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Design:Chicago Showcases Top Local Designers

Good design — whether its design of a business, product, or program for social change — doesn't just involve aesthetics: it involves a careful study of the end user.

That was the message from presenters at Design:Chicago, the Segal Design Institute's annual seminar, which took place Thursday, April 15 in the James Allen Center at Northwestern University. This year's theme was "Business by Design."

The seminar featured presentations from several prominent local designers, including Wellington Reiter, president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Sam Farber, founder of OXO, Copco and WOVO; Gordon Segal, co-founder of Crate and Barrel; and Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern.

Farber spoke about the inspiration for created better-designed kitchen products — the sound of a vegetable peeler flying out of his wife's hand and hitting the kitchen wall.

"Why do they all break my hand and break the rules of design?" Farber recalled her saying.

So began his quest to design better kitchen utensils — "I never thought I'd be passionate about a vegetable peeler," he said — and he and his team decided such utensils should be comfortable, easy to use, good quality, aesthetically pleasing, dishwasher safe, and affordable. In 1990, OXO Good Grips kitchen tools were introduced to the market and set a new standard for design.

"The brand was built on innovation," Farber said. "It's all about the user, really."

For Gordon Segal, the idea to create Crate and Barrel came from his and his wife Carole's trips around the world; the couple would find shops that sold well-designed home products as an experience — an experience they could find no where in the states.

"It was an idea and a desire to sell things that would be beautiful and wonderful and inspiring to consumers," he said. "We thought, there have to be young couples with good taste and no money, like us."

Soon they opened their first store in Chicago, displaying items on crates and barrels, and created a user experience that was "touchable, buyable, and feelable." The design was successful — the company now has more than 170 stores across the country.

"It's beautiful design that people can use," he said.

Reiter spoke about his many projects that connect art, architecture and urbanism, including his graduate design thesis, which proposed a monument in New Orleans that showed the city's struggle with its below-sea-level topography.

"Art can be a wonderful lead-in to thinking about real-world problems," he said.

Ottino spoke about design from an academic perspective. He argues that design could be a way to augment cognitive skills. Innovation requires both left-brain analytical thinking and right-brain creative thinking, and design must draw from both sides. It connects art, technology, and science, and their products — creation, invention, and discovery.

"You have to use both sides of the brain to see the big picture," he said.

The program also featured a presentation from Design for America, and Northwestern student group that designs for social change and aims to create "positive infectious action." Group member Mert Iseri announced a competition — the Better Alternative challenge, which asks designers to create a two-minute video presenting an idea that can reduce water waste in some way. Winners will receive $1,000.

"We will not stop until millions of people are not just asking, is there are better alternative, but instead are designing a better alternative," Iseri said.

A video of the event will be available soon.