Blue Foam to Biodesign
- Career Advice
- By Aaron Nesser
- Published on June 15
Fun Stuff Design leading a casting workshop with the Pollinator Kit at the See Change Conference 2023
Blue Foam to Biodesign:
Julian Goldman and Dierdre Shea of Fun Stuff Design on building a practice and creating the award winning Pollinator Kit
May 22nd, 2023
Fun Stuff Design (FSD) is an industrial design studio founded by Julian Goldman and Dierdre Shea and located in Troy, NY, that specializes in novel, sustainable materials, product strategy, and development, with a focus on biomaterials and objects that endure. They work with companies to showcase sustainable materials and help product-based companies make more sustainable choices in their design.
Aaron Nesser: how did you get into the field of biodesign from industrial design?
Julian Goldman: As material-driven designers, both of us were disappointed with the materials we had to work with in grad school, and wanted more sustainable choices. We started developing a bank of materials that we were interested in from afar, but that we weren’t particularly involved in. We were kinda biodesign adjacent until my work in textile futures led me to a job at Bolt Threads and unlocked a world of biomaterial companies. This gave us the opportunity to start working with a fairly wide range of novel materials to start to understand their capabilities.
AN: We all went to Pratt together and it was not focused on biodesign. How did you end up in this field? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do?
JG: Dierdre and I are naturally material-oriented people, and we bonded over exploring new and fascinating materials that offer unique properties, both aesthetically and functionally. In school, we often felt frustrated by the limited selection of materials available, particularly safe and sustainable options. Traditional industrial design education, like the one we received at Pratt, often involved shaping blue foam with sandpaper, which was not only unpleasant but also toxic. To address this, I started researching companies like Ecovative and experimenting with mycelium foam, which served as my initial foray into biomaterials. We both continued to follow emerging material innovations.
Dierdre Shea: For me personally, I began exploring biomaterials more extensively when Julian and I started collaborating. My background primarily lies in ceramics, and I dove deep into ceramic fabrication and manufacturing techniques during my time at Pratt. It was an excellent opportunity to refine my technical skills in mold making and design, which it turns out applies not only to ceramics but also to other materials. While different materials require unique molding approaches, the underlying principles, and mindset remain the same. After Pratt, I began working as a design consultant to explore novel ways of using ceramic material in consumer products and sustainable cosmetic packaging. For example, I worked with the designers at Bolt Threads to ideate and prototype a sustainable packaging concept for their skincare line, Eighteen-B (which is now called Beebe Lab). Pulling from my technical background in ceramics, it was surprising how natural it felt to transition into thinking and designing with biomaterials. At the end of the day, we’re pushing conventional boundaries of material capabilities.
JG: At Pratt, they emphasize the importance of understanding form, light, and how materials interact with both. It's about capturing the visual and emotional appeal in our designs, as designers possess an understanding of the intangibles that attract people. This aesthetic and materiality focus is a common thread for us. Alongside addressing climate change, waste culture, and the role of industrial design, we are intrigued by the possibilities that new materials offer in shaping the aesthetics of a post-plastic world.
Fun Stuff Design: Julian Goldman and Dierdre Shea doing fun stuff
AN: Julian you were a designer at Bolt Threads before you teamed up with Dierdre to found Fun Stuff Design. How did that experience shape your work today?
JG: I think the biggest thing was that I was able to leverage my previous degree and experience in biology to interface directly with the science staff in the labs. These collaborations resulted in new and now patented IP for Bolt Threads for their mycelium leather, reinforcing the benefits of having designers involved in the early stages of material development. Specifically at Bolt Threads, and now with FSD, the design team’s knowledge and understanding of manufacturing techniques and the less tangible -more subjective elements - that consumers need to buy into a new material- was and is incredibly valuable when vetting, ideating, and pushing the limits of what a material can do.
AN: What does a typical day look like for you?
DS: We don't really have a typical day at FSD. Every day is different. We begin our mornings with a coffee meeting to review our individual and collaborative agendas for the projects we’re involved in and go from there. When you’re experimenting with new materials and finding applications and market fit, you’re also simultaneously experimenting with a wide variety of manufacturing techniques, and so the process of exploring that can look different every day.
