Engaging Companies in the Design Conversation

Design can be a powerful driver of business innovation and growth, but design language can take years to learn fluently. So how do you engage companies in the design conversations that can help them make their next leap forward?


That's the challenge that a number of Emily Carr students have tackled through their real-world immersion at PowerTech, a division of BC Hydro. PowerTech made Canadian history by creating Canada's first and only Level III Electric Vehicle Charging Station, the fastest way to charge electric cars.


But it takes continuous innovation to stay on the forefront of alternative fuel-source technologies and initiatives. Emily Carr's Social + Interactive Media Centre, funded by a 5-year grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, supports innovation through applied research.


A design team led by Professor Louise St. Pierre, an industrial designer with a focus on sustainability, gave Powertech insight into how design can help them grow and enhance their competitive advantage. Two students, Sarah Bailey and James Hallam, spent the summer working on site at the company; their placements laid the groundwork for a semester-long project in which 16 3rd-year design students are now working with Powertech on projects that research real-world solutions to enable the transition from petroleum to electric or hydrogen fueled transportation. 


Samantha Lefort is a student in the design class that will work with PowerTech through December 2010. She spoke with Sarah and James about the co-op placement that kicked off the Powertech collaboration:


Samantha: What was your role at Powertech?


James: Our title was "Design Ambassador". But we actually got to do stuff: our role was to make Powertech aware of the potential of design, as a business tool, research tool, a competitive advantage, and a new way of thinking. Since we were the first people who've ever played that role in Powertech's clean transportation business, there were no set measures of success. So we had to be embedded in the company: if it had been an outside position, it would never have worked.


Sarah: What we were really doing was creating a new understanding of the space that they were in. It was our job to look for new opportunities, and help them come up with a new framework for clean tech research as an engineering firm.


Samantha: How did this project come about?


James: It all came from Mari Nurminen, Powertech's Senior Advisor for STrategic Planning. She was educated as a business person, but because of her previous exposure to design, she saw the opportunity for design to advance the company's long-term growth.


Samantha: How did this experience affect your own design work?


Sarah:  It was an amazing, completely engrossing experience. I have a lot more confidence now, knowing how I contribute as a designer.

Samantha: What was a typical day like?


Sarah: We spent a lot of time talking to people in different design labs, just finding out what everyone was working on, and trying to understand their language, their way of seeing things. Then we translated that into visuals, diagrams, and ideas that helped them to have conversations among themselves about what their priorities were and how they saw themselves as a company.


James: Our work was always better when we talked to people -- to anybody and everybody. We got all these contributions from different people, put them on drawings and notes, and then created mind maps by arranging and rearranging the these into categories and patterns. That was how we found where there were opportunities for design...like working on the charging station, or helping them to develop their visibility and company profile.


Samantha: What advice would give to future students based on your experience at Power Tech?


Sarah: Get that first job out of the way,and test what you've learned in the classroom in the outside world.


James: Find your own opportunity to get involved in a real-world project. No one knows what you can do until you let them know. And the best place to meet them is by hanging out at the water cooler.

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