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Behind Kent State University’s 45 million dollar Design Innovation Hub

By Jackie Mallon


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J.R. Campbell, the former director of the Fashion School at Kent State University, which is rated number four in the country within a university which is recognized as an Ohio Center of Excellence, has a new project. If you build it they will come, goes the adage, and in this spirit a 44.5 million dollar renovation project of a 68,000 sq ft space has begun on campus to create the school’s new Design Innovation Hub. Campbell who spearheaded the creation of the Fashion School’s TechStyleLab in 2009, and the successful Fashion/Tech Hackathon over the past six years, sits down with FashionUnited to discuss his latest challenge.

What made you first conceive of the Design Innovation Hub?

While still in the director role, I was thinking in the context of fashion and… fashion and health, fashion and technology, and how to implement this fusion across campus. We at Kent State Fashion School have the benefit of having all these other schools around us, with all types of research going on, but historically fashion schools do their own thing. We’re trying to connect the disciplines because that’s the future. For example with the knitting technology in our TechStyleLab we have garnered great partnerships with Stoll, but in a similar vein yet outside of fashion, engineered knit is used for medical devices, knitted structures help in the mobility and fluidity of robotics, innovations like that, are all tied to cross disciplinary collaborative projects.

Why did you think you were the right person to spearhead the Hub?

I was one of a group of eight individuals from all corners of the campus who started meeting over six years ago: there was myself from fashion, the associate dean from Architecture; associate dean from the University Library, someone from Technology Transfer, someone from corporate offices, the director of the Liquid Crystal Institute; director of the new School of Digital Sciences. We were getting together regularly and having dialogue about how to connect our constituent areas and get students involved. I realized it had to be someone with insight into the university to head up this project rather than someone who first had to learn the culture, logistics of our institution. And this role was the opportunity I needed to return to my interest in environmental design, sustainability and the wider spectrum of approaches to design. I’m naturally aligned as a textiles not fashion designer first and foremost, and have always been about collaboration and integration, technology for a purpose, usually to increase value and sustainability. So I asked to be considered.

How do you take it from a talking point among a small circle of like-minded thinkers to a 45 million dollar commitment?

The group kept growing, but at a certain point our president, Beverley Warren, got on board as a champion and then it went forward fast. It’s still a concept, evolving and growing, it’s an entity that doesn’t conform to the other rules, especially budgetary ones. Our LaunchNET was also a catalyst––it’s a standalone entity operated out of the university library which offers supports to student or faculty who have a business idea they would like to investigate further by providing advice on raising venture capital, access to funding, logistics of business creation. In fact it facilitated the start of the Fashion/Tech Hackathon.

Was the Hackathon a trial run for the Design Innovation Hub?

The success of the Fashion/Tech Hackathon was certainly when it became evident to me how we could use maker space environments like our very own TechStyleLab to connect with a wider array of students, bringing fashion knowledge to other disciplines. It was one of the first occasions when we had as many or more non-fashion students in our building as we had fashion students. The results over the last 6 years have shown creative thinking and product potential that goes way beyond what could be done from just inside the Fashion School. It has also helped our fashion students understand that they have a knowledge that’s invaluable to those outside the field. A computer science student might have an idea for technology that could be embedded into a wearable but has no idea how to select fabrics, understand design process, construct a garment, or how to merchandise it and motivate consumers.

A fashion designer cannot solve today’s problems alone. Nobody can do everything, despite the excellent quality of their degree

J.R. Campbell, Kent State University

Did your other successful initiatives give the school confidence to allow you to run with this?

It’s probably fair to say that I’ve built enough of a reputation from some of these past endeavors that it has made some of our administration comfortable with moving forward with it. There are only two main catalysts in institutions that cause these initiatives to happen: a big donation that helps create the potential and space or a champion who helps build the vision and stands behind it. I am not the only one who is championing this vision, but I am the one tasked to make it happen. We’ve had some great wins and we must keep it flowing. In order to create a true innovation culture, as many people as possible must be involved. This creates a higher instance of ideas that stick and innovation success.

When will the Hub be fully operational?

The building will officially open in Fall 2020 but last week we held a celebration event to honor what is happening. Normally there would be a ground breaking ceremony with execs in hard hats standing around. But as we’re renovating an old building and the hub is a way to link all nodes, we had a ribbon connecting ceremony rather than ribbon cutting. Students from the different nodes got a ribbon and ran from the center to their different nodes as a metaphor for the hub as a central energy source in this creative ecosystem.

Describe the planned space?

It’s a 44.5 million dollar project renovating the Art Building originally designed by Australian architect, John Andrews in 1971. The interior is designed to have connectivity between spaces, will have dining services on-site, and to be predominantly glass so that you can eat a burger while feeling like you’re in a maker space. Any student from any major can be in the building. It’s a shared by all, owned by none. We’re not affiliated to any particular college, or with any particular content agenda. Innovation exists between the disciplines, the intersection between is where it’s at and the space reflects that.

Has enrollment begun?

We have approval for 7 courses that we are already currently offering. They must be co-taught by two faculty of entirely different disciplines and are challenge-based. The topics can be anything but the process has to be framed in context of a challenge, and how we reach solutions through collaboration. I’ve mentioned the Fashion/Tech Hackathon but there is also Skyhack hosted out of the college of Aeronautical Engineering, and we also sponsor international student competitions, such as Mission Life which is in partnership with a university in Brazil which focuses on social issues such as mental health. In that case the prize is an opportunity for students to travel to Brazil to present their projects.

Can you identify areas of natural compatibility with fashion?

Fashion and the medical world is a no-brainer. The DI courses are really appealing to students who’ve chosen Integrated Studies as their major as they are looking to piece things together. The Fashion School as one of the strongest presences at Kent State plays a key role, not just because of my background in it but because there’s always so much going on, and the sheer number of students and faculty. Architecture’s new state-of-the-art building is right across the street from Fashion and there are already real synergies happening there. We have an emerging User Experience Design program coming out of the College of Communication and Information, and digital media and emerging visualization themes work naturally as modes of engagement with fashion.

You mentioned fashion and architecture, if you project further what products do you see being created there?

Healthcare systems is a dominant theme and there is opportunity to design for how people experience the health care system and hospitals. The other theme that connects to both but goes beyond is biomimicry. We’re participating in the Biodesign Challenge, and we have three faculty heading up the team, one from Fashion, one from Architecture, and one from Biological Sciences.

Are other fashion schools following this path?

I’m not really seeing it in fashion schools but we’re not the first to think this way. We pull the best aspects of what we’ve seen at Stanford, Berkeley, University of Massachusetts Lowell, but we’re deliberately keeping it separate from every college so that they all maintain their identity, their funding comes from their own base, but they still get support as part of this network. What we’re trying to do is deeply analyze how we at Kent State are different. Connecting the TechStyleLab and intentionally making it part of the DI nodes is a natural progression for the Fashion School. We’re on a path to executing this type of initiative more effectively than the other universities we’ve seen step into their arena so far. But every U.S. university is dealing with the reality of recruiting future students which are very different from the historic demographic which is on the decline. What the new student population looks like, is interested in, what we as a university can offer, and what is our identity are essential considerations. At KSU design innovation will help retain and engage student body, and create graduates who can demonstrate real cross disciplinary leadership.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos by Kent State University

JR Campbell
Kent State University Fashion School