JG: In addition to our client work, we are also renovating a historic industrial building here in Troy as our next studio, so project managing that work also jumps into our schedules quite a lot.
AN: So, there may be an opportunity here for people that they should know about.
JG. Definitely. We are creating this studio building that will serve as the base for our studio. Our design work involves a whole range of work that needs different prototyping stations, equipment, and materials. So, we are building a space that can handle all that and help us prototype effectively. We'll have a small office area too, but honestly, it's more space than we need all the time so we’ll be exploring an artist or design residency program in the future. We want to invite folks who want to play around with cool tech and materials and need the equipment and space to do it.
DS: We're also open to collaborating with other businesses in similar fields. If there are folks who need space and equipment to do their thing, we’d like to invite them to join us. We've got a bunch of ideas brewing, and once the building is ready, we'll dive right into them. There’s a lot of space, both in the building and in our field, for others to do their thing, and we really enjoy collaboration. We’re excited!
AN. Are you open to pitches?
JG. Yeah, of course. DM us at studio [at] funstuffdesign [dot] com.
AN: I was chatting with a researcher recently about deciding who gets access to lab spaces. Julian, as a designer, did you manage to work in those spaces that designers usually don't? How did you get in?
JG: I just met scientists and said, Hey, can I come and see how this works? And I was welcomed in and that was that. Bolt Threads fostered that in that they put together a small design team very early on. Most materials companies don't do that and this is part of the niche that we're filling. It’s not always possible for early-stage materials companies to have a design team and that's where we come in. Bolt Threads did see the value in that, so the design team was pretty embedded in the whole system.
AN: It sounds like a great place to be. You’re not just working on products–you have an impact on the materials at a much earlier stage in the process.
JG: In the early stages, designers bring a wide range of manufacturing knowledge to the table. We understand the ins and outs of processes from injection molding to papermaking and can bring context to the research process. This unique perspective proves valuable, as it bridges the gap between technical understanding and practical application.
DS: There's also the subjective side—the intangible aspect of material quality that designers excel at. How does it feel in your hand? Is it cool or warm to the touch? Does it gross you out? These qualities aren't always quantifiable, but they greatly impact how a product integrates into a consumer's life.
JG: It's these nuances that can make or break a material, and it’s really important to get them right for there to be a market for them.
AN: Right, you can't measure hand feel in a stress-strain curve.
DS: Exactly. So it could perform well on the main performance indicators, but then still feel icky when you touch it. That might not work for a leather handbag, but maybe it’s ok for a mudflap on a truck, or maybe there are separate applications that the material can define.
People expect materials to be a certain way. So we’re constantly asking questions like: does this meet those expectations, or where is there room for buy-in to something a little different?
The Pollinator Kit for Checkerspot. Photo by Mark Fore.
AN: FSD was involved in a project recently that won a design award at SXSW for Checkerspot: The Pollinator Kit Can you tell us a little about the project?
DS: So, Checkerspot is a company that has developed a renewable rigid polyurethane material derived largely from algae. This material not only competes with existing options in terms of performance but also incorporates a significant bio-based component. (Check them out on Grow Everything.)
When we connected with the Checkerspot team, they were using this material for their ski brand, WNDR Alpine. Their objective was to share the material with as many individuals and companies as possible. To achieve this, we set the goal with their team and What For Studio (a frequent collaborator of ours) to design a best-in-class casting kit that provides everything needed to mold parts using their algae-based polyurethane. It's designed to be suitable for both professionals and hobbyists.
JG: Imagine a headphones company wanting to experiment with new materials for their cups. Typically, companies can request a sample in the form of a plastic chip or tile, which provides limited insights into its flexibility and molding capabilities. Our team proposed a different approach. Instead of a small chip, why not send them the actual material in an impressive, unboxing-worthy presentation? This way, they can cast it into their own molds, and showcase the final product to their design team, bosses, and anyone else involved. It offers a more tangible and personalized experience.
The Pollinator Kit for Checkerspot. Photo by Mark Fore.
AN: Mmm, so it sounds like a really good way to sell the material. Users don’t have to imagine how it will perform, they can just make the real thing.
