Students Explore Eyewear Design Through Course with California Startup
External partners bring real-world issues into the classroom, seek multidisciplinary solutions
By Natalie Kostelni
January 30, 2023
Ben Muchin, a third-year product major, was at the end of a presentation showcasing his sunglass designs with such provocative names as the Lagunas, Bottom Shelf Whiskeys and LL Cool Js when Byron Ferrise questioned whether they were manufacturable.
As attractive as the glasses appeared and as catchy as their names, Ferrise’s critique about the shades came from experience. He is a former product development engineer and manager at Oakley, the sports equipment company, and currently CEO of Knows Eyewear, a California-based semi-custom sunglass business he co-founded in 2020. Knows and Ferrise have been central to June He’s product design class for the 2022 fall term.
As assistant professor of product design in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, and former senior eyewear designer at multiple firms in New York, He constructed her course around several challenges Knows faces. The start-up wants to improve user experience on its website and boost its brand through social media. It also wants to keep up and ahead of trends when it comes to the design of its semi-custom glasses.
The course serves as an example of how external partners — whether businesses, nonprofits, foundations or government entities — bring their real-world issues into the classroom. This type of course is designed to foster experiential learning and multidisciplinary approaches to create solutions to industry challenges.
The Knows course also provided students an opportunity to directly interact with executives and learn practical skills they will use while working.
Courses driven by industry challenges aren’t new to Drexel University but expanding these opportunities is an important focus of Drexel’s 2030 Strategic Plan and the creation of the Drexel Solutions Institute, which connects industry to the University.
Students in He’s class embraced the course with Knows and enjoyed working directly with the company and its CEO. Students also found the timing of the course, offered to third and fourth year students, complemented the curriculum since they could finally apply what they had learned during the prior two years at Drexel.
“The work in other classes has been more conceptual but a class like this helps focus and motivate me,” Sebastian Morelli Peyton, a third-year product design major.
Rachael McNeill, who is in her fourth year and majoring in product design, found that working with a company on specific issues forced her to stretch herself to be more creative in finding solutions. Muchin, who took the critique provided by Ferrise in stride, said the skills gained through the course will be applied to other areas of his work. “Even if I don’t design sunglasses, I’ve learned a lot from this class,” he said.
That was a sentiment shared by other students including Mia Zlypko. “This class is simulating what we will be doing in a real-world job,” said Mia Zlypko, a third- year product design major. “You have to get feedback and take it seriously. Our work is the starting point to begin something and not the end-all be-all.”
At the mid-point of the course, He felt good about how it is the students were taking to the assignment. The students were engaged and contacted Ferrise on their own to get additional feedback and guidance for their projects.
From his vantage, Ferisse was impressed by the students’ ideas, research and work on Knows’ designs, website and marketing. The course is part of the company’s commitment to support STEAM in education and may provide some internship opportunities for Drexel students, he said.
As Ferisse worked with the students, he tried to balance being encouraging with providing constructive feedback that considers the feasibility of their ideas and other issues.
“It’s been interesting to hear their thoughts; and they have done their research,” he said. “But, as designers, they are going to work with engineers and need to think about the manufacturability of what they are proposing, and the costs associated with that.”
That has been an important part of the course, He said. Students have been exploring different fittings, shapes, and materials while weighing the costs of engineering and manufacturing their designs. They have also been working on what it will be like to work with clients.
“The course is comprehensive, and that makes it a great learning experience for the students,” He said. “It’s not only a design class; but students also develop soft skills to communicate and present to clients and do pitches. They are learning how to deal with different reactions and critiques from clients in a real-world setting.”
The Drexel Solutions Institute is a gateway for industry leaders to connect with research-active faculty and our University community. To learn how to get involved, faculty, students and prospective industry partners are encouraged to visit the Drexel Solutions Institute online and contact DSI@drexel.edu.