KALAMAZOO, Mich.—“I’ve always loved planes and flight and space; I wanted to be an astronaut as a kid,” muses Aisha Thaj, BFA ‘21. Now an industrial engineer at Bell, she’s helping to imagine the future aesthetics of helicopters and other vehicles that use vertical lift technology, working on things like graphics, trade show presentations and interior redesigns.
Much like her career choice, Thaj’s career trajectory has trended sharply upward. She propelled herself on a path to becoming Bell’s first-ever industrial design engineer before she even graduated Western, impressing the CEO as a graphic design intern during a companywide meeting.
“I asked something along the lines of, ‘How do you see creativity and design being more integrated into Bell’s internal workflow?’” she remembers. “He called me into his office the next day and asked what I did (in school). That led to a meeting with the vice president of innovation who gave me and another designer a 24-hour turnaround project, asking us to sketch as many ideas as we could come up with.”
Drawing on the solid foundation of design skills she built in Western’s product design program and refined through numerous collaborations and critiques with industry mentors brought in by the University, her designs wowed company leadership and the engineering team alike.
“They basically created an in-house position for both of us,” she says, emphasizing the impact of the product design program’s experience-driven curriculum in making her career-ready. “Having industry representation from day one was super important, because sometimes school can become really detached from what the real, working world is like. So, having that mixed in from the beginning gave me a more well-rounded perspective of what to expect, and it gave each student an opportunity to build mentorship connections with real (professionals).”
Thaj's experience is not exclusive to her. Many of her classmates in the inaugural product design cohort in the Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation saw their careers take off right out of the gate. From leading lifesaving medical equipment innovation to designing the transportation of the future and even factoring fun and functionality for pets, they are making waves in their respective industries.
"One of the biggest takeaways that I got from the product design program is the emphasis that it puts on working with actual (industry) professionals," says Bobby Snell, BFA '21. He was hired as a toy designer for national pet company BARK as a fresh Bronco alumnus and recently joined the team at GUNNER, another pet-focused brand more oriented on outdoor accessories, as an industrial designer.
"(Professors) make sure as a student that you're working on real-life projects, that you're networking in the same way that you would as a professional and that you're able to speak as a professional," says Snell. "I had a great connection through one of our professors to the Wahl clipper company, where I was able to move (to Illinois) for a summer and be very involved in their design team. It wasn't like I was just a student that was going in, sitting back and learning what it's like to design—I was fully there designing."
In fact, as an intern at Wahl, Snell was able to get his name on two design patents while he was still a student at Western.
"I want to say it was surprising. But, at the same time, it wasn't because I felt like I was just doing exactly the stuff that I was doing in my program, in classes. I was utilizing every skill that I had done multiple times, from sketching to prototyping to modeling to testing products and communicating with professionals that this was going to be marketed toward," Snell says. "All of those things that I was doing while helping develop this product with Wahl were things that I had done multiple times as a student at Western."
DRIVING DESIGN INNOVATION
Outfitted with leather made from ground apples and a recycled rubber and cork floor, the Ram Revolution concept truck generated considerable buzz at the 2023 Consumer Electronics Show. Behind the scenes, Danialle Baumgardner, BFA '21, marveled at how her work had come to life.
As a color and materials designer at Stellantis, she has a hand in determining the touch, look and feel of vehicles in the automaker's extensive fleet that includes brands such as Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Ram, Maserati and more.
Baumgardner says working on the concept truck team and having the opportunity to push the boundaries of possibility to envision the future of a major truck brand was her favorite experience so far. And her futuristic vision paid off; EyesOn Design awarded Stellantis the title of Best Concept Vehicle at the North American International Detroit Auto Show in September.
"It feels really special, because it was really the first project I've gotten to see from just small sketches of ideas to a full vehicle standing in front of you."
Baumgardner first connected with Stellantis as a product design student. She remembers the former program director giving her a heads up that a team from the company would be visiting campus. She presented her portfolio to the visiting contingent, which ultimately led to an internship.
"Through that, I met a lot of designers," she says. She went on to live out a dream that seemed out of reach at the time, landing a foot in the door with Ralph Gilles, Stellantis chief design officer—someone she remembers being featured in favorite Netflix series "Abstract: The Art of Design."
"When I interned with (Stellantis) my junior year, it was really surreal to be working with the people I saw on a Netflix show. And now I work with these people and do the things they were doing and talking about in that episode. It's very full circle and kind of crazy to think about."
PRESCRIPTION FOR SUCCESS
A major factor in Baumgardner's quick development as a designer was the deep professional network available to Western product design students bolstered by geographic proximity to a wealth of tech companies. She calls West Michigan a "secret gold mine" for designers. Classmate Nick Koch, BFA '21, agrees.
"My junior year, in 2020, I got accepted as an intern to Stryker, which is where I'm working now," he says. The internship was ultimately canceled because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Koch still had the opportunity to work virtually alongside designers on some projects. "I still got to know the team very well and they got to know my work, which was great."
Koch also interned at Tekna, a design consultancy, his senior year. "Going through both a consultancy and a corporation, I was able to find that I liked corporate projects a little better because you have far more time to dive deeper into the projects," he says.
The next semester he returned to Stryker part time as an industrial design contractor, and he never looked back. Now a senior industrial designer with the company, he's had the opportunity to get involved in several projects related to medical equipment design, including an innovative dashboard for hospital beds and stretchers to help prevent patient falls. It allows nurses to evaluate fall risk among patients and monitor movements from a central hub.
"This is what I enjoy: You get to go really deep into projects and talk to these people who are quite literally saving lives and trying to reduce the amount of occurrences like this," says Koch. "It's a great feeling when it all works well."
Koch wasn't always interested in working in the medical space. Quite the opposite: Hospitals made him nervous. But his second year in Western's product design program that changed when he met a designer at Stryker who was helping out with a sketching demo in one of his classes.
"He actually became my mentor from then on throughout the rest of college. Through him, I was better able to understand the products and projects he was working on … and it got me really interested in the kind of work that he did," remembers Koch. "What Western did really well was allow students to develop their own philosophy and follow their own paths of design. As you progress as a student, you start to get a better understanding of what the world of design is and how you personally can make an impact."
That empowering approach has allowed three cohorts of Bronco product designers to make an immediate impact in their chosen industries.
"Looking back, I just can't fathom where I'm at," says Baumgardner. "Eighteen-year-old me thought I was going to be a graphic designer … and here I am designing cars in Detroit for a major company." ■