Sustainability, Stats, Students—A Fantastic “Waste of Space”

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“Waste of Space” was a hands-on collaborative exhibition created by Visual Communication Design, Industrial Design and Interaction Design Seniors at the University of Washington (Seattle).

By Kristine Matthews

Just before COVID-19 drove every University of Washington Design student home from campus, they were busy making. Seniors from Visual Communication Design, Industrial Design and Interaction Design were collaborating on the project “Waste of Space,” an exploration in sustainable design and hands-on fabrication. Jeans were being shredded and turned into paper. Undersea washing machine worlds were animating. Reams of cardboard packaging appeared to be re-growing into tree trunks. Now, as we are left to connect via screen and effectively banned from maker spaces and communal workshops, it reminds us of the pleasure and the importance of making with one’s hands, and collaborating closely, as a team. 

“Waste of Space Assignment, Part 1” invited the students: “Research a statistic about waste—any kind of waste, but preferably, the kind that bothers you the most.” The student teams returned with alarming stats to share on everything from fast fashion to e-waste to the seemingly innocent receipt. 

Assignment Part 2 entreated them: “Translate your research into a dimensional waste statistic.” The University of Washington had recently launched some fantastic maker spaces on campus, and I encouraged the students to make full use of the tools at their disposal: 3-D printers, industrial sewing machines, laser-cutters and much more.

The most important objective of Waste of Space was getting hands-on with materials and making. For designers to make informed, sustainable choices in the exhibition and installation realm—or anywhere else—they need to get a feel for materials. Design students often rely purely on the screen to represent their ideas, and in the process miss out on the pleasure and inspiration that comes from working with real stuff. (This lesson I learned myself, but long after college, via professional practice and a great deal of trial and error; more error than I’d care to admit.)

Every material has its own unique qualities: how it bends, how it hangs, how it takes ink well … or doesn’t. Playing with materials is a process of discovery that means responding to these unique characteristics and using them to your advantage. Happy accidents happen—paired, admittedly, with some unhappy ones—and my hope was that through experimentation, students might end up with something they may never have anticipated or designed on screen. 

The final results far surpassed my expectations. I was impressed with not only the enthusiasm with which the class dove into the challenge, but their proficiency with materials: from crafting a laser-cut tree out of 165 unique layers, to sewing a typographic veil describing the 400 pounds of waste generated by the average wedding, to the team that collected hundreds of discarded phone charger cables to create an entire tree. Their willingness to jump in and to keep pushing the possibilities with their fabrication process was inspiring.  

For their final presentations, I was gratified to see most teams abandon the studio and take their work out into the public realm. The “Wedding Trashers” team snuck into a church to document faux nuptials with a “wasted” bride. Another team created a seven-foot curtain of receipt transactions for visitors to pass through. Yet another team hung out their giant fuzzy stat on a washing line along a popular Seattle lakeside trail, prompting conversations around the deadly plastic microfibers being released into local waterways. Another combined cotton-clad animal sculptures, creepy footage of microfibers, and a washing machine soundtrack to craft a fully immersive multi-media experience.      

Every project is an opportunity not only for the designer to learn more about the materials they use, but to inform their audience as well. The students took this to heart, with impressive results. I just hope they have the opportunity to take the gloves off soon, and, get on with more hands-on making. 


Kristine Matthewsis the associate professor of design and chair of the Visual Communication Design program at the University of Washington in Seattle and owner + principal of Studio Matthews.


Congratulations to the Class of 2020!