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Cleveland Institute of Art helping make student products – and career paths – a reality

Dan Cuffaro, chair of industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art, works with student Cordelia Wright.
Jeff Forman
Cleveland Institute of Art
Dan Cuffaro, chair of industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art, works with student Cordelia Wright.

Cordelia Wright can’t stand clutter.

The soon-to-be Cleveland Institute of Art graduate wanted to make organization a focus of her final project at the school and started looking for problems to solve. She zeroed in on the lack of counter space in small living areas like apartments or dorm rooms.

Recently, Wright launched a Kickstarter for the OPAL Organizer, her bathroom organizer product. It has two larger silicone pockets to hold bathroom essentials, with a small pocket for items like toothbrushes, and can either be wall-mounted or used on a countertop. The goal is to declutter without hiding the products out of sight and, often, out of mind.

Wright came up with the concept and design for the OPAL Organizer in the Cleveland Institute of Art’s m.power class, which recently wrapped up its second year.

M.power is a hands-on class for seniors who want the opportunity to actually conceptualize, design and prototype a product. The goal is for students to also launch a crowdfunding campaign by the end of the two-semester course, which requires them to learn about marketing and building a potential customer base. And over the course of the project, they also learn about budgets and costs, from filing for a provisional patent to paying for tooling to figuring out shipping and storage.

At the beginning of 2022, Dan Cuffaro, chair of industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art, was on sabbatical, thinking about ways to update the curriculum. Cuffaro realized that students needed to learn directly about entrepreneurship. He was talking to students and found the topic kept coming up, as students spoke about wanting to open their own studios after graduation. But they shied away from the idea and the term of entrepreneurship, associating it with business, not art.

“So there was a disconnect with that word,” Cuffaro said. “And so, I switched to the concept of empowerment: entrepreneurship as empowerment.”

The m.power course launched that fall.

That first year revealed some challenges, particularly when it came time for production; there was a learning curve when it came to understanding manufacturing processes.

The products have to be simple, Cuffaro said – anything overly complex with lots of tech or high part counts wouldn’t be a good fit for the timeframe. Students have the opportunity to work with a factory rep, who helps them connect with manufacturers across the globe to make their products. And the engineers at those factories can work directly with the students, giving feedback on product specifications and helping them refine designs. Wright highlighted that experience as a big benefit, one that she didn’t think she’d otherwise have gotten as a student without the m.power class.

While some students could have a successful crowdfunding campaign come out of the class, leading to a small business or a product to sell to a larger company, that’s not necessarily the point. The point of m.power is not having a student leave with a full-time entrepreneurship plan.

“This is not about the product,” Cuffaro said. “It’s about going through that experience.”

And the experience of launching a product will apply if a student wants to set off on their own, but it also makes them “attractive hires,” he said. The students who go through m.power have tangible product design experience at all parts of the process.

“It’s a very valuable portfolio and resume builder,” Cuffaro said.

In addition to Wright, this year’s class includes Oliver Nichols, who is creating a silicone trivet designed to protect pans on induction stoves, and Joseph Hollins, who is making a laptop sleeve to simplify on-the-go workplace setups.

Cordelia Wright created the OPAL Organizer, seen here, as part of the Cleveland Institute of Art’s m.power class.
Mason Kovacs
Cordelia Wright created the OPAL Organizer, seen here, as part of the Cleveland Institute of Art’s m.power class.

Wright, who is set to graduate in May, started at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2020 and quickly fell in love with industrial design.

“I really love problem solving, and I think that’s a huge part, obviously, of product design,” Wright said.

She also likes the collaboration and teamwork design requires, which made a small school like the Cleveland Institute of Art a good fit. The fact that its faculty are still active in the fields in which they teach has been valuable, too, giving students perspective, she said.

Professors having a foot in the working world helps students in a few ways, said Cuffaro, who, in addition to serving as a department chair at the institute, has his own consulting practice in product development and intellectual property litigation. He also has launched a camping supplies business, nCamp, which grew out of a classroom assignment and ultimately helped inspire m.power.

The experience helps Cuffaro keep his network “fresh,” he said – that factory rep who works with m.power students also works with Cuffaro on nCamp production issues – and helps him connect students with internship and job opportunities. And he has a good, up-to-date sense of the current skills needed in the industry, and the pace of it, which is often much faster than academia.

Wright said she’s definitely considering a career path as an entrepreneur, now that she’s gotten to experience it through m.power. She loves getting into the “nitty gritty of the design,” she said, and the rest of the work that goes into a product.

“I do not know if it would have been as high up on my list of options without this class,” she said. “I think I just did not know enough about it and now, being in it and actually dipping my toes in the water, I feel a lot more comfortable and confident about thinking of it.”

Rachel Abbey McCafferty is a freelance reporter with 20 years of experience in journalism in Northeast Ohio.