’s another thing to understand what the cyclist is doing. If you don’t want it to run into a cyclist, the car has to predict what the rider’s behaviour is going to be. Is it riding across, past, or likely to turn?”
Robinson says the big problem is how to communicate that to something that doesn’t have a human brain.
That’s where Siwek’s design comes in. With different bar codes on each sleeve, as well as the front and back of the biking jacket, the autonomous car can read the bar codes, identifying whether the bike is coming towards, away or across the car’s path.
It’s not a slam dunk. It takes time, patience, consultation and testing different models to come up with the final product.
“It’s work. Especially in a creative field, people assume as a designer you sit around and then you draw your build. It’s actually a lot of research, figuring out the problems that come up along the way, doing your research, trying to understand your users, trying to figure out the best way to test things,” Siwek says.
Robinson’s experience makes him well-suited to teach.
“I came in as a guest lecturer in universal design. It is really a core part of what I teach in the Wilson School of Design. The rest of my time, I’m a consultant in ergonomics. Robinson Ergonomics Inc. is my day job. Teaching at Kwantlen is my other hat.”
And what, you may ask, is an ergonomist?
“I spend my life watching people work,” Robinson replies “studying what does and doesn’t work well, how to redesign it so it does work well. It’s user-centred design. I’m really spending time with people, doing whatever they do and looking for ways to make them more effective at doing that.”
And sometimes, more effective also means safer.
It turns out, we live in a hub for wearable tech, according to Robinson.
“Metro Vancouver has some really neat people with some really neat talents in that area. My day job is really trying to keep people safe at work and effective at what they do.”
“The payoff is the end result and if you do the work, you’ll have a good design,” Siwek says.
According to Robinson: “The whole process we use is really a user-designed process.”
He says the students have to ask themselves, “Who are we designing for? What do they do and how they do it, in what environments, and then we use that understanding to identify any gaps that may be addressed through design.”
He says it takes research.
“It’s about helping identifying opportunities and it’s not just market opportunities. There’s a problem that has not been solved. In the Technical Apparel Program that’s what makes it tech—it’s solving a functional requirement.”
Siwek says of the program: “I’ve learned at KPU. I’ve learned about the apparel industry; how an apparel is designed, about manufacturing, the relationship between brand companies and the offshore manufacturers.”
The students in the program all journeyed to a major manufacturer in Vietnam to have their wearable tech made.
“I learned about the amount of innovation and creativity that goes into creating garments and the amount of work. I have learned a lot about apparel. It’s just opened up my eyes in terms of the industry and the similarities and differences from regular product design,” Siwek says.
Robinson adds that this wearable tech is not just for hard-core fitness fans. “Within the Technical Apparel Program, one of the interesting things I have noticed is that we think of accessible or universal design as designing just for a disability.”
Instead, he says, look at it from the perspective of designing a jacket for a mountaineer, where there is super-cold weather that affects dexterity, which leads to poor strength and cold hands.
He says that if the student designs something that is easier to open and close for the mountaineer’s cold clumsy fingers, it makes the jacket more useful to people who live daily with poor hand control and strength.
“That now is really universal design,” Robinson says. “If it works better for everybody, it’s an easier sell.”
Robinson says by including more users, you increase your potential market. When a designer and manufacturer aims only at the able-bodied, he says, “you shut out a big part of the market because (people with disabilities) are simply not going to use your product,” noting 15 per cent of Canadians live with a disability.
Siwek’s design can work for wheelchair users too, so autonomous cars can also make the same safety decisions about people who use a chair or a motorized scooter to get around.
So universal design is not just good for the soul; it is good for the bottom line.
Just as medical research involves patients in research design and all the way through a project, Robinson says, “Involving the users with what you’re doing is a core principal of what we teach.”
While inclusion isn’t always easy and the solutions can be challenging to fine tune, as recent graduate Siwek says, “Being a designer who faces complex challenges, that’s what I want to be.”
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