'I am striving to connect students, university and industry to advance design'

University of Kansas faculty are striving to advance knowledge, interpret our world, solve problems, spark innovation, create beauty and catalyze imagination through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Through the “I Am Striving” series, we’ll learn more about what inspires KU researchers, as well as the goals and impact of their work. 

Q&A with Greg Thomas, director of the Center for Design Research and professor of visual communication design

Explain your research as you would explain it to someone outside your field, such as your grandparents. 

It's difficult because design is very holistic. My parents really never knew what I did for a living. And that was frustrating because they supported me through college and a lot of the needs that I had to get to where I was wanting to go, until one year Target, I think it was a Superbowl commercial came out with Target is and they show it a whole bunch of images, like clothing, kitchen, were just it was just this loop of endless things that were designed, oriented, because Target was going through this change. And I called Minneapolis the next day. And I said, “Can I please get a disk of that? So I can show my parents what I do.” And I sent it up to him. And a few days later, I said to my mother, “now? Do you get what I do?” And she goes, “Yeah, you make commercials.” And I said, “well, that's kind of right.” But a designer is someone who really gets into everything. And in my lifetime, I been able to do that. Fortunately, I've worked some for some very prominent designers in the country, who varied from furniture design, to exhibits, to environments, to movie titles. And so it's really very hard to put a cap on what it is we do. I think design is something that you don't really think about too much. But you see it every day, wherever you get up in the morning. The first things you see may have been designed by somebody. Whatever it is, even when you go to sleep, the mattress that you sleep on has been designed by somebody. So design plays an important role in just about everything we do. 

What does your research look like? What methods do you use? 

The research methods that we employ are very unconventional. There's not a book or a training that we go through to get to the point that we work at here at the Center for Design Research (CDR). It's a combination of a whole bunch of things, and a lot of is just gut influence, or gut feelings. There are things that we use from our past, or disciplines that we were trained in. But the most important thing is to listen. If you're listening to your teacher, or your potential employer, it's very important that you listen well and understand what they're asking of you. And then the research comes out of finding out how to answer that.  

And much like a doctor, we can't solve the problem designers can't solve a problem without understanding what the problem is. When you go to the doctor and say it hurts here, it gives them some clue in terms of what you need. And I think we practice the same kind of research, every project that we do here, every 14 weeks is something new, and something that I don't even know the answer for. I learned along with the students, what my help to them is, is to understand, maybe through my years as a practitioner, whether we should go this way or whether we should go that way. The main thing that we emphasize is something I learned a long time ago from a colleague and mentor at Ford, which is his theory of “what if” He would always go to the teams there and say, “what if.” And that was a sign that maybe we weren't quite there yet. There was more that we can investigate. Pushing us that much further in the envelope is really important. Just when you think you're done, there's always something that you can do to it to make it better, to make it more functional, to make it something that answers that question about what are your needs.  

What inspires your research? Why are you passionate about this work? 

My research is pretty much along the same lines as the students. I mentioned that when we start a project I, myself don't actually know where it's going to go. Because most of the things are very blue sky. I'm learning at the same time that the students are. I consider some of that my own research as well. I have to prepare a syllabus, talk to a potential sponsor a semester before we have the class, so that I understand what they're looking for. And I can interpret that in a way that the students are able to understand it as well. If we walk in without any kind of discussion prior to that, then it's going to take us much longer, and our hopes of success are going to be much different.  

So the research is starting with zero, and then learning on the way. How does this manifest itself? We usually spend numerous weeks in research, we look at opposition, or companies that are doing the same kind of thing, so we don't replicate what they're doing. We look at the actual deeds and what exists out there that's been done. We do a lot of coverage of the subject or the essence of something. And then we proceed with the ideation, which is the creation that the collaboration between the team of students and myself, in terms of what could this be. 

What makes me feel the best about the research is when it works. And when is that? And how do we measure that? Well, often we have a presentation to a CEO, president, or a principal of a company. The eight or 10 students have the opportunity to present their concepts to these senior vice presidents or above. And the thing I get out of it is seeing them present, articulate, and come up with things that maybe I hadn't seen the week before. But it honesty just blows me away. Because again, as I mentioned at the beginning, I don't know where we're going to go with this thing. And all of a sudden, after 14 weeks, they have nailed it. And I think there can be no better reward for a teacher or a researcher, to be part of that. 

How does your research directly impact your field, society, Kansas, and the world? 

The impact that I hope that we make, through that center for design research, is for change, changing the way we think, change the way the students approach a project, changing the way people accept what design is, and, and its outcome. Now, how can that manifest itself? Well, we are constantly and more so than before, working in the healthcare industry, which is changing every second, almost every part of industry is changing now, because of the pandemic that we just went through. But the change is really about having not only our students, but our sponsors begin to think differently. 

What is a recent study/example of work you’d like to share? 

In healthcare, it's very important that we look at things not as the way that they were, but the way they could be. Now, this is in terms of listening again, very succinctly to what the sponsor is talking about. And we did a project for Bayer animal health, where cows actually get a an illness in their lungs. And that ends up in the cow’s demise. We were asked by Bayer to find out a way to detect that early and to treat it. So again, here's a project where we have 14 weeks, we have to analyze what this disease is. We worked with K-State because they have the cows and we don't. And we were able to really come up with some good ideas and how to detect it when they go to the feedlots. And then when they go to the feed lots, they are apt to maybe get this sickness, and then take them up to a barn and have them tested. That didn't exist prior to our involvement. And those kinds of things are what we really like to do.  

There's a lot of things out there. But if we act like a MacGyver and take something from here, something from here and mash them together, we've got a third instrument that is able to complete what we need to do. So that's the fun of it. 

What do you hope are some of the outcomes of your research and work? 

The end result is really to make a difference. And to expedite the thinking process we don't work in a vacuum; we depend on others. Intel may might make a specific product. But T-Mobile is the one that uses that product. If we combine them together then we have something different. So what our end goal is to really address the problems that we're faced with, and come up with solutions that are going to help not only the people of Kansas, but the people of Colorado, the people of Wyoming, the people of the United States, and beyond.  

When the pandemic happened, we were the first ones to create a face shield for the Kansas City hospital. We got a call at about two o'clock in the morning from a doctor we know saying “we need help. We don't have any masks.” The next day I called an industry partner of ours and said, “Are you able to do this and this in terms of manufacturing?” We spent Sunday designing the thing. He went into production on Monday and making the by Tuesday morning. We had 10,000 mask for the hospital. That's the way it has to work. It has to be this this joining of industry and academics. And I think my goal is to show that to not only our industry partners, but the university. I think everybody has heard of the term “silos” at a university, and that's probably the worst thing that we can do at this point. We don't work that way on the outside of the university. So why should we continue to practice that on the inside? I think the more we're able to expose students to real projects, with other classes we've had engineering in here, we've had business in here, when we encourage that. Because the more different disciplines we have, the better end result we're going to end up with.