Design within constraints: CTA bus product workshop

by New Idiom


David Ofori-Amoah talks about the 1/8th scale foamcore model during the presentation to the CTA

Guests from the CTA, including George Aye (2nd from right) and IDEO discuss the project and presentation

Photos: Lise Lynam

Marty Thaler’s product workshop concluded this week with a final presentation to the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and some colleagues from IDEO. The goal of the workshop was ambitious: Help George Aye, lead designer at CTA, design the city’s next generation bus, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) which was scheduled for rollout in Spring 2009. Students were presented with an opportunity to make the Chicago bus experience user centered. After several weeks of riding buses all over Chicago and making observations, students spent the semester working on prototypes of the bus. One group spent over 300 person hours creating a 1/8th scale model of the bus, 8 feet long, out of foam core (taller than Shaq, as stated in the presentation). The scale model helped get an understanding of the bus design and explore concepts easily. Another group mocked up a life size version of the bus in the 6th floor steelcase room using chairs as seats and a few foam core walls. (For those of you familiar with the Steelcase room, the metal frame in Steelcase happens to be about the same size as an articulated bus and helped shape the full scale prototype.) The full-scale model was built and taken down several times over the semester to get a better idea of the feel of the bus and to test concepts on student volunteers.

Guests from the CTA, including George Aye (right) and IDEO discuss the project and presentation

Guests from the CTA, including George Aye (right) and IDEO discuss the project and presentation

The final presentation was the culmination of the ideas, concepts, and visualizations that we created for the BRT. As the class worked with CTA throughout the semester, some of the concepts were able to actually influence the new 2009 fleet of buses. A lot of the ideas, however innovative, were incongruous with the CTA’s tight schedule, but would be inspiration for later models. After the presentation, that time when all parties spent time reflecting and exchanging thank-yous and kudos, apologies commenced from the CTA for not being able to allow students more freedom to come up with designs, since the CTA schedule had been so tight, and there had been so many constraints put on us. One student quickly chimed in what many of the students in the room were thinking, that having constraints for this project was actually a treat. In school students are often presented with idealized situations where we get to design without limits. There’s definitely still a challenge in that, but one of the great things about going to ID is that so many of the classes are sponsored by companies with real problems. Sure, you could create the fanciest, most “designed” bus seat around, but the real design challenge is when the client says that you have to work with a seating manufacturer, work with existing parts that manufacturer already produces., and a lot of the seat design has already been laid out. Design is all about constraints. There are times when designing with a blue sky is fun, liberating, and perhaps helpful for developing more honed in ideas. But real design is about not getting stuck, being able to create value from perceived obstacles and build around them.