Filling a void in the Northwest, Oregon will offer a product-design degree

With all of the innovative companies headquartered here, it's about time a university started training the region's own students in the fine art of making a product work well and look good.
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(Columbia Sportswear)

With all of the innovative companies headquartered here, it's about time a university started training the region's own students in the fine art of making a product work well and look good.

That handy little light inside your messenger bag or the quick-adjust cord in the cuffs of your rain jacket are good product designs. So is the new resealable packaging your daughter's Barbie doll arrived in.

Most of the up-and-coming designers who bring us such clever things got their training outside Oregon, often in design programs at universities and colleges on the East Coast. (Caveats: The University of Washington has long had a strong industrial-design program; and let's not forget Carolyn Davidson, the Portland State University graphic-design student who gave the world the Nike swoosh in 1971.)

That will begin to change in 2008, now that the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts is offering the state's first four-year bachelor's degree in product design at its Eugene campus and a fifth-year program in Portland in which students can earn a bachelor's in fine arts with a concentration in design.

This is good news for Oregon and its neighbors, yet the boosterism that typically accompanies a university's announcement of a new degree program – especially one with business roots – has been largely absent. Perhaps it's hard to crash news cycles teeming with foot-tapping in restroom stalls and prostitution bargains on Craigslist.

The story got legs back in April with news of a $5 million gift to UO from Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle and his wife, Mary Boyle. The Boyle gift funds a number of initiatives meant to nurture fledgling entrepreneurs and business types; $1.5 million is seed money for the new degree program.

It's fitting that Columbia Sportswear is behind a program meant to spark innovative product work. The company's rise from purveyor of homely fishing hats to urban-active clothier has roots in out-of-the-backpack thinking about design. (The ad campaign featuring matriarch Gert Boyle as the toughest boss on the block didn't hurt, either.)

Earlier in the year, UO's Undergrad Council, a group of elected students and faculty that makes recommendations to the University Senate and higher-ups, kicked around the proposal for a design program, raising good questions. What happens to admitted design-degree students if the program doesn't get out of the gate in 2008, as planned? Does UO have the faculty to support this? Are other UO programs behind it? And the biggie: Is the business community on board and ready to hire grads?

The answers were comforting enough to get the council's nod of approval: No students will be admitted until the program is a reality, and yes, the business-school types at UO are on board. UO has announced it will hire two new full-time faculty members for the program, drawing on existing ranks for courses in art, architecture, humanities, and other requirements for the degree.

The support of businesses in the Northwest, the key piece for this fledgling program, seems to be strong, as well. Oregonian writer Brent Hunsberger reports that Nike, Intel, and other local firms are joining Columbia Sportswear in promising internships for students in the program.

All the pieces are in place for a good launch of a needed program, and its success will depend on more of the same. Want a good barometer to measure a Northwest business's commitment to the region? Keep an eye on who gives corporate and private philanthropic bucks to the hottest new degree program in town.


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