California State University, Long Beach
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Design Students Tackle Mobility Issues

Published: June 19, 2017

CSULB Industrial Design majors tasted real-world success in May when the Long Beach-based Mobül—the mobility store honored the top student design geared to assist people who have disabilities or trouble moving around.

For the competition which ran from January to March, Rene Zavala won for his walker tray design and was recognized at the Design Department’s Senior Show.

“All of us have people in our lives affected with mobility problems,” said design’s Wesley Woelfel, whose 16-member industrial design studio 331B class is in its second year of recognition from Mobül which carries the largest selection of home medical supplies and mobility equipment in Southern California. “We wanted to collaborate with Mobül to see how our students went about creating new ideas and new products for this market. The students are designing for their own futures. They begin to understand how situations change when someone loses mobility. In many cases, their own families are affected. They learn about experiences by talking to family members, neighbors and communities. Someday they may have to face these mobility issues themselves.”

Sample student projects included bath seats, crutches, grab bars, lift chairs, walkers, canes, lifts, scooters and power chairs with many of those turning into “portfolio pieces” that play a vital role in getting that first job.

Examples of projects came from student Paul Suteu, who created the Securi-Step design, a step stool with an articulating handle. Another student, Cynthia Chen, created a “smart lamp” that enables others to know if someone has fallen. The first-place winning project last year, designed by Sheila Pancani, was a commode.

“Our students are trained well and are truly an outcome of the collaborative effort of our dedicated faculty and staff throughout the design department and the industrial design program,” said Woelfel.

This year’s winner cheered his recognition.

“I feel honored to receive this recognition and also very thankful to the Mobül store staff and CEO for being so helpful throughout my project,” said Zavala, who is on schedule to receive his bachelor of science degree in industrial design next spring. “I am sure it will help my job prospects and it is also a very good portfolio and resume recognition to show.”

The key to his entry’s success was hard work, requiring a lot of research, analyzing and trying many different configurations.

“I was trying to simplify the product for the user while making it more effective,” said Zavala. “All the instructors I’ve had have influenced the way I work and design. Also I’m grateful to the staff with some of the services they provide such as prints and laser cuts.”

Students kicked off their projects with a visit to the Long Beach offices of Mobül, where they spoke to and got insight from the firm’s Founder and CEO Wayne Slavitt.

“CSULB is such a great resource,” said Slavitt. “This is the second year we have worked with the industrial design program. As Mobül is just up the street from the university, collaborating with CSULB students is so easy.”

“What is important about this project is that making sure their projects have value,” said Woelfel, an assistant professor who joined the university since 2008. “Look at crutches. Students see a crutch and think they will build it out of titanium so it will be super light and be able to be taken away or folded up. It can be used outdoors for hiking and indoor for walking. However, the reality is that most people do not buy crutches that cost around $300. They are part of their medical coverage. Medical coverage will not pay for titanium crutches. The idea of value is very important.”

Empathy is important, too. One of the students designed safety features for a typical bathroom and found, through interviews, that one of the subjects used a doorknob to stand.

Rene Zavala won for his walker tray design and was recognized at the Design Department’s Senior Show.

“Does she avoid having a grab bar because it is too expensive?” said Woelfel, “Or, on the other hand, does it make her feel handicapped when her friends use her bathroom? That is the key to making a good design. The designer must find the little details that the client may not tell you. Students connect with their families on this. Someday, they may need it themselves, so these become meaningful projects.”

The student designs faced a professional panel that included the president and vice president of Mobül, its general manager and a sales representative as well as a pair of industrial designers. Mobility device maker NOVA sent its executive VP Ron Gaudiano to the final presentation.

Obviously, one of the best product designs this year was Zavala’s walker tray.

“Rene looked at price and ‘pain points’ or elements that are uncomfortable,” said Woelfel. “Did the tray handle visibility well? Did its design block access to the handle? If there is a risk to a product, makers may shy away from it.”

Projects like these offer opportunities to link up with CSULB’s professional partners, Woelfel pointed out.

“We are always looking for opportunities to relate to professional partners,” said Woelfel. “It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The collaborations must be meaningful to the class. Finding a project sponsor is one thing. However, it is important that the learning outcomes from that collaboration line up with what the students are expecting to learn. I look for collaborative projects that reinforce what the students expect to learn. If students can find a company that wants their product and is willing to provide feedback, then it works out pretty good. Working with Mobül has been amazing and we are very thankful for their partnership.”

Slavitt sees worth in reaching out to institutions such as CSULB, noting it is important to Mobül for several reasons.

“First, we feel an obligation to do a small part in providing ‘real world’ experiences to college students,” he said. “Second, universities like CSULB have tremendous resources available to small businesses like Mobül, both from the students and the faculty like Wesley. Finally, Mobül’s program with the industrial design program tasks students to create new products for seniors. We are hopeful some of these products will one day make it to the marketplace to improve the mobility and safety of older people. It’s nice to know Mobül helped facilitate that.”