Campus News

Provost IMPACT Award supports UK College of Design’s material experimentation

The vision for this space is one that encourages material testing, rapid prototyping, customization and promotes forward-thinking implementation of materials.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 23, 2024) — The Institutional Multidisciplinary Paradigm to Accelerate Collaboration and Transformation (IMPACT) Awards were launched in 2023 to champion the necessary and groundbreaking work done by University of Kentucky faculty and other campus community members.

The inaugural IMPACT Awards total more than $600,000 — with a particular emphasis on proposals that are transdisciplinary, innovative and aligned with some aspect of the UK-PURPOSE, the UK Strategic Plan.

In 2024, IMPACT will continue to fund projects similarly aimed at supporting the university to continue leading in teaching, research, service and care.

This spring, UKNow is highlighting the 2023 IMPACT Award projects and the faculty who are leading them. Today, we learn more about the project titled “Expanding Softgoods Specializations and Material Research in the College of Design.”

The funding was awarded to the College of Design with the leadership of Ned Crankshaw, acting dean of the college, and Lindsey Fay, associate dean for research in the college. The IMPACT team is comprised of the following faculty and staff from the College of Design: Hannah Dewhirst, Jennifer Meakins, SK O’Brien, Ingrid Schmidt and Sophia Thomas. The project is dedicated towards faculty startup support and the acquisition of softgoods lab equipment needed for the colleges Maker’s Suite to help promote forward-thinking implementation of materials to inspire and enable a new generation of students, faculty, designers and material possibilities. The team's vision for a Softgoods Lab is one that encourages material exploration, rapid prototyping, customization and innovation and houses specialized equipment for digital knitting, cutting, sewing and printing. As in scientific labs, this equipment is critical for research and project-based learning to both hone skills and allow authentic inquiry.

UKNow caught up with the research team to learn more about the project. You can read more in the Q&A session below.

How has the IMPACT award inspired innovation at UK with your research?

In design research and teaching, thinking-through-making and direct, hands-on material experimentation are paramount. Within the College of Design, numerous faculty in Interiors and Product Design are conducting research centered around the methods and materials of soft goods in design, but prior to the IMPACT award, we did not have the ability to critically explore the intersection of design with soft making tools. The purchase of new, state-of-the-art equipment has been one of the most impactful innovations we have seen since receiving this award. We have been able to acquire an 80” flat digital knitting machine, tufting and sewing equipment, assembly tools and various other materials and textiles. As in scientific labs, this equipment is critical for research and project-based learning to both hone skills and allow authentic inquiry. These items have brought to reality our long-standing goal of a SoftLab for the college. The vision for this space is one that encourages material testing, rapid prototyping, customization and promotes forward-thinking implementation of materials to inspire and enable a new generation of students, faculty, designers and material possibilities, while expanding the transdisciplinary opportunities across the University and the Commonwealth

How did you decide on this particular topic or research area?

Historically, textile and craft-based experimentation and fabrication have been isolated and under-utilized due to their perceived roots and image as a feminine handcraft domain. We knew that the upcoming move to our new home, the Gray Design Building, and our transdisciplinary mindset, offered the College of Design a chance to directly address the power dynamic that too often exists in fabrication spaces. Situating the SoftLab among wood, metal and digital equipment sets a clear advantage to model and provide a safe and inclusive environment for this research all while exposing a diverse audience of students and faculty to the methods of textile fabrication.

With the newly announced Research Priority Area of Materials Science, we found that aligning our research with the overarching research goals of the university should be a priority. The primary goals of this project were to expand materials expertise in the College of Design by hiring new talent, acquiring new equipment that supports soft goods teaching and research, and training faculty and students in this area of research. With the support of the IMPACT funds, which totaled $92,158, the college has made significant strides towards research focused on the intersection of design with textiles.

What positive impact will your research have on Kentucky and beyond?

The establishment of the SoftLab sets a precedent for designers and design educators to enter a new space as part of the fabrication and manufacturing process. The expansion of knowledge and engagement with new approaches to fabrication allows for broadened expertise that provides product and spatial designers with the critical thinking and experimentation skills needed to advance soft goods and textile-based research and design. Digital machine knitting is especially unique in this effort. As a form of zero-waste additive manufacturing, it uses a traditional craft-based textile production method along with cutting-edge materials in applications across health care, aerospace engineering and interior design. While additive manufacturing exists in other disciplines, the uniqueness of its presence in the space of design is its ability to reach beyond computation and material studies by extending to incorporate user experience and other crucial elements of the design process. Our hope is that this expansion creates a bridge between other disciplines currently inhabiting this space by using applied research and design strategies to help imagine new, more conscious and efficient possibilities for advanced manufacturing.

What comes next for your research?

Since receiving the IMPACT award, numerous grant proposals and course offerings have been developed with partners in interiors, product design, fiber studies and electrical and computer engineering. Our mission is to maintain momentum in this area through further academic and industry partnerships.

We also have aims to continue training our faculty in materials experimentation. Among the intellectual advantages we’ve seen from the IMPACT award was the organization and attendance of the Knit Futures Symposium, which was hosted with partners at Kent State University. Organized by faculty member Jennifer Meakins, this event brought together academic and industry partners for a three-day program focused on the intersection of digital knitting and the built environment. With numerous College of Design faculty and staff participating in the symposium, we have already encountered the anticipated benefits of exposure and engagement with the research area of soft goods and textiles. Our hope is that through the continual experimentation and investigation, our faculty will be equipped to spearhead the advancement of textile research in design and manufacturing as an interdisciplinary bridge, particularly through collaborations with Kentucky-based industries, and move us toward a more diverse and better prepared workforce for tomorrow.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.