I Turned Off My Cellphone for You

Challenging young designers to create worthy alternatives to the cell phone.

Posted Jun 28, 2017

It’s a rainy day in NYC and everyone is carrying an umbrella. Most other hands, as usual, are glued to the ubiquitous cell phone. “Put that thing away,” I want to yell. “You’re missing one of the greatest shows on earth, New York City street life!”

Yet, they trundle on, faces turned down to their tiny screens, depending on the rest of us to avoid calamity since they are too enthralled to look up at the people and cars around them.

I am definitely becoming a curmudgeon about this, although who am I to rant? I’m so addicted to my iPad that I actually sleep with it under my pillow, checking every few hours to see who in the world might be responding to something I’ve sent into cyberspace. That’s why I was fascinated when I heard Rebecca Welz, an adjunct professor at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, was offering an industrial design class called, I Turned Off My Cellphone for You.

Welz, a sculptor who summers near me in the Catskill Mountains, says, “the title was, of course, an acknowledgment of the problem we all have; our total fixation with these still relatively new, society-changing toy/tools. The minute we get up, we are compelled to check them.” (And according to the research firm, eMarketer, the average American goes on to check them 76 times a day…. more for young adults, ages 18-24.)

I was invited to observe as young designers tried to come up with ideas for products and built environments that might encourage their contemporaries to step away from the cell. As an added challenge, Welz urged them to look toward an unlikely source for inspiration, Mother Nature.

Welz, who founded the Association of Women Industrial Designers (AWID) and helped to organize “Goddess in the Details,” the first exhibition of product design by women in the U.S., was also the first teacher at Pratt to focus on Biomimicry, the study of nature as a design engine. The rapidly growing field recognizes that plants and animals have been fine-tuning solutions to problems for millions of years and can offer an observant human being some pretty good leads when it comes to innovations that will stand the test of time. 

Rebecca Welz with her Pratt Biomimicry Class. Aldana Ferrer Garcia, used by permission
Source: Rebecca Welz with her Pratt Biomimicry Class. Aldana Ferrer Garcia, used by permission

The examples are almost endless; Velcro was invented when a Swiss engineer noticed how tenaciously cockleburs stuck to his trousers after a walk in the woods. Inspired by the structure of shark skin, designers created suits that gave human swimmers a serious leg up in Olympic competition. A self-cleaning paint was developed by imitating the microscopic bumps that help keep dirt particles from adhering to lotus leaves. The Navy recently announced that it had succeeded in synthesizing “one of the most unique biomaterials known,” a super glue-like gunk emitted by the hagfish to incapacitate prey and attackers at the bottom of the sea, and the humble blob known as the slime mold is so good at navigating mazes, biomimetic researchers are now studying them for hints on how to avoid traffic jams.

Welz laid out success stories like these and set her grad students loose to ponder what in the world might help distract us from the device The Wall Street Journal recently described as “not a product at all, but a life partner.”

Many took the challenge quite literally and envisioned products that would require giving up one’s cell phone to power another gadget, like a lamp.

Kirill Ragozin, a student originally from western Siberia, interested in virtual reality development, came up with an interesting spin on this approach; a personalized lighting system for restaurants. It would activate when two diners dock their cell phones in a cradle in the middle of the table. 

Shane Chen, used by permission
Source: Shane Chen, used by permission

​“I was going for the magical atmosphere produced by fireflies," Ragozin explained, "and this will produce a gentle candlelight effect that enhances personal communication and relaxes people with a different kind of setting and mood.” He went on to describe how “the light will respond, shimmering and changing, as the couple connects through conversation.” Ragozin reasoned that “knowing the lights will go out if one of you feels compelled to pick up your phone will help keep the two individuals committed to staying in the moment and sharing the experience.” 

Every student had to credit the natural inspiration that sparked their design and for Linda Xin it was bat’s ears, which register frequencies human ears can’t hear. She spent weeks contemplating how a cellphone-like device might bring sight impaired individuals and the rest of us “closer to nature, rather than drawing us away.” (I can attest that receiving a phone call on the hiking trail kind of kills the nature experience and yet how fantastic to have a cell handy if you get lost or hurt in the middle of nowhere.)  

