From Yurt to Beer Cooler: Adventures with Duct Tape

Two weeks ago, a few of us adults got to play! We sat in on ENGN 0930 - Design Studio at Brown University, taught by Ian Gonsher and played with duct tape.  My friends, Annie Kahl and Dan Festa had sent up a flock-load of duct tape to the class to play with.  The following post is by Addie Thompson, '12.5 describing the collaborative creative process - iterations, failures and successes.  The lessons are applicable to all of us - listen & learn!

From Yurt to Beer Cooler: Adventures with Duct Tape
Addie Thompson, Brown ’12.5

It is always a bit overwhelming to be given the task of making anything you want, especially with a fully stocked workshop - complete with band saw and laser cutter - to suit your every need. This is the task we received last week in DesignStudio, a class at Brown University where we “imaginatively frame design problems and develop novel strategies for addressing those problems.” There were to be no limits to our design, creation and iteration of these products – except, of course, they had to be made out of duct tape.

Though broad in scope, this first official assignment had a built-in incentive to succeed (past simply surviving the class’s first crit); representatives from Duck Tape would actually be coming in to view our creations. It was a chance to build out ideations for an actual client, so the stakes were high and so was the energy. 

Inspired by the idea of collaboration, a group of us decided to work together to create something impressive, something that would get our client’s attention – basically, something BIG. Our group formed simply by where we were sitting around the design table and spoke to the diverse array of backgrounds in the class. In true Brown fashion, we had an astrophysicist, a philosopher, two biomedical engineers, and an international development major (me). Our initial reaction was to go large scale. How would humans interact in a space demarcated with duct tape? What would the experience of being surrounded by duct tape be like? We wanted to take duct tape where it had never been before; we were going to build a hammock, a tent…no! A yurt! A space where we as class members could hang out and get inspired; a permanent installation present in the studio long after the client was gone.

We set to work on a Sunday morning albeit somewhat groggy and anxious about other work. With so many people in the group, getting an idea across became a challenge; it was important to communicate every detail through drawing in our sketchbooks. It took us about an hour to set out a path to completion, and then it was pull, tear, pull, tear, rip, strrreeeettccch, rip. The sounds of our work echoed off the walls of the studio for hours on end as we layered, folded, bent, tugged and taped our hands raw. After about three hours, we had the “roof” of our yurt: an open frame, four-sided structure made from silver duct tape and sheets of Kentucky chrome (Google it) adhered creatively in 3D triangles and double-sided sheets. The true test was lifting it up, though. Would the structure maintain its intended pyramid-like shape? The answer, we found, was no.

Our defeated team immediately took to a new project with our Professor’s encouragement. Why not make a duct tape installation in the studio that utilizes the natural adhesive of the tape and demarcates space through open lines? Another hour of randomly connecting the ceiling and the floor with ridiculously long, patterned pieces of duct tape ensued. We even made duct tape fabric for the walls of the space, lining two-sided sheets with zebra and argyle or leopard and polka dots. Our crazy, pop-up tape castle came together in a flash of ripping, tearing and taping.

After almost 5 hours and two separate, semi-completed projects, the group left the studio tired, hungry and frustrated. Some were disappointed that we hadn’t seen our first project through to the end. Some were excited by the new idea but knew it wasn’t finished. All needed food. We decided to split for the day and reconvene the next afternoon.

What a difference a day makes! Our spirits were higher the next day even with the duct tape deadline looming closer and closer. With a few members of our original group and one new collaborator who had left another project team to join ours, a fresh assembly of people set out on yet another project that next afternoon. This time, with frustrations aired and slates clear, we could focus on an end goal much smaller in scope. We decided we were going to make every child’s (and every adult’s, let’s be honest) favorite toy: a kiddie pool. With the collection of dozens of prints at our disposal (thanks, Duck Tape!) and a clear vision laid out in our sketchbooks, we started on our third and final product for the week’s assignment. We worked diligently, stopping only at turning points in the product formation to make sure everyone was on the same page or to make ever-important executive decisions about which pattern to use where. With three principle actors driving the process, the design was still collaborative in nature and yet had more focus and intentionality.

After less than two hours of solid work, and a few non-duct tape wires here and there to help the structure of the pool, we had a finished product. Upon testing it to see if it would hold water, we were pleased to find that while it had some leaks, it held water for quite a long period of time. We had carefully taped a different pattern on each panel of the hexadecagonal shape (yeah, try that ten times fast) and the splatter-paint inner lining made it all the more inviting to kids and college students alike. It was important to us that our product reflect the values of our potential user groups: moms who wanted durable yet flexible construction and children who sought only the most colorful toys. On presentation day, to our surprise, someone offered, “It would be a perfect beer cooler for Brown’s Spring Weekend.” Brilliant.

Within the first week of this class, I had played a role in the creation of three separate, large-scale product designs for a real client using their materials. I had also learned more about my work style and the different roles I am able to play in various group settings. The ability to collaborate is not something you have or don’t have, I believe; it’s more about how flexible you can be to accommodate for various types of people in a group while still staying true to your vision and leadership styles. Functioning fluidly and nimbly, in terms of both ideas and people, was of utmost importance for this project, and will be essential throughout the duration of this class. We’ve started to develop a living, breathing design studio, where ideas change every second and individual backgrounds are as varied as the materials we use.

Welcome to the world of iterative, collaborative, user-centered design. 

ENGN 0930: Design Studio Collaborators:
Kerri Horvay '14
Alison Pruzan '15
Sophia Diaz '14
Ian Callendar '15
Samantha Bear '14