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The Kansas City Art Institute Has A New Design Program

By June 12, 2019General

There have been notable faculty and alumni that have walked through the Kansas City Art Institute doors including — Thomas Hart Benton, Robert Morris, Calvin Maglinger, Nick Cave, Richard Corben and even Walt Disney took Saturday morning classes as a child.  We filmed our Season 1 and 2 events on their beautiful campus at the David T. Beals III Studio and this upcoming fall it will also be home to KCAI’s newest program, Product Design. 

Available to students entering their sophomore year in fall 2020, KCAI is offering a new kind of product design program for the 21st century. “It’s roots are in Industrial Design, though that title came out of the Industrial Age and we are now in a very different place in progressive design education.”  The Product Design major was created by Professor Chris Chapin and he has led the brand new program through research and development, to board approval and NASAD accreditation.  

UMKC Partnership

Chris’ goal was to develop the curriculum in a direction that fits the KCAI tradition of creative form making while introducing a new program that responds to a changing world.  One of the highlights of their product design program is their partnership with University of Missouri-Kansas City.  Chris found what was missing at other collegiate programs was the entrepreneurial aspect and it’s what makes it different from other programs in the country.  

Partnering with UMKC through an innovative collaboration, classes will be taught on the KCAI campus by faculty from the The Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, a program of the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at UMKC, and providing students with access to entrepreneurial courses.  “Our collaboration with KCAI acknowledges the fact that a designer with business and entrepreneurship skills has a higher likelihood of success in the 21st-century economy. Through the program, students will learn to not only be a great designer but also how to launch and position their products and services in the market,” said Andy Heise, assistant director of Regnier Institute. 

As the creator and founding leader of the program, Chris has also been working with them to develop a minor for ALL KCAI students in entrepreneurship. Most college design programs fall short in that they, these students, are designing amazing things, only to sit in their portfolio unmade, unrealized.”  Teaching students to develop their designs into a real venture is a very important part of the program.  “The idea is that if our goal is to design products that improve people’s lives, we can get those products out into the world. We’re not just interested in teaching students how to design, but also teach them how to put their designs into the world and make a real difference.” 

KCAI Collaboration

The program will also coincide with other KCAI programs.  The idea is that product design students will collaborate with students in other majors, especially sculpture, fiber arts, textiles and graphic design.  That collaboration plays an important part in venturing into creating (soft) products like tents or bags or shoes.  “I’m very interested in how we can collaborate with fine artists. That’s going to be one of the things that makes us different from other industrial programs that don’t have strong art programs.  Exchanging ideas with other artists will be one of the biggest additions to the college, and working in the Beals Studio helps foster relationships with other students from all disciplines who work and create within the studio.”

One of the biggest challenges has been getting the word out.  Starting a new program and getting students to attend for a degree they’re not known for is difficult.  “When students are looking for a college they’re looking for a school that has a reputation for this or that. We don’t have that yet for our product design program.”  But, Chris reminded me, as a designer, finding solutions is what they do.  He’s been working to develop workshops for high-school and middle-school students and working with those who have a strong STEM emphasis.  Embracing STEM disciplines allows forward thinking and understanding of the world we are designing for.  “We can’t design for the real world unless we understand the real world and that’s where STEM comes in.”  Spreading the word to schools, meeting potential collaborators and finding ways to use STEM thinking in creative ways has been one of his solutions to tackle the challenge.

Kansas City’s Creative Hub

“I think we’re going to bring a different type of student to KCAI that might not think about going to a traditional art & design college.”  Coming from LA, what has kept Chris in Kansas City is the city itself.  “There is a rich background in manufacturing and creativity that we are tapping into. The startup entrepreneur community is booming. It’s exactly the right time to start a program like this.”  A professor at KCAI for 10 years, Chris feels that, “This is the place where you can start your own creative venture. Students that go through this program will be prepared to succeed anywhere in the world, but I hope a lot of them will stay in Kansas City and further develop the creative industry here.”

Designers and architects are very excited to have this new program in the city.  With companies such as Garmin, Cerner, Kem Studios, Dimensional Innovations and manufacturers like Zahner, there are many directions the students can take. We need people to serve here, create and innovate here, in the middle of the country.  Culturally, we want Kansas City to be the center of design and design education, and it’s growing in that way.”

Students who enter the first-year Foundation program in Fall 2019 will be the inaugural class to enroll in Product Design in Fall 2020. The Foundation program is an immersive experience that hones students’ skills and expands their notions of what creativity can be. It is one of the defining characteristics of a KCAI education. Classes are taught by full-time faculty, including Chris, and the curriculum is designed to help each student determine their passion and path forward when selecting a major. Transfer students who are interested in the Product Design major can transfer in Fall 2020.  For more information visit kcai.edu/product-design/


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