After exploring different round forms based on the shape of sound waves, (which bats send out to echolocate in the dark) Linda produced the “Sound Compass.”  Designed to help human beings “see with sound, like bats,” it fits comfortably in the palm of the hand and delivers vibrations to aid navigation. With more development, she imagined that the Sound Compass could track the direction of sounds of the forest and catalog them for future reference, or offer almost immediate identification via an ultra-sonic sensor.

Jan Albert
Source: Jan Albert

Jay Qian’s project alluded to turning off one’s cell phone only in as much as drivers shouldn’t be using cell phones, but he seemed to capture the essence of the assignment with a bike helmet that emulates the intense blue of the Morpho butterfly. The Morpho, which can be sighted across a dense rain forest, gets its color not from any exterior pigment, but because of the way light reflects off the microscopic scales on its wings. Qian figures that if he can replicate this iridescent quality, it will make cyclists easier to spot as the light bounces off the top of their helmets in city traffic. He is now experimenting with a reflective fabric made by GM, which “works somewhat like the Mica you see sparkling in sidewalk pavements.”

Although looking to nature for elegant and efficient design solutions seems like a no-brainer, this was actually the first time any of these students had been exposed to the concept. Until very recently, industrial design has followed the “heat, beat, and treat” manufacture model, which routinely depleted natural resources, created waste, and used chemicals as a solvent. “Nature’s solvent is water,” Welz informed the class. She described how she became more aware of design as a force in sustainability, while she was scuba diving and observed how many different creatures and plant species a coral reef could support. “I also noticed how many natural forms kept coming up in my own sculpture.”  

“This very different way to come at a design project” obviously struck a chord with Shane Chen. His background is in consumer electronics and he sounded genuinely distressed about the fact that he is “paid to produce products  (like cellphones) that will become obsolete in a year and a half so consumers can toss them out and get the latest model.”

Jan Albert
Source: Jan Albert

Not to say that the mobile phone didn’t have its defenders. Tina Phan, a communications design major, stuck up for the cell, saying, “it has many positive aspects. You can access real-time directions. It preserves memories!” But she was also intrigued about taking cues from the natural world, even as she struggled to solidify her plan for a “Pixel Garden,” “where people could charge their phones while they wander through a group environment that will encourage face-to-face interaction.”

Andy Kim also liked being exposed to different strategies and materials. He was busy mixing dry fungi with flour and water to build the prototype for his project. “The saying in our industry is that engineers only care that it works, designers only care how it looks. We produce so many good-looking products that waste materials unnecessarily," says Kim. "I’m looking for something more meaningful and biomimicry has so much potential.”

Jan Albert
Source: Jan Albert

Finally, there was Josh Bird's response to the Pratt design challenge. It stood (or you might say, sat) out for its sense of fun, yet sincere purpose. He says, “I started by thinking how much anxiety cellphones cause. We are constantly checking it obsessively, so I wanted to come up with something to help relieve that social anxiety.” Eureka! The “Hug Machine” was born.

Over the semester, Bird refined his idea for a chair that envelops you when you sink into it. He was inspired by Temple Grandin’s groundbreaking contraption to help calm cows in mechanized food factories, as well as by the way a boa constrictor squeezes its prey. “But not to the point that your heart stops,” he assured. Bird's design is meant simply to deliver the “warm embrace everybody needs” by activating an air compressor when you sit in it and reverting to its previous shape once you stand up.

Although Rebecca Welz grabbed her students with a gimmick; questioning how designers might help break the hold cellphones exert on our every waking moment, she’s hoping the take away is a new approach to their work. “I tell them 80 percent of a product’s future is determined in the design phase so I want them to realize they have a lot of potential power in shaping our world. They are interested and that gives me hope for the future.”

With the school year at an end, she was off to Guatemala, to bring young designers together with master weavers, cobblers, and carvers for a six-week work-study program in a centuries-old town surrounded by three volcanoes. According to Welz, “It’s a beautiful setting where they can meld contemporary design with traditional craft technique." "Oh, and by the way,” Welz added as she bid me farewell, “cellphones don’t work there!”