Design Students Develop Luggage for Kenneth Cole

Author: Kate Garry

Notre Dame Design Students in Times Square

A group of advanced industrial and graphic design students at Notre Dame dove into commercial design this semester, working with Kenneth Cole and Heritage Travelware to develop new luggage concepts, many of which will be put into production for retail sale.

The students kicked off the project with a recent trip to New York, where they met Kenneth Cole himself, discussed the design challenge, and conducted on-site research.

“Every spring, students in the industrial design program work with an outside industry sponsor who writes a client brief that the students use as a real-life problem that they can attack in a multifaceted way,” explains Ann-Marie Conrado, an associate professional specialist in the College of Arts and Letters’ industrial design program. Recent partnerships involved Mattel, Newell Rubbermaid, and Memorial Health Foundation.

The goal of the current collaboration, which includes branding and retail point of purchase input from graphic design students, is to “innovate in the travel-ware category taking into account all the changes in the travel industry post 9/11, such as increased security, new restrictions on luggage, even luggage fees,” Conrado says. “Students will create new luggage that address many of these changes—and the challenge is to do that within a very specific brand category.”

Already, the students have developed over 200 concepts, of which the Kenneth Cole team has selected 35 for further development. Each student will design luggage based off one of these concepts for further review and selection by the client.

To prepare for their first meeting with the Kenneth Cole team, students conducted field research over winter break by interviewing frequent travelers and documenting their own journeys and the luggage they used to get home and back to school. In New York, they began learning about luggage construction techniques and the manufacturing process while getting to know more about the client’s brand.

Notre Dame design students at Kenneth Cole studios in NYC

“We got to see exciting sketch work on the walls, peek over the shoulders of designers working on their computers—it was a fantastic inside look,” Conrado says. “In the afternoon, we met Kenneth Cole, who talked with the students about his philosophy, his growth, and his social outreach. He’s very edgy and provocative in the ways he promotes social causes.”

This glimpse into a brand aesthetic has been critical to the project, say Conrado’s students. “You have to know your client,” says sophomore Alisa Rantanen. “The visit really helped us understand ‘what is Kenneth Cole.’ I don’t think we would have the same understanding of the project without that experience. Also, it was amazing just to be in a real design studio and to hear Kenneth Cole himself speak.”

While in New York, students explored the Macy’s Herald Square store, which features the largest luggage showroom in the world, and had an opportunity to speak with the sales staff. Students also visited the Museum of Modern Art and Material Conexion, an innovative materials library that has a number of emergent technologies.

“It was more than just the project; it was a larger immersion in design culture for students,” Conrado says. “For a small program to pull off a trip of this magnitude was really exciting. It could not have been done without the generous funding from the Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement, the Learning Beyond the Classroom program, and the Career Center.”

Conrado hopes this semester’s design challenge “forces students to think, analyze, and synthesize across various constraints, which is where you get the best creativity. It’s a real maturing process, to step up from pure skill into real, creative product development.”

Representatives from Kenneth Cole and Heritage Travelware continued to provide feedback and guidance throughout the semester and will come to campus on May 13 to review the students’ designs.

Despite the challenges, students are thrilled about the opportunity. “I never imagined I’d be designing luggage for Kenneth Cole,” Rantanen says.

Experience-based projects like this have served students and the program well in recent years. “We’ve had astounding success and growth,” Conrado says. “People hear about the national recognition and the prizes that our students are receiving, and they want to work with us. Success breeds success.”

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