JG: Yeah, like if you’re vetting a new material, it’ll help you be confident that it will perform for your use case. You don’t have to make a big decision to mass manufacture something based on seeing a little chip of material. You get to do a full test drive.
AN: So how is the Pollinator Kit different from other casting kits?
JG: This kit was designed to be flat packed, with as little petroleum input and low carbon impact as possible, while minimizing shipping cost and material weight, and improving the user experience of using a 2-part casting kit. The kit features cardboard printed with algae ink from Living Ink, incorporates algae to pigment the polyurethane itself and, of course, the polyurethane polyol is derived from algae, making it a triple-algae collaboration.
To optimize convenience and user experience, we utilized stand-up pouches for the chemicals. This unique approach allows users to mix the materials directly within the pouch, providing visibility and ensuring thorough blending while providing a small, accurate-pouring nozzle with no glugging needed for air displacement. When sealed, the pouches retain no environmental air inside, significantly reducing oxygenation and moisture content, and prolonging the material's shelf life.
The Pollinator Kit. Photo Credit: Mark Fore
AN: It sounds like you’ve made some great usability improvements over the existing kits from incumbents.
DS: The experience of using it is genuinely delightful. Another goal was to simplify the mixing process, so we designed a stir stick that is made out of Checkerspot’s material, so it’s both a material sample and a functional object. It pairs with a reusable silicone mixing cup that has a matching interior radius, so you can scrape out all of the material that you mix into your mold. Another noteworthy feature is the instruction booklet. Taking inspiration from Lego, we designed a large, illustrated sheet. When unfolded, it serves as both a protective surface and a comprehensive source of information. We worked with our friend Rory Smith to produce those graphics.
JG: When it's time to pack everything back up, the box itself is cleverly designed. It serves as a secondary containment system, ensuring nothing ever leaks onto your storage shelving.
AN: That’s amazing, it sounds like you’ve thought of everything. How can we get one?
JG: You can order the kit in two different colors, celadon or natural, which is similar to a beeswax color. There is also a pro model if you already have the gear and just want the resin.
AN: So what’s next? Do you have any technologies that you’re looking to work with? Where do you want to make your next dent in the world?
JG: We’re excited about bio-cements being developed by companies like BioMason and Prometheus Materials (learn more via Grow Everything). Cement is a bit of a boring material for most consumers. You build walls, pave roads, build patios–all somewhat mundane uses. I think there is some exciting technology here that is limited by its story–and there is enormous potential for crafting a compelling story for people.
And the potential of designing at a larger scale and making some larger s**t is pretty compelling. Today concrete is responsible for about 8% of worldwide emissions and building something amazing could help prove to the world that these technologies are viable solutions to managing the carbon footprint of the built environment.
AN: I have to think that with all of your mold-making experience and expertise, you could make some really beautiful stuff too.
DS: Yeah, we love molds!
AN: What kind of advice do you have for people who want to get into the field?
JG: That's hard. I think most advice like this is all the same: Do stuff. Try hard. Put yourself out there. It’s advice that often feels empty.
DS: Do self-initiated projects. Do stuff that excites you, and show it to people.
JG: Yeah, that’s the best advice we can give. And our hope is that over time, as the field grows, all design is going to have some component of biodesign.
AN: Right, you can imagine that over the next 10 or so years, most design will, out of necessity, incorporate some biodesign aspect like synthetic biology or biofabricated materials. Less of an if, and more of a when.
JG: It would be great to see that happen, and the potential for it is definitely there. While we deeply value biomaterials and biodesign, we also acknowledge that not everything needs to be replaced. There are mineral-based materials, like aluminum, that are already effective and have a robust recycling market. Aluminum stands out as a non-bio material that's making a significant impact. When considering materials, it's crucial to make the right choice for the product, its function, and the system it lives within. Additionally, some bio-based materials can be resource and energy intensive, so it is important to be thoughtful and make time for nuance when making these decisions. ∎
To learn more about Fun Stuff Design, visit www.funstuffdesign.com.
To learn more about Checkerspot visit www.checkerspot.com
To purchase the Pollinator kit visit www.pollinatorkit.com/