ISU industrial design students produce outdoor benches for new university building

Students and benches

Industrial design students and their benches for Troxel Hall, from left, Ryan Bush, Mitch Hinrichsen, Lindsey Croghan and Carlos Ramirez. Downloadable photo by Bob Elbert.

AMES, Iowa -- It's hard to imagine college students working on a project for weeks after their class has ended. But the students in Will Prindle's summer industrial design studio wouldn't have it any other way.

They say it's because the class "has been an eye-opening experience" and "a big reality check the whole way," and they have "learned a lot more in depth." In fact, they have "never done a class even close to this one."

The seven industrial design students not only designed the outdoor benches for Iowa State University's new Troxel Hall, which opens Aug. 26, they managed the entire production process from idea to product.

It may not sound like much on the surface. Seven outdoor benches in a couple of months. How hard could it be, right? After all, they only had to successfully complete the following tasks:

  • Refine the initial concept (developed last spring in "Furniture Design and Fabrication," which Prindle co-taught with Chris Martin, an integrated studio arts associate professor) for added strength, metal flow and aesthetics
  • Determine the most comfortable bench seat and back angles
  • Select, locate and obtain the native hard wood that would be maintenance free and withstand the rigors of college students and Iowa weather for 10 - 15 years
  • Visit and identify a foundry that could sandcast the steel parts in short order
  • Construct casting flasks (mold boxes)
  • Cut the patterns for the foundry using a CNC (computer-controlled) router
  • Determine the perfect mounting hardware and bolts
  • Locate a welder for the steel tubing frame
  • Manage the budget
  • Interact with vendors and contractors
  • Follow university procedures for bidding, purchasing, communicating and documenting
  • Permanently attach the boards to the seats
  • Deliver on time, on spec and on budget

Or, as Rhonda Martin, campus landscape architect from ISU's Facilities Planning and Management, summed it up: "The students were faced with a challenging construction schedule and still managed to pull off some very well-designed benches that we are proud to have placed on campus."

Students working

Final touches. Photo by Bob Elbert.

"Each step in the process came with its own ups and downs," said Mitch Hinrichsen, an industrial design grad student from Sioux City. "At times we felt super confident that we were on the fast track to success. Then something would occur and throw a wrench in the works and we would be back at square one." 

"They like this class because it's a real project with real problems so they're learning a lot about how to be flexible," said Prindle, an ISU lecturer with more than 30 years experience as an industrial designer. "They're learning how to deal with things on the fly, how to make decisions."

Graduate student Lindsey Croghan, Manning, said no traditional-classroom design project could teach what they've learned this summer.

"As students, most of our energy is thrown into the concept, sketches, form refinement, prototyping and beautifying the presentation layout. We think hypothetically about how our concepts would be made a reality, by stating 'it would be' made out of this material using that manufacturing process," Croghan said. 

"No matter how many YouTube videos I watched about making a cope and drag mold for our castings, I learned more from actually doing it ... and from the mistakes we made when we did it,” she said.

Prindle also asked each student to create a process book, used by industrial designers to document every step in product design and production from the initial problem identification through finished product photos. It includes sketches, renderings, computer drawings and models, photos, vendor and contractor emails, and budget figures.

"It's the first thing a potential employer wants to see because it shows how they think and express themselves," Prindle said. "It shows how they identify and solve problems. What was your path, how did you get to this solution? What were the blind alleys? When did you realize you were solving the wrong problem and how did you fix it?"

For junior Ryan Bush, Rock Island, Ill., seeing the project through to the end was a commitment with a big payoff.

"It's huge to have something for my portfolio that has been manufactured," Bush said.

"The turning point was the realization that we were not just 'in class,' but actually working as we will for the rest of our professional careers. This was when the standard timeline for the class was removed and our deliverable product became the priority — not our grade. We knew if we created our best work, the grade would follow," he said.

"It's our passion for our work that kept us working well beyond the end of our class."

Benches in place

The benches in place at Troxel Hall. Photo by David Ringholz.